Han Funeral Object - Eastern Han 25-220 AD

The collection of funeral objects shown at the Palace Museum (Forbidden City) was made by Zheng Zhenduo from 1947 to 1948 in Shanghai. He donated the collection to the museum in 1952 but it was only later that the museum had the resources to accept the gift. While there are over 600 pieces in the collection, this particular exhibit features 100 of them. The collection includes items from the Western Han (206 BC - 25 AD), Eastern Han (25-220 AD), Western Jin (265-317), and Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-550). There is a sample of 14 of the items on these pages.

Most of the pottery sculptures that survive today were funeral objects buried in the graves or tombs of both the wealthy and the ordinary man. Archaeologists have found funeral objects in graves back well beyond the Neolithic period (8000 - 5000 BC). The practice extends to the modern era, but during the Song Dynasty, paper artifacts began to be substituted for other items. Even today in traditional ceremonies paper models of everyday items from appliances to money are burned for or buried with the deceased as a ritual of respect more than with the idea that the deceased will use them. As with many customs surrounding death in cultures around the world, practices offer comfort to the survivors and last far beyond their actual original meaning.

Zhèng Zhènduó (鄭振鐸 or 郑振铎) lived an extraordinary life during an extraordinary time in the history of China. Born in Yongjia, Zhejiang in 1898 to a poor family he nonetheless managed to get an education at the Beijing Railway Management School. While there he steeped himself in literature, history, and the new intellectual writings of the day. While still in the Management School he helped edit two literary magazines. In 1921, in his last year of school, he and others founded a Literary Study Society (文学研究会 Wénxué Yánjīu Huì) dedicated to the new realism movement in Chinese literature. In 1922, he established the first magazine for children in China. He became a journalist, writer, and editor, helping to found several more magazines and newspapers in the 1930s.

In addition to numerous articles, essays, and criticisms he wrote a History of Chinese Literature. He wrote extensively about Russian literature and translated many of the great authors into Chinese. He was fluent in Russian, Hindi, English, Greek and Latin. He translated numerous works from Hindi, Greek and Latin including the early Greek myths. Presumably he also spoke French because he spent two years there from 1927 to 1929 and published a diary of his travels through Europe.

When he returned to China in 1929, he continued his literary activities and began lecturing at various universities. Eventually he would hold faculty positions at Yenching, Jinan, and Fudan universities and, in 1953, become the Dean of Arts at Peking University.

Between all of this activity, he worked in a stationery store in Shanghai during the occupation by the Japanese. He worked under an assumed name in order to be able to help save classic books and papers from the Japanese. Through his own love of literature and art he had educated himself in the ancient history of China and sought to protect that heritage from confiscation and destruction. During that time and after the war was over, he used his personal resources to buy many objects offered for sale by Chinese who needed to sell their precious objects to survive. The present collection of funeral pottery sculpture was acquired in this manner.

Following 1949, Zheng Zhenduo was appointed to various posts within the government to preserve antiquities and cultural objects. It was under his leadership that the government began to recognize and officially protect many to the antiquities and cultural sites of China. He died in 1958 in a plane crash on his way to Afganistan for a cultural visit.

Last update: May 2007
© Marilyn Shea, 2007