In their striking vitality and decorative brilliance, Chinese tomb sculptures stand unrivaled among the ceramic traditions of the ancient world. The practice of placing ceramic sculptures in tombs arose in response to changes in Chinese beliefs concerning society and the afterlife that occurred between the sixth and third centuries B. C. E. During the Shang dynasty (ca. 16th – 1050 B.C.E.) human and animal sacrificial victims were buried in the tombs of the elite, no doubt intended to serve the tomb occupants in eternity. After the end of the Shang the practice of human declined dramatically, and from around the third century B.C.E. ceramic figures began to be placed in tombs. Possibly, these were considered substitutes for the sacrificial victims; at the very least, they symbolized not merely the continuing existence of the tomb occupant in the afterlife, but also the maintenance of his social status and military power, as well as his protection.
The earliest ceramic tomb sculptures generally represent military figures – the terracotta army of the First Emperor of Qin (r. 221-210 B.C.E.) is the most grandiose example of this theme—but during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. –220 C.E.) the range widened to include many different subjects—court attendants, entertainers, and farmyard animals—that reflect the social, religious, cultural, and economic life of the deceased. The turbulent period of disunion that followed the collapse if the Han dynasty saw the re-emergence of warriors as well as the appearance of subjects such as camels and foreigners that reflect the influence of the Silk Road on Chinese society and culture. The first half of the Tang period (618-907) represents the peak of ceramic tomb sculpture, with huge amounts of resources devoted to its production. Although destined for the grave, tomb sculptures were prestige items, inspected and admired by mourners at funerals of the elite. Indeed, texts bemoan the extravagance of the burials, and the Tang court tried to impose sumptuary regulations on the size and number of tomb figures.
This exhibition presents more than fifty sculptures, ranging in date from Han through Tang, drawn from one of the finest collections in the United States. Unlike many collections that have often focused on Tang period pieces decorated with color glazes, the Soloman Collection highlights the tradition of unglazed pieces decorated with painted and gilded details, and is also unusually strong in the period of disunion between Han and Tang.
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