A Pair of Tang Fat Ladies

SKU DK.114

618 AD to 906 AD


13″ (33.0cm) high




Shaanxi Province – ‘Xi’an’

Gallery Location



This imposing pair of austere ceramic attendants was made during what many consider to be China’s Golden Age, the T’ang Dynasty. They were designed as grave furnishings (mingqi), and while there were many different forms, there are none more elegant or charming than the sculptures of sophisticated female courtiers, known – rather unfairly – as “fat ladies”. These wonderfully expressionistic sculptures represent the idealised beauty of T’ang Dynasty China, while also demonstrating sculptural mastery in exaggerating characteristics for effect, and for sheer elegance of execution. These are made in a relatively unusual manner, which has notable geographical specificity within the Shaanxi province. They are notably less rotund than the majority of these figurees, with more detailed modelling and a more conservative appearance than the “classical” fat ladies. They have the same rounded cheeks and jawlines, but they have a far more dignified and reserved pose than is usual for the genre. Their faces are detailed, with a small, rounded nose and pursed lips, but their expressions are less coquettish than is standard. Their austerity is heightened by the rather powerful geometric hairstyles; one rises fan-like on a raised column from the back of the head, while the other is more bouffant, with a secondary bun towards her left. The effect is more courtly and formal than the rather flippant look of standard fat ladies. Rather than the usual, rather ambiguous “come hither” hand gestures, their hands are folded primly inside their sleeves. Their dress is modelled as full- length dresses, with folds picked out using indentations. The ground colour is pale, with reddish pigment on the upper halves of their bodies. The figure with the bouffant hair also some green pigment below the hands; her colouring is much more defined, presumably an artefact of preservation. Both figures – but especially the one with the bouffant hair – have further detailing in the form of floral patterns picked out in dark pigment across much of their dresses. Their pointed toes protrude from under their dresses; their feet do not seem to have been deformed through foot binding. It is possible that these predate the development of the system, which was a late T’ang innovation.

It was during the T’ang Dynasty that China’s outstanding technological and aesthetic achievements opened to external influences, resulting in the introduction of numerous new forms of self-expression, coupled with internal innovation and considerable social freedom. The T’ang dynasty also saw the birth of the printed novel, significant musical and theatrical heritage and many of China’s best-known painters and artists. The Dynasty was created on the 18th of June, 618 AD, when the Li family seized power from the last crumbling remnants of the preceding Sui Dynasty. This political and regal regime was long-lived, and lasted for almost 300 years. The imperial aspirations of the preceding periods and early T’ang leaders led to unprecedented wealth, resulting in considerable socioeconomic stability, the development of trade networks and vast urbanisation for China’s exploding population (estimated at around 50 million people in the 8th century AD). The T’ang rulers took cues from earlier periods, maintaining many of their administrative structures and systems intact. Even when dynastic and governmental institutions withdrew from management of the empire towards the end of the period – their authority undermined by localised rebellions and regional governors known as jiedushi –the systems were so well-established that they continued to operate regardless.

The artworks created during this era are among China’s greatest cultural achievements. It was the greatest age for Chinese poetry and painting, and sculpture also developed (although there was a notable decline in Buddhist sculptures following repression of the faith by pro-Taoism administrations later in the regime). It is disarming to note that the eventual decline of imperial power, followed by the official end of the dynasty on the 4th of June 907, hardly affected the great artistic turnover.

During the Tang Dynasty, restrictions were placed on the number of objects that could be included in tombs, an amount determined by an individual's social rank. In spite of the limitations, a striking variety of tomb furnishings – known as mingqi – have been excavated. Entire retinues of ceramic figures – representing warriors, animals, entertainers, musicians, guardians and every other necessary category of assistant – were buried with the dead in order to provide for the afterlife. Warriors (lokapala) were put in place to defend the dead, while horses/camels were provided for transport, and officials to run his estate in the hereafter. Domestic servants and attendants were also included, however, and it is to this category that the current pieces belong.

This pair of sculptures is a remarkable reminder of China’s outstanding heritage, and a beautiful addition to any serious collection of the genre.

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