Artifacts from tombs give evidence of a lively, optimistic period in China. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts presents first US exhibition devoted to Han Dynasty alone

Their tombs were furnished with statues of acrobats, saucy balladeers, beatific flutists, and bronze money trees. As optimistic about the hereafter as they were about the earthy here and now, the people of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) lived in one of China's most brilliant and expansive periods. That is one message of ``Stories From China's Past,'' an exhibition of Han artifacts from the Sichuan Province at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Aug. 16.

The show avoids a fashionable trend in American museums favoring epic extravaganzas. Its sparse installation modestly evokes the atmosphere of a Han tomb, while focusing on the exuberant quality of the artifacts - tiles, rubbings, statues in terra cotta and stone, magic mirrors, and chimera - typical motifs and furnishings of the period and region.

This precise presentation - the first American exhibit limited to Han materials, the first to feature a distinctly regional style - risks taxing the viewer with too narrow a survey. But the objects pose so ample a narrative of the age that we almost forget their funerary function.

Han rulers pushed China's dominions deep into Central Asia. Their roads opened trade with India and Rome; their embassies reached the Tigris. The empire was consolidated, its frontier cultures assimilated, and nomadic intruders subdued.

Commerce and technology burgeoned. Sichuan Province was the hub of this new affluence. Its rising gentry became patrons of artistic innovations as well. Trade with foreign cultures nurtured an awareness of the diversity of human nature.

The most striking feature of Han art was its emergent focus on the human figure. Influenced by art of the steppes, a new realism superseded geometric styles of earlier dynasties. The sober, functional temple art gave way to show pieces, a more secular art with a flair for the mundane as well as the exotic. And nowhere was the human universe celebrated so uninhibitedly as in the province of Sichuan.

The show's recently excavated materials attest to a unique regional style. Han art from Sichuan was more spontaneous and realistic than its northern counterpart, where a more restrained Confucian morality ordered the artistic imagination. Thus the tomb rubbings depict scenes of commerce and home life: kissing couples; street hawkers; acrobats and jugglers in sundry shows; life in the marketplace and courtyard - an aesthetic of daily manners celebrating abundance, not moderation.

Han art reflects unabashed celebration of the frivolous and the exaggerated. As Martin Powers notes in his illuminating catalog essay, ``In the art of Sichuan there is a tolerance for the ordinary and even the ugly.''

Perhaps the most striking example is a terra cotta statue of a dwarfish storyteller. Corpulent and expressive, this contorted figure is uninhibited but not disturbing. He exudes buffoonery, not suffering or shame.

Han art had its mystical side, too. The raw vitality seems surprising in funerary fare, but these objects document an immortality cult popular in the Han. Its central figure was a female deity known as Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. Previous ages had located the immortal realms to the east, in the boundless ocean beyond China's borders. With Han expansion south and west came promise of a more luxuriant paradise.

Her figure appears in the lintels of tombs, in reliefs and ornaments, and most exquisitely in this exhibition as a motif dangling from a six-foot bronze money tree, one of two such excavated artifacts. The tree rests on a sculptured terra cotta base. Its intricate openwork design appears in tiers of four directional branches, topped by a large sun bird with an elaborate peacock tail. Coins hang as petals from each branch, whose repeated motifs show Xiwangmu on a chariot with an entourage of hunters, acrobats, musicians, and chess players.

The broad range of human experience represented in Han art owed as much to popular tradition as to the encyclopedic curiosity of its scholar-officials. The Han witnessed the invention of the seismograph, the deep drilling for natural gas, the compilation of the first Chinese dictionary, and the collection of folk and popular music from all corners of the empire.

That appreciation of music is reflected in the serene expressions of performers - the stone statue of a gin player, a terra cotta flutist - which were left to entertain the souls of the dead, perhaps to show the status of the deceased, or to keep the grosser part of their spirits from earthly mischief, as contending theories suggest.

These artifacts have considerably enhanced modern understanding of the Han age. Evidence from Sichuan's tombs has helped scholars revise the date and route for the introduction of Buddhism in China. The catalog, marred only by the lack of a chronology or historical overview of the period, offers a provocative group of essays reflecting new interpretations of the Han world.

Eight provincial Sichuan museums and institutes contributed artifacts to the exhibition. The museum has added a number of new acquisitions, including an exquisitely fashioned mat weight with gold and silver inlay and an exotic set of carpet weights depicting non-Chinese human figures, perhaps from Han hinterlands.

Even in modern times, the Chinese identify themselves as the Han race, idealizing the imperial and commercial successes of the Han era. It was a confident world, affirmed by the humor, earthiness, and comfort of its artistic vision.

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