Fanghu (square shaped, lidded) jars were popular during the Han period, used as daily vessels to store grain or alcohol, but were also interred in tombs as mingqi (“spirit objects”) for use in the afterlife by the deceased. Typical motifs on such jars include lozenge, triangular and linear patterns, monsters, stylistic dragons, curved lines and asymmetrical shapes. Art in the Han period was concerned with myths and everyday life, with less emphasis on art as a social expression.
Laquer was an extremely valuable material that was considered a sign of high status, due to its time-consuming application. Chinese artists used the sap of the Rhus Vernicefera tree, sometimes referred to as the ‘Laquer Tree”. The resin was drained from the tree and mixed with certain chemicals to create vibrant hues of red, black and yellow, the three most popular colours in Chinese lacquer painting. Objects required many coats of lacquer to provide an even finish, and each layer needed to be completely dry and highly polished before the next layer could be applied. Some objects contained as many as 100 layers, demonstrating the costly process. Laquer is remarkably resistant to heat, damp and chemicals and was hence used to protect goods of silk, bamboo and wood to preserve easily damaged materials despite their uneven surfaces. However, laquer can degrade quickly if there are cracks, leading to scarcity of finds in ancient burial contexts.
The dragon is one of the most important symbols in Ancient China, associated with the emperor, just rulership, benevolence and luck. They are often depicted as giant beasts, coiling in flight, dwelling in the clouds or water sources, and are linked with the rains which allow crops to prosper. Dragons are thought to be composed of outstanding features of other (mythical) animals. Traditional descriptions give them horns of a stag, eyes of a demon, belly of a sea-monster and scales of a carp, and possess magical qualities such as changing shape/size and the power to disappear and reappear. They were popular designs in jewellery pieces, ancient art, on weapons and armour and garden pieces, and became increasingly stylised.