Tomb Sculptures in China: Seeking Immortality


The Phoenix Museum of Art is currently showing a collection of ancient artefacts and funerary sculptures to explore the understanding of burial practices in Asia – Seeking Immortality

Since 1949 in China, scientifically controlled archaeological investigations have resulted in the discovery of many ancient tombs and tomb sculptures from China, offering a clearer understanding of burial practices and the lives of people throughout history. The vast majority of objects unearthed from such tombs are three-dimensional clay sculptures, which replicate humans, animals, and everyday objects for the use of the deceased in the afterlife. For about 1,000 years, these tomb sculptures from China were made, and they provide a wealth of information about the lives, hopes, dreams, possessions, and pursuits of a civilisation that flourished from the 2nd century BC to the 9th century. Armies of soldiers, sumptuous vehicles, beautifully dressed court ladies, entertainers, foreigners, and super-natural beings are all portrayed in rich detail.

Tomb Sculptures in China

The viewer is reminded that burials for rulers of Chinese society in ancient times originally included the interment of live servants, wives, livestock, and horses. A set of chariot ornaments survived the centuries in a tomb that had included a wooden chariot and horses, as evidenced by the skeletal equine remains found nearby. These beautiful tomb sculptures from China present abstract patterns would have originally added a lavish and shiny embellishment to the wooden chariot that no longer survives. A pair of clay equestrian figures provides evidence of the popularity and prestige of horses during the 1st through 2nd centuries. From the same era were found beautifully decorated vessels, such as a cocoon-shaped jar with swirling patterns that evoke the clouds and energy of heaven, part of the Daoist beliefs regarding the cosmos. Painted but not glazed, these designs have faded but have not disappeared after nearly two millennia underground.

Some ancient clay artefacts interred with the deceased imitated prestigious possessions that were used in everyday life and were made of more precious materials such as bronze. An example of a clay bell imitates actual examples of bronze musical bells found in very lavish tombs from the early centuries BC. Other artefacts made of bronze were round or geometrically shaped disks called mirrors, which usually had one side that was reflective and one side that was decorative, with motifs symbolising the concepts of heaven and earth or that represented the rich luxuries of this world such as grapes and lions, exotica from beyond China’s borders.

Female Terracotta Tomb Figures in the Tang Dynasty

One can understand the changes in fashions for women, for example, by comparing two tomb sculptures from China in the collection of Phoenix Art Museum. A seated figure of a court lady dressed in a floral patterned dress shows the preference for young slender women as the ideal of beauty, dressed in styles that likely came from west of China. In this example, we can see the daring low cut and tightly fitted waist of her gown, enhanced by her creative upswept hairstyle. Created in the 7th century, she exemplified the kind of feminine ideals of beauty that would have been favoured for wives and concubines for the upper-class men of that time. The splashed ‘three-colour’ glaze of her dress includes touches of precious cobalt-blue pigment. In contrast, a pair of figures dating from a century later show voluptuously figured women wearing loosely fitting robes that draped across their curves. The preference for full-figured women in the 8th century in tomb sculptures from China is verified by a legend about the favourite concubine of a Tang-dynasty emperor, who fell in love with such a woman. Eventually, she drove him to distraction, and the empire was beset by rebellion.

Tomb Sculptures from China in the Tang Dynasty

The trade of goods and ideas along the Silk Routes at this time is evidenced by the inclusion of foreign peoples and the animals they brought with them to China’s cosmopolitan capital regions. Camels led by Central Asian grooms were the ideal transport for the arduous journey across thousands of miles of harsh terrain between places such as Persia and China. Figures of men with pointed caps, full beards, and large noses depict the clearly non-Chinese people who brought new forms of music, dance, and religious ideas such as Buddhism to the courts of imperial China in the 8th century all appear in tomb sculpture from China.

Qin Shihuang Di: Tomb Sculptures in China

A spectacular set of six painted clay figures of tomb sculptures from China are large in scale and exhibit the many ways that the world of the living anticipated the needs of the high-ranking aristocrats in the next world. Included in this set are two bureaucratic officials wearing the same attire but different hats, likely indicating their differing status. Closer examination reveals that one of the figures is Chinese, but the other appears to be non-Chinese. In tomb sculptures in China, such men would have been meant to take care of the business needs of the deceased. Security and protection would have been provided by the pair of figures wearing military garb, including armour characteristic of the Tang dynasty (618-907). Much of our understanding of military wear, weapons, and practices of ancient China can be gleaned from tomb figures, the most stunning example of which is the discovery of the ‘terracotta army’ of The First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuang Di, at Lintong, just outside the ancient capital of Changan, today known as Xi’an.

China Guardians and Chinese Terracotta Figures in the Tang Dynasty

The outermost figures in this set of tomb sculptures in China clearly represent supernatural beings, as seen by the imaginative combination of human and animal characteristics accented by prominent horns, multiple wings, bared teeth, and fearsome expressions. The precise meaning of such figures, which go by several names in China, remains open to discussion. They may have served as protectors of the soul of the deceased or to fend off evil spirits from the environs of the tomb and its occupants. These fantastic creatures reflect some of the beliefs in ancient China about the afterlife and the human soul’s journey from this world to the next. Textual evidence is scant, but essentially, the Chinese belief system maintained that upon death, the dual soul of the deceased required appeasement lest they might encounter malevolent spirits while occupying the tomb or travelling to the next world. Chinese religion prior to the arrival of Buddhism, a date which is not clearly fixed, was based on the Confucian concepts of filial piety and reverence for one’s ancestors, as well as the Daoist beliefs in a cosmic world of unseen forces that enervated this world and the heavens beyond.

Ancient Korean Tomb Artefacts

Korean artefacts in this exhibition provide evidence for early and strong influences from China in burial practices and goods. Tombs of similar or slightly later dates correlate with those in China that included vessels for containing food or wine and bronze mirrors. The influence of Chinese Confucian social and ancestral beliefs and practices were a cornerstone of Korean social structure for at least two millennia. However, early pottery and tomb artefacts from Japan indicate that burial practices there likely differed, as evidenced in both design and content of tomb sites.

Jomon Pottery

The long tradition of Jomon pottery vessels and figures seem to indicate that interment of tomb goods was not widely practised. Jomon, or ‘rope-impressed’ pottery, dates back to the Neolithic era in Japan and was originally made as utilitarian cooking vessels for the living. Jomon figures of humans and horses were sometimes placed on the outside perimeter of a tumulus mound in Japan. Thus, the role of geography in ancient times was significant, as Korea’s and China’s shared-continent proximity led to shared burial customs, while Japan’s island location led to more distinctive practices outside of China’s cultural sphere.

Janet Baker, PhD, is Curator of Asian Art at the Phoenix Art Museum

Until 4 April, 2021, Seeking Immortality, at the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona,