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HOME : Chinese Art : Han Dynasty : Western Han Painted Terracotta Sculpture of a Bird
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Western Han Painted Terracotta Sculpture of a Bird - H.634
Origin: China
Circa: 206 BC to 9 AD
Dimensions: 3.5" (8.9cm) high
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Painted Terracotta

Location: United States
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The overextension of the labor force during the Qin Dynasty would result in a popular uprising against the empire. In 206 B.C., Liu Bang, a Qin official, led an army composed of peasants and some lower nobility to victory and established his own Dynasty in place, the Han. However, unlike the Qin, the Han would unify China and rule virtually uncontested for over four hundred years. It is during this time that much of what is now considered to be Chinese culture was first actualized. The bureaucracy started under the Qin was now firmly established. The vast lands of China were now under the firm grip of a central authority. Confucianism became the state ideology although the worship of Taoist deity remained widespread, both among the peasants and the aristocracy. Ancient histories and texts were analyzed and rewritten to be more objective while new legendary myths and cultural epics were transcribed.

The Han era can also be characterized as one of the greatest artistic outpourings in Chinese history, easily on par with the glories of their Western contemporaries, Greece and Rome. Wealth pouring into China from trade along the Silk Road initiated a period of unprecedented luxury. Stunning bronze vessels were created, decorated with elegant inlaid gold and silver motifs. Jade carvings reached a new level of technical brilliance. But perhaps the artistic revival of the Han Dynasty is nowhere better represented than in their sculptures and vessels that were interred with deceased nobles. Called mingqi, literally meaning “spirit articles,” these works depicted a vast array of subject, from warriors and horses to ovens and livestock, which were buried alongside the dead for use in the next world, reflecting the Chinese belief that the afterlife was an extension of our earthy existence. Thus, quite logically, the things we require to sustain and nurture our bodies in this life would be just as necessary in our next life.

During the Han Dynasty, animal effigies were often interred inside the tombs of nobility and elite members of the social hierarchy. Rendered in all media, these sculptures were either meant to function as beasts of burden or, as in the case of this spectacular bird, as sources of nourishment in the afterlife. The Han culture viewed the next world as a continuation of our earthly existence. Thus, logically, as humans require food to survive on earth, so our spirits must find sustenance in the afterlife. However, for the wealthy elite, fully catered feasts were provided. Wine vessels, food storage containers, cooking utensils, and sculpted animal food sources can all be found buried alongside the deceased. Yet these supplies were not earthly treasure interred as symbols of wealth; they were manufactured specifically for use in the afterlife. Alas, the beauty of this polychrome bird would not have been appreciated at the time it was fired and painted; instead, the spirit of the deceased would have cherished this work for its life-giving qualities, for the energy its “meat” provides. Today, we marvel at the aesthetic beauty of the bird and its historical and cultural significance. We treasure this bird as a stunning work of art (remarkably preserved) and value the insight it provides into the religious and philosophical beliefs of the Han Dynasty. This piece was not created to provide temporary pleasure, but to eternally nourish our souls. Much more than food for the afterlife, the glory of this bird continues to shine, filling our minds with questions and nourishing our eyes with beauty. - (H.634)


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