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Ancient Chinese Figurines, Objects of Beauty

Updated on March 6, 2011

Funerary Objects of Beauty

Funerary objects provide the best source of ancient Chinese figurines, the most well known of these are the Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang (the First Emperor of the Qin). However beautiful these masterfully crafted relics are, they have their origins in the practice of immolation and the ritual burial of the living.

Though this custom was replaced with the burying of figurines it can still be seen practised in isolated cases in nearly every dynasty. In Anyang, Henan province an aristocrat’s tomb belonging to the Shang Dynasty was unearthed along with 79 slaves who had been buried alive with their master and 207 other slaves who were beheaded prior to entombment.

After the Qin and Han dynasties, figurines slowly replaced human beings in burials. This replacement for figurines saw an explosion in the numbers of objects being buried in tombs. From the Warring States period (475-221 BC) to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) huge numbers of ancient Chinese figurines have been uncovered.

No longer being limited to burying slaves, wives and concubines with the dead a wider variety of social strata and occupations began to be represented in beautifully crafted funerary figurines. Court officials, musicians, dancers, generals, cavaliers and others could now be represented without the necessity of death. As such a much boarder understanding of historical Chinese culture, customs and daily life has been passed on through these objects.

The vast majority of Chinese funerary figurines are made of pottery or porcelain from life size to miniatures. However there are increasing numbers of examples being found made of wood, lacquer and occasionally in jade. Jade figurines first appear in tombs dating to the 8th to 3rd century BC. In 1974 a number of small jade figurines were fond in a mausoleum from the ancient state of Zhongshan. Most of the figurines discovered were of women, though a few were of boys. The women have their hair done up in a double bun and the boys a single bun. Even this subtle detail can help illustrate the appearance and customs of people during this period.

The most well known ancient Chinese figurines in the West are another group also found in 1974 belonging to the First Emperor of the Qin, Qin Shi Huang. These life size pottery figurines display the amazing technical skill and artistic flare, of the Qin dynasty. Among the finds in the tombs of the terracotta warriors were two half size bronze carriages. Each pulled by four bronze horses and driven by a driver made of bronze. These figures are the best preserved and earliest dating artifacts of their kind found in China. With only an estimated 8% of the whole Qin mausoleum complex excavated to date, one can only imaging the wonderful ancient Chinese figurines that will be discovered in the future.

With the Qing Dynasty (1616 -1911) paper figurines appeared, but instead of being buried with the dead they were instead burnt. It was hoped that this offering would follow the dead to the nether world. By the end of the period the use of tomb figures has largely ceased altogether.

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