If you want to see hollow bronze phalluses that ancient people living under China’s Han dynasty attached to their abdomens or to their hands, here’s your shot.
Recently unearthed tombs in Jiangsu province, along the Chinese coast — which, then as now, was the center of Chinese culture — revealed royal burial practices that may actually rival Ancient Egypt. Picking up where the Asian Art Museum’s Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit left off, Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty includes some stunning artifacts, including a jade burial suit for a woman with its original gold thread still intact.
There is also a toilet, probably the oldest such object in San Francisco, with an armrest.
Grandly organized in three sections, Tomb Treasures examines accouterments associated with daily court life and the rituals of eating and entertaining (“Everlasting happiness without end”), burial preparations for a people that never mined diamonds and were obsessed with jade (“Eternal life without limit”), and aristocratic sexual habits, including the bronze phalluses and technologically advanced smokeless lamps for uninterrupted intimacy (“Enduring remembrance without fail”).
Because the discovery of intact burial chambers is so rare, this is no mere aggregation of previously viewed cultural patrimony that had been scattered to the four winds. Most of the pieces on display were recovered in 1995 or in 2011, and Tomb Treasures includes a large number of objects never before seen outside their home museums in Central China, including an amazingly intact set of bianzhong bronze bells.
Apart from appreciating the almost modern candor with which the ancients regarded human sexual needs (and love of opulence), the Asian Art Museum will throw a bunch of events timed to this exhibit, including a $10 Tasting Menu (March 16, April 4) focused on traditional healing foods, musical programs centered on the bianzhong and other instruments (March 19, April 16, May 21; free), and a discussion between Katrina Spade of the Urban Death Project and Karla Maria Rothstein of Columbia University’s DeathLAB on ecologically sustainable burial practices.
Co-curated by director and CEO Jay Xu and senior associate curator of Chinese art Fan Jeremy Zhang, Tomb Treasures is a slightly naughty but exceptionally well-presented treat. Oh, and no less of an authority than sexologist Carol Queen said those phalluses were perfectly functional.
Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty, Feb. 17 – May 28, at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., 415-581-3500 or asianart.org