Sichuan Museum – #5 Shu Han Relics 情系蜀漢

The ancient name of Sichuan is Ba Shu, and it was the capitals of two ancient states and the location of some of the most famous battles during the Three Kingdom. There’s a permanent exhibition in Sichuan Museum that is dedicated to this romantic period in history – Eastern Han and Three Kingdom.

Relics from the Eastern Han and Shu Han period

Chengdu was the capital of Shu Han, the late Han state founded by Liu Bei 劉備. Before that, Han Dynasty 漢朝 (202 BC – 220 AD) was the second imperial dynasty that lasted over 400 years. It was divided into Western Han 西漢 (202 BC – 9 AD) founded by Liu Bang 劉邦 and Eastern Han 東漢 (25-220 AD) only to be interrupted by Xin dynasty 新朝 (9-23 AD), and succeeded by Shu Han 蜀漢 (221-263 AD) during the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD).

Pottery Horses 陶馬, Eastern Han (25-220 AD)

But it was Emperor Wu 漢武帝 Liu Che 劉徹 that built the dynasty through military conquests and diplomatic missions which influence extended till today. Chinese around the world referred to ourselves as Han people, the language Han language, and the written script Han characters. While the first emperor, Emperor Qin Shih-Wang created the first Chinese nation and unified the script, it was Emperor Wu that built the foundations of China today.

Learning from the Past

Burial accompaniments are the best insights into the way people lived during their lifetimes. A significant number of Eastern Han tombs were found around Sichuan, and they provided a treasure trove of insights of the way people lived and their religious beliefs during that period.

General Ruan Wenzhong was a Qin Dynasty general that had won many military conquests against the Xiongnu (the Huns). After his death, Emperor Qin had his statue made and placed at the gates of his palace. After that, stone and bronze statues in front of tombs were all called Wengzhong.

Stone pig, Eastern Han (25-220 AD)

Among those buried are their worldly possessions, like the stone pig which showed that Porky has been domesticated over 2000 years ago. Of course most of the precious stones and metals have been ransacked by the tomb raiders.

Stone Coffin Engraved with Acrobatics in a Feast 宴飲百戲圖石棺, Eastern Han (25-220 AD)

The stone coffin was uncovered in 1973 and has four sides with vivid reliefs. Below are two imprints of the front and back of the stone coffins.

Front and back of the coffin

The front showed the master enjoying a feast (as he would before his death) with acrobatics and musicians. The back showed the Goddess Nuo 女媧 perhaps to protect the coffin from invasion of devils. The coffin represents a complete universe and shows a desire for the master to become an immortal being.

And of course, there’s the auspicious and mystical animals that are deployed to protect the tomb.

And the doors of the tomb are carved with phoenix and other heavenly creatures to signify the ascension to heaven of the master.

Social-Economic of the Han Dynasty

Music of the Flourishing Age

In the Han Dynasty, music and dance performances were popular in all kinds of banquets and parties of the upper class and became an important necessity and a symbol of wealth and status. Even lower officials, landlords and wealthy merchants had their own young singers and girl dancers. These figurines show the prosperous scene of the flourishing age in Sichuan area 2000 years ago.

Storytellers Figurines 說唱俑, Eastern Han (25-220 AD)

俳優 Peiyou is the ancient Chinese reference to jesters that performed together with drumming and singing. These were usually the lower class of society, those with birth defects or stunted growth. It is interesting to note that in the Japanese language, the Kanji characters 俳優 ( はいゆう ) for actors/performers are the same.

And the wealth of the tomb owner before his death was listed in this stele. This is a very unique stele as it is almost like an auditor’s report of everything that the person owned. And the person’s image seemed to be carved into the stele as well.

Life after Death

Chinese believes in life after death, and therefore the comforts that one enjoyed when alive were buried together. During the Warring States, live burials of the servants and concubines of the master were common practice. Qin dynastry changed all that and used terracottas to replace the practice of live burial.

The artistry of these porcelain figurines was very delicate and skilful. You can see the facial expressions of the figurines and the details of the clothings. When they were buried, they were multi-coloured as you can still see fragments of colours.

And their worldly possessions were buried with them. This practice is still prevalent today among the diaspora Chinese. In Singapore, we will burn paper houses for the dead so that they can have the same living standard as they would alive.

And the last relic found was quite interesting. It’s a bronze tree with a porcelain base. The bronze tree was made with different segments that can be assembled like Lego. Fragments were found but they were too brittle to be assembled.

Later Shu 五代後蜀

There’s a short period in history that a short-lived dynasty made Chengdu the capital. The dynasty was called Later Shu 後蜀 and lasted between 934-965 AD.

And they managed to leave behind many fragments of stele carved with the ancient Classics.

Brick and Mortar

There were many Han dynasty brick and stone pictorial reliefs that were discovered from different locations around Sichuan. Many of these were kept in the Sichuan Museum.

These bricks gave us a view of society of that time. First, adopt a three-dimensional viewpoint to describe and interpret the motifs. Second, follow the order of “bottom to top and right to left” in viewing the pictorial presentations. Third, take a holistic approach in appreciation, examining the pictorial reliefs together with the architectures of the tombs, memorial arches and other monumental pieces. And fourth, develop a comprehensive method of investigation, situating the Han pictorial reliefs in the historical context, including social customs, philosophical ideas, intellectual culture, economic development and advances in architecture.

Stone brick relief of salt making 東漢制鹽畫像磚, Eastern Han (25-220 AD)

Using the technique described above, one can see from this stone brick relief of salt making 東漢制鹽畫像磚 how salt was made during the Han dynasty in Sichuan. The lines outlined the mountains, you can see people boiling salt water, woodcutters bring the firewood, hunters in the mountains, etc. This is the only piece found of this format and is a Class 1 national relic that is forbidden to be exhibited overseas.

Twenty-four Words brick 二十四字磚, Eastern Han (25-220 AD)

This was found in another tomb, with very well written Zhuan 篆書 calligraphy.


Rich and prosperous, blessing to the household; high spirits, brotherly love; always in love, never forget each other; high pay and prospect, live long.

Sexual Intercourse in the Open Air 野合, Eastern Han (25-220 AD)

Here’s one of two pieces of bricks that was found in one of the Sichuan tomb from Eastern Han period. The Sexual Intercourse in the Open Air 野合 brick seemed to be pornographic, with very vivid depiction of a sexual intercourse scene under a mulberry tree. Monkeys can be seen hanging from the branches cheering the couple on. A younger person was helping the man penetrate the woman, and one more man can be found hiding behind the tree.

That would really blow your mind about how open minded our ancestors were!

Sichuan Provincial Museum 四川博物院
251 Huan Hua Nan Lu, Chengdu, Sichuan, China

Date Visited : Aug 2018

2 comments on “Sichuan Museum – #5 Shu Han Relics 情系蜀漢

  1. Pingback: Sichuan Museum – #8 Pottery from Antiquity 歷代陶器 – live2makan

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