The TT Tsui collection of Chinese ceramics
Tang Dynasty 618–907
earthenware, sancai glaze
The scale of the production of funerary wares during the Tang dynasty was massive as were the tombs themselves. The corridors leading to the central tomb chamber were lined with niches and annexes filled with funerary goods. Amongst all of these one animal predominated – the horse. No other animal received such detailed attention. They were minutely studied and modelled, the end result being remarkably realistic sculptural images.
This beautiful, large, glazed horse represents the great skill of the innumerable anonymous Chinese potters. Realistically formed, the horse carries a decorated harness, a feature that started to appear during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). The saddle blanket has been crafted to represent tufts of fur and the docked and tied tail was a characteristic of the period. As with pieces of the highest quality, the bridle and decorative medallions have been separately cast and attached to the moulded horse form. The entire surface has then been glazed using the sancai technique.
earthenware, sancai glaze
Sculptures of camels have been dated from as early as the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534) where excavated tombs have revealed images of guardian figures, foot soldiers, musicians and camels.
During the Tang Dynasty the popularity of the camel as a funerary object increased dramatically. Camels became a regular feature in the cities and towns along the Silk Road and came to symbolise wealth through the trade goods they carried on their backs. The Bactrian or two-humped camel has become associated with the tomb sculpture of the Tang Dynasty.
This earthenware statue has been decorated with a monochrome lead glaze which has typically been haphazardly applied and allowed to run in the sancai or three-coloured glaze manner. The fur running down the front of the neck and the short mane have been carefully crafted and highlighted in cream glaze. With the two humps characteristically tilted to opposite sides, it is a are a realistic representation of Bactrian camels after their long journey across Asia when the fat stores in their humps have been exhausted.
earthenware, sancai glaze
This camel has been decorated using the sancai or 'three-colour' glaze of cream, green and amber. Blue and black glazes were also used to make a three-colour combination. Nearly all three-coloured ware was intended for funerary use though some remains have been found in Japan and Egypt, no doubt taken there by traders.
The sancai glaze has been applied with thought to the camel's features. The cream glaze highlights the fur on the front and back of the neck. The absence of further sculptural techniques to define the animal's features may indicate the model was based on the 'summer' camel when it has lost most of the hair which acts as an insulator against the harsh, cold winters. The green, cream and brown blotches help define the saddle blanket which has been detailed with incisions. Here, the camel's head is reared up and the mouth wide open giving the animal a lively appearance.
Lokapala [guardian figure]
The earliest known examples of guardian figures date from around the 5th century, coinciding with an increased acceptance of Buddhism. The Buddhist Guardians of the four cardinal directions, north, south, east and west, mixed easily with the Daoist Heavenly Kings who were also guardians of the four directions.
As Guardians they could call upon the spirits of the next world to help them protect the tomb if necessary. It was usual for pairs of guardian figures to be placed in tombs near its entrance. Two figures were usually in human form while the other pair took the forms of frightening mythical beasts.
This unglazed earthenware figure is covered in a white slip which has then been painted. From the remnants of red and black on the face it is possible to imagine its original ferocious appearance. His breastplate is deliberately designed to look like a gruesome mask. The guardian would have been carrying a spear or similar weapon which has been lost and it is trampling a demon underfoot.
A symbol of crushing evil, this design feature also related to Buddhist imagery where it represents crushing the dwarf of ignorance.
Standing court lady
Figures of plump court ladies were popular for a time during the Tang Dynasty, a departure from the more usual slimmer female figures as depicted in paintings as well as ceramics.
One popular theory for their appearance is that the favoured concubine of the Tang emperor Xuanzong (712–756) was of generous size. As obeisance to the Emperor was of utmost importance, 'plumpness' would have gained acceptance at the court. The fact that this type of figure only appeared for a fairly short time gives some credibility to this story.
These statues provide us with valuable information regarding court costume. The hairstyles on these types of figures are quite variable and the faces are invariably painted with pigments highlighting the lips, cheeks and eyes indicating that make-up was popular amongst the court women. While the pigments on this figure are quite worn, hand painted patterns can be found on some images which provide interesting details regarding textiles.
Polo was one of the many recreational pursuits enjoyed by members of the Tang nobility. These lively figures show two women polo players, identified by their hairstyles.
Women experienced a lot of freedom during this period, a situation that changed dramatically after the fall of the Tang dynasty. They were able to engage in many public activities and, as seen in these figures, were able to wear the same costume as men. The position of the arms on the figures suggests they originally held polo mallets.
earthenware with painted decoration
Music was an integral fixture at the Tang court. Musicians from the West were regular features in the major cities and introduced new instruments and music styles. The Tang emperor Xuanzong (712–755) was a great lover of the new Western music that was played regularly at court along with traditional Chinese music and instruments such as bells and zithers.
These eight statues form a small orchestra. They are made of earthenware and have been painted after firing. Remnants of the vivid orange and red pigments remain and there are traces of black which was used to outline facial features. While there were many foreign musicians in China, the costumes suggest these are Chinese players. Their hats are in the style of the felt hoods worn by Tang court attendants and their faces are not obviously 'foreign'. They all wear robes and their trousers are tucked into their boots.
The sculptural style of the figures suggest they were made in the early Tang dynasty. During the Sui and early Tang periods funerary sculptures often lacked the clarity of line which was a highlight of mid to late Tang Dynasty art. While the forms are realistic enough, the figures are quite stiff.
The horses are all in the same position with their heads down and feet firmly planted on the ground. The riders are rather more animated, all in the process of playing their instruments which include the fife, pan pies and drums. Some were probably holding wooden drum sticks and a flute like instrument which have since been lost. As a group they provide insight into cultural life under the Tang rulers.
Horse and rider
Horse and Barbarian rider
The love of the Tang Chinese nobility for their proud mounts is legendary and aristocrats often owned thousands of horses. Originally used to draw chariots into battle, they were later used for leisure activities such as hunting and polo. Horse riding became so popular that the Tang court passed a law in 667 which only allowed members of the elite to ride, thereby ensuring it remained an exclusive past time.
Both of these horses were made from similar moulds, while the individual details of the human figures were hand crafted. Typical of most funerary sculpture, the figures are unglazed earthenware with hand painting. The detailing provides valuable information about popular costume and hairstyles of the period.
The Chinese rider has his hair covered under a cloth cap. The round-necked long-sleeved robe is loosely belted and he is wearing a pair of long boots. The horse has a fringed blanket underneath the saddle, the fringing indicated by incisions in the clay. The bridle has similar decorative elements as the large glazed horse. The horse's mane is raised up and sharply delineated with lines carved into the surface to highlight it.
The second rider is identified as a foreigner by his beard and moustache. Foreigners from the west, such as Armenians, who were admired for their horsemanship, are known to have been appointed as grooms to the Imperial stables. Here, the foreign 'barbarian' is carrying a quiver, perhaps in preparation for hunting.