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 quasi-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.
“The camel is an unusual domestic animal; it carries a saddle of flesh on its back; swiftly it dashes over the shifting sands; it manifests its merit in dangerous places; it has a secret understanding of springs and sources, subtle indeed is its knowledge.” This quote by Guo Pu dates to the 3rd Century A.D. and reveals the extent to which the Chinese adulated camels. For the Chinese, these creatures symbolized the wealth and luxury that resulted from trading on the Silk Road. Commerce across this extensive network of paths and trails brought prosperity, foreign merchants, and exotic merchandize into China. However, the dusty trails of the Silk Road were an arduous journey through the rugged mountains and harsh deserts of Central Asia that could only be traversed by the two humped Bactrian camel. This remarkable beast was able to withstand the scorching heat of the desert and maintain its own nutrients, surviving for months without fresh supplies of water. The government kept vast herds of these invaluable creatures, presided over by civil officials, for hauling their precious commodities across the Silk Road. These exotic creatures were a common sight in the cosmopolitan cities of T’ang China, carrying both traders and their goods directly into the markets. Likewise, T’ang artist began to create charming representations of these prized creatures as mingqi in order to symbolize continued wealth and prosperity throughout the afterlife.
During the T'ang Dynasty, restrictions were placed on the number of objects that could be included in tombs, an amount determined by an individual's social rank. In spite of the limitations, a striking variety of tomb furnishings, known as mingqi, have been excavated. Entire retinues of ceramic figures - animals, entertainers, musicians, guardians, etc. - were buried with the dead in order to provide for the afterlife. Some of the most beautiful works of Chinese art were excavated from tombs, and this sculpture of a camel is a gorgeous example of the refined artistry of works that they were never meant to be seen by the living. Thick tufts of furry hair cover the camel along his head, neck, and front knees. The camel holds his mouth wide open, exposing his teeth. The undulating tail gracefully rises in the rear. A saddle filled with exotic goods to be hauled along the Silk Road rests on the back of this beast. Long tubes sag across his back in between the humps. Could these be rolled carpets from Central Asia that are destined for China? This sculpture reveals the T’ang Dynasty’s respect and admiration for this beast of burden, so essential to the prosperity of Ancient China.