In Kingly Splendor, Allison R. Miller examines funerary art in the kingdoms of the early Western Han and contextualizes this art in the period's political history, paying special attention to the relationship between the kings and the imperial court. Chapter 1 provides the historical context, focusing on Emperor Wen's and Emperor Jing's different approaches to managing the kingdoms. Chapters 2–6 present five case studies, each centering on one genre of art: rock-cut tombs, terracotta armies, jade suits, murals, and purple textiles. Combining archaeological evidence, transmitted texts, and secondary scholarship, the book argues that the kings were not just imitators of the imperial court but also adapters and innovators of art who employed local materials and techniques for political expressions.
The book adopts a “material-based approach,” which means “paying attention to materials and the processes by which works were manufactured as well as objects’ contexts of display” (p. 5), as opposed to the iconographical approach of decoding objects as signifiers of meanings. This builds on the “material turn” (p. 6) in art history and other relevant disciplines since the 1970s. It allows the book to examine the entire life cycles of funerary objects: acquisition of materials, design and manufacture, installation and arrays at the funeral, and viewers’ responses. For instance, chapter 4 discusses not only the multiple cultural meanings attached to jade, but also the evidence for local workshops, the differences in jade quality and color, varying shapes of jade plaques, different threading and drilling methods, and the diverse ways that jade suits represented the body. Chapter 3 considers how the reduced sizes and scales of the Han emperors’ and kings’ terracotta armies, compared with the First Emperor of Qin's life-size naturalistic terracotta army, might have delivered the political message of benevolent rule. This material-based methodology thus contributes to a holistic understanding of early Chinese funerary art and fruitfully engages earlier scholarship on Chinese history and archaeology.
The book poses many thought-provoking questions and offers new explanations for several important changes in artistic styles. To note only a few, Miller argues that the kings’ rock-cut tombs were inspired by Emperor Wen rather than foreign practices; that the Han jade suits were not naturally evolved from previous practices of using jade burial objects; that the religious motifs in the Shiyuan murals ought to be read as ornament; and that the purple textile industry of the Qi contributed to purple's rise as the most exalted color in the Chinese color pantheon. While not all of them are conclusive, these discussions constitute meaningful dialogues with existing scholarship and should inspire future research.
Miller's effort to combine art history and political history is absolutely worthwhile but risks overreading the political implications of funerary art. One could argue that local artistic innovations were primarily caused by diverse geological conditions and natural resources across the empire, rather than the kings’ attempt to compete with the imperial court for political authority. Similarly, the wide use of jade in kings’ tombs perhaps reflected shared values and fashions among the Han elites, rather than the kings’ need to legitimize their status by demonstrating their jade-like virtues. The assumption of meritocracy, which underlies the book's arguments, remains unproven. Although the shi group and some founding elites advocated certain meritocratic ideals in this period, blood relations still dominated royal succession and the allocation of key resources. Moreover, commoners had few means to affect the ruling house's legitimacy.
A related challenge is to reconcile the tension between funerary art as “social goods” (p. 144) and their function of serving in the afterlife. For instance, in chapter 3, Miller presents convincing evidence that many people—workers, attendants of the funerals, nearby residents, and passersby—might have seen or heard about the tombs and funerary objects. However, this does not mean that these acts of viewing were intended by the tombs’ patrons or viewers. Nor is there sufficient evidence that the patrons and the audience would interpret the political meanings of funerary art in the same way, which would have been necessary for political expressions to be effective. Patrons’ concerns over possible criticism and the looting of their tombs would also conflict with any effort to disseminate images to a wide audience. The book thus leaves us uncertain in what sense and to what extent funerary art was considered a social good in the early Western Han.
Kingly Splendor is an innovative and significant contribution to the study of early Chinese funerary art. The detailed maps, tables, and figures demonstrate Miller's painstaking research process, offering the reader both useful information and aesthetic pleasure. The book should be inspiring to students of Chinese art history, history, and archaeology, as well as to art historians with different geographical and temporal focuses.