Chinese Tang Dynasty: Terracotta Tomb Attendants

A Cultural Golden Age

The Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) is considered a golden age in Chinese history, witnessing the prosperity of culture, economy, diplomacy and politics under a unified government. As is so often the case, where there is political and economic stability, art flourishes, and with the Tang Empire’s expansion into Central Asia, Tang artwork became influenced by the influx of new ideas and cultures. The advent of printing during this era ensured that the collected knowledge of Chinese art history could be disseminated and studied, and connoisseurship became also an important element in the elite culture. The Tang Dynasty was also one of the rare periods in Chinese history when gold and silver objects were a major component of Chinese metal culture, and Chinese workmanship in precious metals achieved a high standard. In this flourishing period, the Tang Dynasty also supported important industrial advances in pottery manufacturing: a systematic approach to the pottery-making industry marked a spectacular increase in quantity and quality of work.

Pair of Tang Dynasty Dancers

Companions in the Afterlife

One of the more interesting aspects of Tang Dynasty pottery production concerns the terracotta tomb moulded figures of people and animals created to be grave goods to be placed in tombs. Terracotta tomb figures have been found in ancient Chinese graves way before the Tang Period. However, it is during the Tang Dynasty that this artistic practice reaches its apogee. Figures of this type are called mingqi in Chinese. They were lined outside the tomb before the coffin was taken inside, and then placed and arranged inside the tomb.

Burial Goods For All

The size and number of the figures in a grave depended on the rank of the deceased – not everyone, including many emperors, had the influence or resources to commission terracotta grave goods on the same scale as the famed Qin dynasty terracotta army, made for the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. However, the tradition remained popular throughout the ranks of Tang society, with the new advancements in pottery-making allowing for the mass production of mingqi which allowed even the poor to include them in their burials. As a result, from the Tang dynasty in particular, a substantial array of surviving examples of differing size and quality have fortunately been discovered, and can be found today in museums and private collections.

Rare Tang Dynasty Court Entertainers Group
Rare Tang Dynasty Court Entertainers Group

How were mingqi made?

These figures were modelled in terracotta using different moulds and fired in kilns with low temperatures. Once the clay pieces were dry enough they were joined together and sometimes attached to a flat rectangular base. Figures’ heads were always modelled separately and joined together before firing: this allowed to vary identical statuettes by attaching the heads at different angles.

Glazed and Unglazed Pottery

Tang statuettes of this type have been recovered glazed and unglazed. Glazed statuettes were first covered with a white clay slip, and then fired in the kiln. When the sculpture was fired, the glaze would melt in a hard glass-like finish.The glaze’s colour depended on which mineral and crystals were added to the mixture. Sometimes the figurines were coloured in sancai (meaning three colours) glaze, utilising green and amber glaze on cream. Unglazed figurines are rarer compared to the glazed onses, since unfired pigments are more prone to flakin. The examples recovered with the original pigments, show an exceptional competence in pictorial rendering of details, anatomical and facial features.

By ancient art manager,

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