Eastern Han Terracotta Sculpture of a Chicken

SKU H.636

23 AD to 220 AD


8.5″ (21.6cm) high





Gallery Location



The Han Dynasty, like the Zhou before it, is divided into two distinct periods, the Western Han (206 B.C.-9 A.D.) and the Eastern Han (23-220 A.D.) with a brief interlude. Towards the end of the Western period, a series of weak emperors ruled the throne, controlled from behind the scenes by Wang Mang and Huo Guang, both relatives of empresses. They both exerted enormous influence over the government and when the last emperor suddenly passed away, Mang became ruling advisor, seizing this opportunity to declare his own Dynasty, the Xin, or “New.” However, another popular uprising began joined by the members of the Liu clan, the family that ruled the Han Dynasty, the Xin came to a quick end and the Eastern Han was established in its place with its capital at Loyang (Chang’an, the capital of the Western Han, was completely destroyed).

However, even as Chinese influence spread across Southeastern Asia into new lands, the Eastern Han Dynasty was unable to recreate the glories of the Western Period. In fact, this period can be characterized by a bitter power struggle amongst a group of five consortial clans. These families sought to control the young, weak emperors with their court influence. Yet, as the emperors became distrustful of the rising power of the clans, they relied upon their eunuchs to defend them, often eliminating entire families at a time. During the Western Han, the Emperor was viewed as the center of the universe. However, this philosophy slowly disintegrated under the weak, vulnerable rulers of the Eastern Han, leading many scholars and officials to abandon the court. Eventually, the power of the Han would completely erode, ending with its dissolution and the beginning of the period known as the “Three Kingdoms.”

Sculptures of animals are frequently buried alongside noble members of society during the Han Dynasty. Sculpted in all media, these animal effigies were both a symbol of wealth and a source of food for the afterlife. While some creatures were meant to labor in the next world, others, such as this chicken, were clearly meant to be eaten. The Han culture viewed the afterlife as an extension of our earthly lives. Thus, the things that we enjoyed in this world continued to be enjoyed in the next. Likewise, as humans require food to nourish and sustain our bodies on earth, sculpted animals were buried to provide energy for the soul in the afterlife. This sculpted chicken would have been a tasty treat in the next world. Standing on thick, massive feet, we can almost picture this bird waddling along, pecking at a few grains scattered along the ground. While the attention to naturalistic details is impressive, especially along the face and beak, this sculpture was not meant to depict and earthly chicken, but an eternal chicken. The energy and power provided by this bird shall last throughout all time, nourishing the spirit of the deceased on into the next world and beyond. While time ravishes our physical manifestations, this terracotta bird can (and has) triumph over death. Today, this chicken is more than food for the afterlife; it is a relic of a lost culture. As the bird nourished the soul of the deceased in the next world, so the chicken nourishes our souls with its historical significance and aesthetic beauty.

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