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Sexy pleasures among Han Dynasty ‘Tomb Treasures’

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A life-sized jade burial suit for a king is among the impressive items in “Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty.” (Courtesy Asian Art Museum)

It’s a stretch, but the Asian Art Museum is flogging its fascinating new exhibit, “Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty,” by advertising daily tours focusing on sex — and hotpots, wine warmers, bronze dildos and latrines.

A self-guided audio tour called “Tomb Pleasures” accompanying the show promises “an intimate peek into how the Han nobility cared for their bodies and hearts.”

Expert comments on the audio (downloadable on mobile devices) come from Sex with Emily’s Emily Morse, Good Vibrations’ Carol Queen, San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, and local food and wine authorities. (Tan’s participation is related to dance and music in funeral traditions covered in the exhibit.)

The point, says museum director Jay Xu, who co-curated the exhibit, is to show how life and death relating to each other in ancient China compares to today’s pursuit of comfort and security and the “search for longevity, craving for immortality and yearning for a joyful life and a satisfying afterlife.”

“Tomb Treasures” deals with the Western Han period (206 BCE to 9 CE), when royalty lavishly furnished tombs for themselves so that no need would go unmet in the afterlife. Items in tombs included utensils, weaponry and toiletries.

Jade body suits, lacquer coffins, ritual bells, pottery and much more come from recently unearthed royal graves near Shanghai.

The objects reflect the great wealth and opulent lifestyle of the Han Dynasty, the second family of imperial rulers of China after the short-lived Qin period. (The Qin Emperor, who unified China in 221 BCE and known as the First Emperor, is subject of many films and even a couple of operas.)

The largest and most impressive item of “Tomb Treasures” is a life-sized jade burial suit for a king, with some 2,000 jade plaques stitched to silk backing with gold wire.

Animal figures made of bronze, inlaid with gold and silver, kept the departed company.

Specifically sexy and intimate items include dildos, love tokens (a silver belt hook in the shape of a dragon with a “forget-me-not” inscription), a make-up kit, large silver basin, working stone latrine, ceramic urinal, smokeless lamp, and many utensils for wine consumption that indicate how “setting the mood” was important to the Han elite.

“We are even displaying two hollow bronze phalluses that could be worn and used,” says co-curator Fan Zhang, adding, “This almost modern appreciation for the body’s needs and wants is something we think our open-minded visitors from San Francisco and around the Bay Area will especially enjoy learning about and sharing with friends!”

The cult of afterlife depicted “Tomb Treasures” is similar to and contemporary with Imperial Rome’s practices of gathering at cemeteries to offer meals to the ancestors, and constructing tombs for the wealthy as houses with a decorated room for festivities. The oldest cult of the dead and afterlife, Egypt’s, goes back to 4000 BCE.

Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, closes May 28
Admission: $15 to $30; free for 12 and younger
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org

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