Even as Chinese influence spread across Southeastern Asia into new lands, the Eastern Han Dynasty was actually unable to recreate the glories of the Western Period.
In fact, this period can be characterized by a bitter power struggle amongst a group of five consortial clans. Eventually, the power of the Han would completely erode, ending with its dissolution and the beginning of the period known as the “Three Kingdoms.”
It was during this period that the art of the state of Shu in the province of modern Sichuan thrived.
Here, as in other parts of China in the same period, a great effort was laid in the preparation of afterlife accomodations. Tombs were lavishly furnished with all sort of mundane and less mundane commodities, most of them made in painted earthenware and reproducing a vivid mirror image of everyday life.
A type of work known as mingqi, literally translated as, “items for the next world,” moulded ceramics such as this one were specifically commissioned by the family of the deceased to be buried alongside their departed relative, both as a symbol of their wealth and familial piety. However, only elite members of the social hierarchy could afford to be honored with such elaborate burials. During the Han era and the dissolution period of the Three Kingdoms, the Chinese believed that the afterlife was an extension of our earthly existence and that our spiritual soul would linger indeterminately in the tomb. Thus the tombs of nobles and high-ranking officials were filled with sculpted renditions of their earthly entourage. Musicians, chefs, attendants, and guardians were placed alongside pots, vessels, cooking utensil, and herds of livestock. All these mingqi were expected to perform their functions continually throughout the afterlife. The guards would watch over the soul of the deceased, while the chef prepared meals, utilizing the meats of the livestock, and the musicians performed songs to nourish the spirit throughout eternity.
The smile that graces the face of this standing attendant is typical of the happy entertainers from the Sichuan Province. He carries a crescent-shaped sickle in his left hand, held against his chest. Long stringed sandals,a high beret and a small pouch would indicate the farming origin of this man, his presence in the tomb indicating the importance of agriculture in the economy of ancient Sichuan.
The detachable head is also characteristic of such works, whose body was usually moulded separately from the head and then joint together.
A reflection of the wealth and sophistication of ancient China, this sculpture intrigues us with its vast historical and cultural insights. His detailed depiction provides us with an intimate image of everyday life during the dissolution period of the Three Kingdoms in the Shu state.