The T’ang Dynasty was an era of unrivalled wealth and luxury. The country was successfully reunified and the borders were expanded, pushing Chinese influence into new lands. Confucianism became a semi-religious instrument of the state; yet Buddhism continued to flourish, spreading into Korea and Japan. The arts reached new levels of sophistication. Poetry and literature flourished under the enlightened rulers. The Silk Road brought fortunes into China. Precious treasures were imported on the backs of camels from far away lands and bartered for Chinese silk, medicinal herbs, and pungent spices. T’ang China was a multicultural empire where foreign merchants from across Central Asia and the Middle East settled in the urban centers, foremost among them the thriving capital of Chang’an (modern X’ian), a bustling cosmopolitan center of over two million inhabitants. Foreign traders lived next to native artisans and both thrived. New ideas and exotic artistic forms followed alongside. The T’ang Dynasty was a cultural renaissance where many of the forms and objects we now associate with China were first created. Moreover, this period represents one of the greatest cultural outpourings in human history.
During the T’ang Dynasty, sculptural effigies of domesticated animals were often interred in the tombs of nobility and elite members of the social hierarchy. Created in all media, these sculptures accompanied the spirit of the deceased into the afterlife. Similar examples of oxen exist, discovered buried as part of a herd, contained inside a sculpted miniature pen with other domesticated animals, suggesting that they served as nourishment. However, this ox, pulling a cart behind him, clearly functioned as a beast of burden that was to perform onerous chores throughout eternity. Besides its function, this sculpture is also remarkable for its exquisite state of preservation. Remnants of the original paint that once decorated the work are visible on the red body of the ox and along the cart. Such delicate pigments rarely survive the ravages of time and the stresses of excavation. The cart is a masterpiece unto itself, composed of four separate pieces: the box structure, the swooping roof, and two wheels. Incised markings imitate the architectural details of the cart. During the T’ang Dynasty, the Chinese believed that the afterlife was a continuation of our earthly existence. Thus, this ox and cart was entombed in place of the real thing in order to provide for the transport needs of the deceased as he journeys through the afterlife. This work is more than a mere sculpture; it is a gorgeous memorial to the religious and philosophical beliefs of the T’ang Dynasty.