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HOME : Chinese Art : Ming Dynasty : Pair of Ming Glazed Terracotta Military Figures
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Pair of Ming Glazed Terracotta Military Figures - H.032
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 19.25" (48.9cm) high x 5.5" (14.0cm) wide
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Glazed Terracotta

Location: United States
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Upon leading a victorious rebellion against the foreign Mongul rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang seized control of China and founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. As emperor, he founded his capital at Nanjing and adopted the name Hongwu as his reign title. Hongwu, literally meaning “vast military,” reflects the increased prestige of the army during the Ming Dynasty. Due to the very realistic threat still posed by the Mongols, Hongwu realized that a strong military was essential to Chinese prosperity. Thus, the orthodox Confucian view that the military was an inferior class to be ruled over by an elite class of scholars was reconsidered. During the Ming Dynasty, China proper was reunited after centuries of foreign incursion and occupation. Ming troops controlled Manchuria, and the Korean Joseon Dynasty respected the authority of the Ming rulers, at least nominally.

Like the founders of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.), Hongwu was extremely suspicious of the educated courtiers that advised him and, fearful that they might attempt to overthrow him, he successfully consolidated control of all aspect of government. The strict authoritarian control Hongwu wielded over the affairs of the country was due in part to the centralized system of government he inherited from the Monguls and largely kept intact. However, Hongwu replaced the Mongul bureaucrats who had ruled the country for nearly a century with native Chinese administrators. He also reinstituted the Confucian examination system that tested would-be civic officials on their knowledge of literature and philosophy. Unlike the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), which received most of its taxes from mercantile commerce, the Ming economy was based primarily on agriculture, reflecting both the peasant roots of its founder as well as the Confucian belief that trade was ignoble and parasitic.

Culturally, the greatest innovation of the Ming Dynasty was the introduction of the novel. Developed from the folk tales of traditional storytellers, these works were transcribed in the everyday vernacular language of the people. Advances in printmaking and the increasing population of urban dwellers largely contributed to the success of these books. Architecturally, the most famous monument of the Ming Dynasty is surely the complex of temples and palaces known as the Forbidden City that was constructed in Beijing after the third ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle, moved the capital there. Today, the Forbidded Palace remains one of the hallmarks of traditional Chinese architecture and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the vast nation.

Modelled on a curved surface, a military official decorates the side of these two circular objects. A square-shaped hole cut out between the feet indicates that the objects could have been used as incense burners or lamps. The military official is glazed in sancai colors, yellow ochre, amber and green reminiscent of T'ang style, while the raised base is left unglazed. The features of these stocky figure are delicately molded, depicting the serious expression and bold nature commonly associated with military men. Their tense eyebrows and piercing eyes exhibit a sense of stamina and determination and while sternly clasping hands in the position of attention, their elaborately decorated battle gear hint at their respected ranking in society. Careful attention has been given to the modelling of the headdress which drapes to the shoulders and the outer armor which is incised with horizontal diamond patterns. During the Ming Dynasty, irredentist sentiment spawned a cultural movement that sought to celebrate China's glorious past. Reproductions of cultural artifacts of the Han and T'ang dynasties flooded the art market, increasing patrons appreciation and awareness of their sophisticated past. It is possible that this piece was produced amidst this flurry of enthusiasm and celebration. - (H.032)


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