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Grave Concerns About Death:

Three Thousand Years of Chinese Funerary Statues from Shang to Tang

Nic Saintey, Head of the Ceramics Department, looks at three thousand years of Chinese funerary statues from the Shang Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty and explores how these ceramics evolved over time.

A Tang Dynasty funerary statue of Lokopala, defender of tombs.

A Tang Dynasty funerary statue of Lokopala, defender of tombs.

Long before Christians gave it consideration, the Chinese held a belief in the afterlife. Born out of a hierarchical society that believed in the deference of a child to a parent, this filial duty extended through the family and wider society beyond death. This ancestor worship was maintained partly through familial devotion, but also through a fear that failure to do so could result in spiritual disapproval, bad luck or even retribution.

Chinese funerary statuary at it's most lifelike.

Chinese funerary statuary at it's most lifelike.

This duty permeated all Chinese society and included the Emperor, the good future of the state lay in his hands provided that he accorded his ancestors the proper offices. A great part of this devotion was to give the dead a good send off with everything they would require for the afterlife. During the Shang Dynasty (1523-1028 BC), royalty were buried in capacious graves with countless precious objects and a sacrificial human entourage. Senior staff would accompany the deceased, with their own coffins and objects, soldiers with their horses and weapons and finally junior staff and slaves were decapitated and interred with their master.

One can imagine that once the bar had been set high, this could have led to something of a funerary arms race with each subsequent generation fearing the displeasure of their immediate ancestor. Little wonder then that clay funerary sculpture started to be seen as a practical alternative to sacrifice, although on an imperial level this switch to clay didn't mean you could shirk your responsibility. The tomb of Emperor Qin who died in 210 BC is known worldwide as it contains the 'so called' terracotta army of some 8000 life size figures.

Humour in the afterlife: a Han Dynasty Balladeer.

Humour in the afterlife: a Han Dynasty Balladeer.

Funerary stautuary at its best: a Tang equestrienne.

Funerary stautuary at its best: a Tang equestrienne.

A sancai glazed Tang Dynasty camel.

A sancai glazed Tang Dynasty camel.

On a more modest level, the use of funerary sculpture became widespread during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and more prolific during the Tang Dynasty (618 AD–907 AD). Whilst none were now life size, the repertoire could include pottery officials, concubines, charioteers, soldiers, servants, grooms and musicians, often with hand painted details to add an air of individual character to them. There were animals such as horses and camels for transport, oxen and carts and even pigs, dwellings and sometimes fields of crops and tables laden with meat, fruit and other tasty morsels.

An entourage of Tang Dynasty tomb attendants, each holding a Zodiac animal.

An entourage of Tang Dynasty tomb attendants, each holding a Zodiac animal.

Effigies of a rather ferocious individual known as Lokapala were also interred along with equally disturbing earth spirits and grave guardians whose job as the name suggests was to keep the ill intentioned at bay and the cache of spiritual life support objects for whom they were intended. The use of funerary statues and grave goods continued until the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, when presumably the practise fell out of favour with the ancestors, who then allowed the rival Qing Dynasty to prevail.

Ming Dynasty votive furniture and food: a feast fit for an emperor.

Ming Dynasty votive furniture and food: a feast fit for an emperor.

These culturally fascinating, ancient and once high status objects are striking in their modelling. The bulging eyes and flaring nostrils of a horse can often give it a real sense of vitality, no mean feat for a piece of inanimate clay and, despite the serious intent behind some of the stiff looking courtiers and soldiers, there are also funerary figures bordering on caricatures that have a homely sense of fun and day-to-day humanity about them that a contemporary observer would recognise.

Whether there is an afterlife or not I feel sure that even in the vastly different environment of the 21st century they'd be good company.

Tags

  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Chinese Ceramics
  • Funerary Statuary
  • Shang Dynasty
  • Han Dynasty
  • Tang Dynasty
  • Ming Dynasty
  • Qing Dynasty

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About the Author

Nic SainteyNic Saintey
Ceramics and Glass

Nic Saintey is a Director of Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood, with responsibility for marketing and advertising. He is also Head of the Ceramics and Glass Department.

Nic Saintey's first career was in the Armed Forces where he served both as a military parachutist and paramedic in Europe, North America, East Africa and the Middle East.

He joined Lawrence’s of Crewkerne in early 1995 before moving to their Taunton branch as a general valuer and saleroom manager.

Nic joined Bearne’s in June 2000 to head up the expanding ceramic department, before joining the Board in 2003. His effervescent nature and wide experience has seen him regularly appear as an expert on the BBC’s Bargain Hunt and Flog It programmes.

He undertakes regular talks and contributes articles to both Devon and Cornwall Life magazines. His interests particularly include pottery in general, but especially that produced in Donyatt and North Devon, he is a keen runner and has recently taken up motor sport at a local circuit.