In their search for immortality, the ancient Chinese believed in a life after death. Provisions for the afterlife were buried with the deceased. When Western companies built railways in northern China in the early twentieth century, ancient imperial burial sites were disturbed during construction. It was engineers, not archaeologists, who discovered treasures that had lain undisturbed for thousands of years.
Sacrifices of living humans and animals were discovered during the excavation of Shang dynasty (sixteenth–eleventh century BC) tombs in present-day Anyang, Henan province. This practice became gradually less common in the Eastern Zhou period (770–256 BC) and was abandoned by the Western Han (206 BC – 24 AD); humans, animals and precious and utilitarian objects were replaced with ceramic replicas. A whole repertoire of mingqi (utensils for the spirits of the dead) was produced solely for burial.
Figurines were placed in tombs as substitutes for real people to serve the deceased in the afterlife. This slim, elegant court lady is very lifelike and represents the ideal of feminine beauty in the late seventh to early eighth century. She is made of earthenware, with ‘three-colour’ lead glaze for her garments and painted pigments used on her turban, face, neck, chest and hands – partially worn away due to burial. Her costume shows a Central Asian influence, she is wearing the so-called ‘cloud-walking’ shoes and is seated on a stool introduced from India. This Tang figurine is similar to the tall, elongated and elegant female attendants depicted in the wall painting of the tomb of Princess Yongtai, granddaughter of Empress Wu (reigned 684–705) of the Tang dynasty (618–907). The princess’s tomb, dated to the year 706, was excavated between August 1960 and April 1962 in Qianling, Shaanxi province, northern China.
Seated female 700 AD–750 AD
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of H. W. Kent, 1938