Tang Sculpture of a Foreign Groom

SKU DK.115


This charismatic ceramic figure of a groom was made during what many consider to be China’s Golden Age, the Tang Dynasty. It was designed to be interred with a deceased member of the aristocracy or burgeoning Middle Classes, to attend to his/her needs in the afterlife. Grave furnishings (mingqi) came in many different forms; well-known variants include “fat ladies”, demons, administrators and animals (especially camels and horses). Grooms are rather less common; the high status of horse owners in China (even owning a horse was, to an extent, an indicator of one’s social position) might seem to suggest that this piece was interred with someone of considerably exalted rank.

This particular piece is remarkable for its facial morphology, which may be designed to imply that he is not Chinese, and is instead a native of Central Asia towards the fringes of the Tang imperial territories. It must be remembered that Chinese physiognomy – rather high cheekbones, narrow eyes with epicanthic folds, dark hair and delicate features – is usually exaggerated in their funerary arts. There is no possibility that this figure depicts someone of Chinese origin. The face is very pale, with an extremely broad chin, a broad nose with widely-spaced nostrils. The eyes are very large and round, with pale irises, and a similarly broad and down-turned mouth. The brows are marked, the ears protuberant and the cheekbones lower than might be expected for the depiction of a Chinese character. The hair is gathered up into an ornate coiffure pointing forward and upward (or is perhaps intended to be a fur hat); the figure is dressed in a simple shift-like tunic that reaches to the knee, with a slash up to the mid-thigh, with a tie around the waist and hems on the leading edges that cross on the chest. Incised lines have been used to denote minor creasing and folds in the cloth. The figure also wears matching leggings and plain leather shoes with pointed toes. The pose is puzzling until the role of the groom in life is considered; both hands, which are poised in readiness, were designed to hold something. It is probable that the higher left hand was designed to hold the reins of a recalcitrant horse or camel, while the other held either the other hand of the reins, or perhaps a riding crop or whip.

It was during the Tang 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 Tang 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 Tang 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 Tang 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 piece belongs.

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

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