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HOME : Chinese Art : Han Dynasty : Set of Painted Pottery Soldiers
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Set of Painted Pottery Soldiers - LA.531
Origin: China
Circa: 220 BC to 206 AD
Dimensions: 18.5" (47.0cm) high
Collection: Chinese Art

Location: Great Britain
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Individual figurines representing infantrymen in charging position, both hands clasped as to hold a weapon, with their right arms lifted as to carry a spear no longer there, and their left hands along the side; the long tunics pigmented in different colours, the upper torsos with a short red apron, a concised armoured vest and a white v-shaped collar. The angular faces with individual traits briefly drawn.

No need was felt to replicate the specific individuals who composed the original army (if available) -only their functions, since their personalities were fully subsumed by their roles within the military group. Nonetheless, particularising the individual soldiers enabled the artisans to differentiate within groups, and indicate that our set is indeed composed by infantrymen. The group would have belonged to a larger terracotta army meant for interment and by stylistic comparison can be safely attributed to the late Western Han period. They would have all been created in moulds and individually painted, while their weapons would have been carved out of perishable wood.

The first instance of massive deployment of tomb figures in early China, is represented by Qin Shihuangdi's terracotta army (c. 210 BC). Yet the use of figurines and models in the mortuary context developed during the middle and late Eastern Zhou periods, particularly in the state of Qin. Small anthropomorphic clay figurines have been unearthed from several pre-dynastic Qin tombs; pottery models of granaries have also been found in 6th century BC Qin graves. A separate tradition of wooden tomb figures developed during the end of the Eastern Zhou period (5th-4th c. BC) in another area with distinct cultural traits – the state of Chu.

Such figures and models and other miniature or non-functional objects are collectively known as mingqi ('spirit articles') and have been traditionally interpreted as substitutes for the animal and human victims sacrificed during the funeral, as well as surrogates for objects of value placed in the tomb. Yet recent archaeological evidence have highlighted that these objects might have instead constituted an integral part of the strategy to recreate the earthly dwelling of the deceased.

The replication of the living world and its constituents within the tomb might have been induced by various ideological factors, including a new religious trend emphasising the separation of the dead from the living and other material manifestations of different philosophical ideas, but also possibly by the effort to reproduce a self-sustaining version of the world- a fictive and efficacious comprehensive replica, made up of both real sacrificed humans and animals (the 'presented') and elements such as the terracotta army (the 're-presented'). Chinese tombs and burials signified the power and status of their builders and occupants; soldiers, concubines or animals, or to put precious articles in the tomb constituted a sign of power.

As clearly reflected by our powerful soldiers, by the Qin period and throughout the Han period, the ability to have them depicted -possessing the aesthetics, cognitive, technological and economic resources to reproduce the world- became a more efficient way of asserting power and status.

References: Yang Shaoneng ed. The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology, 1999, and Kesner, L.”Real and Substitute in the Early Chinese Mortuary Context, Mysteries of Ancient China, 1996. - (LA.531)


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