Arts of Asia

Hill jar and cover
China, Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE)
Earthenware with green glaze
11 x 9 1/2 inches
Gift of Sophie and Brian Leung 1992-1-1

In traditional Han Chinese belief, ancestors were thought to live on in the afterlife and were thus in need of the objects they had used in everyday life. The use of mingqi, or "spirit goods," during the Han dynasty marked a change in Chinese funerary practices and customs. Clay models of household utensils, houses, servants, and animals were buried with the dead to aid in the afterlife. Hill jars are miniature replicas of wine-warming vessels, the surfaces of which were covered with Daoist cosmological symbols. The shape of the vessel represents the mountains where it is believed immortals exist.

The Daoist religion holds out the possibility of physical immortality to the initiate who follows prescribed rituals. Such practices traditionally included the ingestion of life-prolonging herbs and mineral drugs concocted by alchemists, which were often mixed with wine in bronze jars. The cylindrical body of this clay jar depicts hills and fantastic flying creatures in low relief. These beings represent xian, often referred to as "immortals," who were capable of flying on clouds and subsisting on dew.

The red clay of this hill jar is concealed by a low-fire green glaze that mimics oxidized bronze. The silver-green iridescence of the surface is an unintentional result of centuries of oxidation resulting from burial in damp soil. The conical lid was made by press-mold and finished on a pottery wheel. It depicts Mount Bo, a sacred mountain inhabited by Daoist immortals that the deceased was thought to ascend on the journey to heaven. The three bear-shaped legs supporting the vessel indicate northern Chinese artistry.

Text provided by Michael W. Conner, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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