618 AD to 906 AD
17.7″ (45.0cm) high
This outstanding ceramic attendant was made during what many consider to be China’s Golden Age, the T’ang Dynasty. It was at this point 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 T’ang Dynasty took control in 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).
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. Of all the various types of mingqi, however, 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 idealized beauty of T’ang Dynasty China, while also demonstrating sculptural mastery in exaggerating characteristics for effect, and for sheer elegance of execution.
The current sculpture is a perfect example of the genre. She stands, draped from neck to foot in a loose-fitting white dress and jacket (?), leaning her weight back slightly on one foot, while bringing the forefingers on her tiny hands together as if in awkward enquiry. The dress is rendered simply yet effectively, with creases incised around the hem and the waist, and a low-cut sash below the hips, and large, loose sleeves. Her skin tone is pale – a traditional measure of social elites, who did not expose themselves to the sun’s rays – which contrasts strongly with her red lips, dark eyebrows and small, enquiring eyes and retrousse nose. She is undoubtedly well-nourished, another marker of social class, and her rounded jawline and cheeks run smoothly with the loose contours of her body. Her hair is gathered up into an ornate fan- like design with a tie, the bun carefully folded and manoeuvred into four distinct lozenges; this style, which is associated with aristocratic and court circles, is known from written, sculptural and painted sources. This piece offers a narrative of courtly life over a thousand years ago, in superbly delicate and carefully-rendered detail. This is a stunning piece of ancient art and a credit to any collection of Chinese masterpieces.Login to view price