By the time of the so-called First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, whose terracotta army is the most impressive example of terracotta grave goods, the inclusion of imitation human figures in burials was considered essential to ensure companionship and service in the afterlife.
Known in Chinese as mingqi, these terracotta painted figures are of servants, soldiers and attendants such as dancers and musicians, with many no doubt representing courtesans. They have been found across numerous dynasties, distinguishable by their style of dress and hair. Similar to the ancient Egyptians, traditional Chinese understandings of the afterlife led to the belief that mingqi would provide a contingent of companions for the deceased who would still require their services.
The earliest figures, from the 7th century, are relatively simple and generally less well-rendered than later ones. The women are tall and slim, whereas by the mid-8th century a plumper figure had become the norm, with faces that are "fat, heavily brooding and vacuous". It has been suggested that this change in taste was provoked by the famous imperial concubine Yang Guifei, who had a full figure, although it seems to begin by about 725, when she was a child.
There may be groups of women as dancers or small seated orchestras of musicians, and some sitting figures appear to be beautifying themselves. More rarely, there are female riders and polo players, wearing male dress, which was usual for Tang women when riding, and apparently a fashion in the capital on other occasions. The period was one of unusual freedom for well-off women in China, and the figures reflect this.
The animals are most often horses, but there are surprising numbers of both Bactrian camels and their Central Asian drivers, distinguished by thick beards and hair, and their facial features. The depictions are realistic to a degree unprecedented in Chinese art, and the figures give archaeologists much useful information about life in the Tang dynasty. There are also figures of the imaginary monster "earth spirits" and the fearsome human Lokapala (or tian wang), both usually in pairs and acting as tomb guardians to repel attacks by both spirits and humans. Sets of the twelve imaginary beasts of the Chinese Zodiac are also found, usually unglazed.
The figures represent a development of earlier traditions of Chinese tomb figures, and in the Tang dynasty elaborate glazed figures are restricted to north China, very largely to the areas around the capitals. They virtually disappear from 755 when the highly disruptive An Lushan Rebellion began, which probably affected the kilns in Henan and Hebei making the pieces as well as their elite clientele. A much diminished tradition continued in later dynasties until the Ming. The use of sancai glazing on figures was restricted to the upper classes, and production was controlled by the imperial bureaucracy, but a single burial of a member of the imperial family might contain many hundreds of figures.
The best period for the figures lasted only about 50 years, to the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, a period of innovation, unprecedented realism and an interest in showing psychological types in several media for Chinese art. The figures share with Buddhist monumental sculpture of the period conventions, derived from further west, that show appropriate detail of muscle which yet departs from reality at many points. The horse figures reflect the same ideal as seen in contemporary paintings, and it is uncertain in which medium the type first arose.
With exception of the Zodiac figures, which were also the only type to increase in popularity after the Tang, the figures are more closely related to the metropolitan and Buddhist attitudes than to the magical aspects of rural beliefs and a pattern of behaviour governed by superstitions or shamanistic beliefs of the local farming communities, which partly accounts for their failure to return after the 750s, along with a preference for new types of grave goods.
One of the most recognisable types from the Tang Dynasty is the ‘fat lady’ type – figures of concubines and entertainers depicted with round faces and rosy cheeks and a more plump figure. This way of representing courtiers and dancers appears in 730 AD. Emperor Zuanzong’s love for the concubine Yang Guifei seems to have been at the origin of this change in representations of dancers and courtiers in Tang Dynasty art.
Aside from human figures, the terracotta statuettes found in burials could also take the form of animals considered to be essential even in the afterlife, such as horses. Horses were considered to be of vital importance in Ancient Chinese culture for their uses in both warfare and daily life; thus, they appear frequently in terracotta form, in Chinese burials from across the centuries, in the hope that they too could be brought through to the afterlife.
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