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The TT Tsui collection of Chinese ceramics

Introduction | History | Burial Rites and Mingqi | Spiritual Beliefs | Ceramics

 

Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD

 

Hu – container - 206 BC – 220 AD - stoneware, glaze - Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995

Hu [container]
206 BC – 220 AD
stoneware, glaze

During the Han dynasty major sites for the mass production of mingqi included those around Luoyang, Xian, Xianyang and Chengdu. Abstracted images of court entertainers, majestic stylised horses and statues of warriors and court attendants were popular tomb figures.

Most of the figures were unglazed with some painted decoration to indicate clothing and facial features. The glazed pieces of the period were usually covered in a solid colour with any decorative elements being incised into the clay or, as in this example, clay moulded reliefs were attached to the body of the container.

Food containers and water vessels were made to resemble the prestigious bronze vessels used by the aristocracy. The expense of providing bronze funerary wares was a large financial burden and ceramic wares became acceptable substitutes. The development of low-fired lead glazes provided the potter with a new decorative device that could mimic bronze and the green glaze on this hu, a wine or storage vessel, is a fine example. The base clay is dark and the thick copper oxide glaze produced a dense, deep green colour when fired in oxidising conditions at low temperature.

Han potters adapted manufacturing techniques used by metalworkers. The containers, and some figurines, were made in pieces from moulds which were joined and decorated. The pushou, 'mask and ring' motif, which appears as an appliqued relief, was commonly found on bronze vessels.

It is easy to distinguish funerary wares from domestic containers. Funerary vessels were nearly always low fired earthenware that was porous and relatively fragile so not suitable for daily use. The lead glazes were known to be poisonous and were not used on domestic food containers. On a practical note, earthenware was much cheaper to produce than high fired stoneware making it an affordable method for the mass production of funerary objects.

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Duck-shaped vessel - 206 BC – 9 AD - earthenware, pigments - Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995

Duck-shaped vessel
206 BC – 9 AD
earthenware, pigments

This unusual figurine made in the form of a duck was probably meant to represent a water or wine container. The body, legs and spout have been moulded in separate pieces and joined, while the wings and tail are separate and slotted into cutouts in the body. There is a small lid which sits over the hole in the centre of the back. The surface is covered with a painted design in white and red, the circles and spots probably being a highly stylised representation of the duck's feathers.

Animal shaped containers date back to the Neolithic period. While the meaning of the animal symbolism is not always clear, animals were prominent as signs of the Chinese zodiac and associated with the cardinal directions of Daoist belief.

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Male dancing figure - 25–220 - earthenware - Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995

Male dancing figure
25–220
earthenware

Musicians, storytellers and dancers are all subjects for mingqi, reflecting the rich and lively artistic culture. This large image of what is probably a ballardeer is highly animated, with a jovial countenance. In the abstracted Han style, the figure is portrayed in an active pose, full of energy. The sculpture may have been part of a group of similar figures in differing poses playing instruments and dancing, forming an entertainment troupe.

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Kneeling figure of a lady - 206 BC – 8 AD - earthenware, pigments - Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995

Kneeling figure of a lady
206 BC – 8 AD
earthenware, pigments

Depictions of courtiers and servants provide fascinating information regarding prevailing fashion, from dress and hair styles to make-up and jewellery. This image is in two pieces. Multiple replicas – made using moulds – were individually hand painted, ensuring each piece has a unique character. The original head has been replaced, probably using one from a similar piece found in the same tomb.

There is discontinuity between the head and the body which is seen clearly from the back, between the long plait of a woman's hair style which is painted on the body, and the shorter pinned up hair style painted on the head.

The missing hands would have been separately moulded and attached to the body using a tenon, of either wood or clay. The figure is wearing a long crossed outer robe with wide sleeves and three inner robes. Faint remains of painted patterns can been seen in the red borders giving an insight into popular decorative designs and weaving techniques.

There were probably a large number of these figures in the burial chamber, its size suggesting it came from an aristocrat's tomb. Reinforcing the status of the deceased through the number of mingqi placed in the burial chamber was believed to ensure ongoing success in the afterlife. By looking after the ancestral spirit, the expectation was that the spirit would look favourably upon the living, providing them with sons, bountiful food, longevity and prosperity.

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Reclining dog - 206 BC – 220 AD - earthenware, glaze - Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995

Reclining dog
206 BC – 220 AD
earthenware, glaze

The presence of dogs in Chinese burial sites can be traced back to the Neolithic period where they have been found buried alongside their owners. One of the earliest figurative sculptures in this collection, the dog displays the dynamic qualities of Han funerary sculpture. While not readily identifiable with any of the breeds found in China which included the mastiff, greyhound, bulldog and domestic dog, this lively figure is typical of the abstracted, angular forms favoured by the Han.

The dog has an elongated neck, perhaps a deliberate artistic feature to accentuate the idea of movement. With its raised head, pricked up ears and open mouth suggesting it is barking, the overall impression is of a dog suddenly disturbed from sleep, a reference perhaps, to its role as a watchdog. The dog is also one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, another reason for its popularity as a tomb figurine. The simple, clean, angular lines are accentuated by the amber glaze which covers the entire surface. Glazing tended not to follow any particularly realistic colour format and the dog could just have easily been green or yellow.

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Saddled horse - 25–220 - earthenware, slip decoration - Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995

Saddled horse
25–220
earthenware, slip decoration

An interesting feature of Han Chinese mingqi is the dominance of secular subject matter. Whether ceramic vessels or sculpture or tomb paintings, the majority are images relating to daily life that promoted the monetary wealth of the deceased, which equated with power as much as aristocratic birth.

There is an air of assertiveness about the sculptural figures of the Han dynasty, no doubt reflecting the great military strength of the rulers. One of the favoured subjects for tomb sculpture was the horse – not the common small domestic Chinese horse, but replicas of the magnificent horses found in Mongolia.

One Han emperor – on seeing these fabulous animals – was determined to obtain some of them, which he did by stealth. Once introduced to the capital, these horses became a symbol of Imperial authority.

Made from separately moulded pieces, this large statue typifies Han dynasty funerary sculptures. The figure has been abstracted in a manner that highlights the essential qualities of the animal, namely its physical strength and size as well as its character.

Here the horse is shown as if coming to a sudden stop with the front legs extended forwards, firmly anchored to the ground. The head is reared back, the lips are flared and the eyes excessively large. Its knotted tail is lifted high and the horse's mane stands erect. The overall impression is of barely controlled energy.

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