Ancient Gandhara (roughly present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) was at the westernmost end of the multiple trade routes that traversed the mostly inhospitable deserts, steppes, and mountains of the Asian heartland. Gandhara flourished during this period under the rule of the Kushan dynasty and the art produced there incorporated elements from both the west and the east. On view is an athlete's stone weight with a figure resembling the Greek hero Herakles in combat with the Nemean lion. The defined musculature and heavy drapery of a towering stone torso of a bodhisattva—one of the most remarkable works featured in the exhibition—can also be traced to Western idioms.
Han China (221 B.C.–A.D. 220) provided the military might behind the pax sinica that made the exchange of goods along the overland Silk Routes feasible. Under the rule of the martial emperor Han Wudi (141–87 B.C.), China expanded its reach not only to more distant parts of Central Asia but also to areas of Korea and Vietnam. Administration of this vast empire was in the hands of a scholar-elite educated in the works of Confucius and other classics. Members of this group, the aristocracy, and even wealthy merchants equipped lavish tombs for use in the afterlife. In addition to elegant bronze and lacquer vessels, such tombs contained terracotta sculptures of attendants and entertainers. Two figures playing the board game liubo and an elegant dancer captured in a moment of ethereal stillness exemplify the liveliness and sophistication of these sculptures that are known as mingqi, or spirit gods.
Relations between Korea and Japan and their interactions with the Chinese mainland are reflected in the introduction of the use of more refined clays, and in the occasional inclusion of ceramics in burials. A monumental ceremonial bronze bell from Japan known as a dotaku is featured in this part of the exhibition. The burial of such bells in isolated locations, though never in graves, is generally interpreted as a reference to their otherworldly powers and to the prestige of bronze regalia in Japan during the Yayoi period (4th century B.C.–3rd century A.D.).