Treasures for the dead: Tang dynasty terra cotta figures
The Tang dynasty (618-907), considered a Chinese golden age, was famed for its flourishing trade, cosmopolitan culture, and artistic achievements. Terra cotta production, in particular, thrived.
In addition to inventing underglaze decorative techniques, perfecting monochrome glazes, and creating utilitarian wares, Tang potters created scores of hollow, molded sculptures, intended solely for burial in noble and imperial tombs. These so-called ‘spirit goods,’ known as mingqi, reflect fascinating aspects of Tang customs, values, and beliefs.
Mingqi were created to attend the dead, fulfilling their needs and offering comfort in the afterlife. Because music was highly appreciated in the Tang court, elite burial chambers often featured troupes of elegant mingqi dancing girls, accompanied by sculpted musicians tooting flutes, plucking lutes, tinkling bells, and tolling chimes. Court officials and plump courtesans, fluttering fans, looked on.
Lunar-based zodiacs, featuring a specific animal for each year, were customarily consulted to determine destinies. For this reason, zodiac mingqi–sets of 12 imaginary animals finely modeled in official robes– were especially desirable. These Tang dynasty terra cotta figures may have indicated personal piety or gratitude for prosperity.
Bactrian camels first appeared in Chinese art during this era, when many made fortunes trading along the Silk Road, according to Dr. Ivan Bonchev, Director at Pax Romana Ltd, a specialist gallery and auction house. These humble, two-humped beasts of burden represented economic opportunity and riches. Naturally, aristocrats and merchants alike commissioned camel mingqi for their tombs.
Many of these Tang dynasty terra cotta figures realistically arch their necks or toss their heads back. Some kneel, saddled and ready for loading, with hind legs up, forelegs tucked beneath, head aloft, and mouth open, as if braying. Others bear Persian riders, identified by thick beards and non-Asiatic features. These camel mingqi indicate not only the personal wealth, prestige, and cosmopolitan nature of the deceased; they also represent the cultural, artistic, and religious links between China, Central Asia, and Arabia.
Horses, an important symbol in Chinese culture and art since the Neolithic period, also represented Tang status and nobility. It is said that Emperor Xuanzong, who reigned from 685-762, graced his herd of 100 with exquisitely embroidered finery, gold and silver halters, and ornamental jade and pearls. Zhang Yue, a poet of the day, claims the empero had them taught to dance.
The emperor’s dragon-colts are well-trained.
These celestial thoroughbreds are amazing.
Nimbly prancing, they keep in step with the music.
High-spirited, they step together, never deviating.
Horse mingqi, like camels, were often fashioned in charming, lifelike poses. Many are shown lifting forelegs, flaring nostrils, perking up ears, or twisting as they stand, strut, rear, trot, or leap. Scores feature only elaborate empty saddles. Others bear riders grasping reins, leaning forward, or bracing backward.
Love of horses spurred the popularity of polo, an exciting Persian mounted team sport. Not only emperors, noblemen, government officials, and aristocrats played–so did well-off women. Polo player mingqi imitate life. Some, depicted at full gallop, rise up in their saddles, their mallets outstretched. Others are shown angling mallets aside to protect equine flanks. Yet sets of two carefully coiffed, heavily rouged women, competing mid-match, are the most dynamic of all.
Simple Tang dynasty terra cotta figures, such as servants and farm animals, were often left unglazed or brushed with simple white, buff, or straw-colored slip. More impressive ones were partially or fully glazed in sancai, an earthy mix of yellow, green, and creamy-white pigments reserved for members of the Tang aristocracy. Choice mingqi, however, boast bits of cobalt blue, a hue more treasured than gold.
Tang descendants, in their hour of need, traditionally beseeched ancestors for heavenly help. Mourners, with an eye toward the future, furnished family burial chambers not only with arrays of attendant mingqi, but also powerful protectors.
Fantastical beings called ‘earth spirits,’ for instance, repelled any malevolent beasts that might intrude. Fierce, armor-clad Lokapalas, also known as the Four Heavenly King guards, kept dead spirits safe and also kept them from roaming.
The number of mingqi in a Tang dynasty burial chamber varied according to the rank of its deceased. A government official might, for example, be limited to 90, while an imperial family member might merit hundreds.
Tang dynasty terra cotta figures were traditionally displayed in ritual burial processions. Then all were placed along what was called the “spirit road,” which sloped toward an underground chamber. Once the casket was in place, the soft, low-fired, mingqi were arranged within, creating a personalized paradise.
None were meant to be seen again.