Terracotta Sculpture of a Mythological Beast

SKU H.918
Circa

206 BC to 220 AD

Dimensions

8.5″ (21.6cm) high

Medium

Terracotta

Origin

China

Gallery Location

S Korea


 

Striding forward on powerful haunches, this mythological beast is a composite of several different animals. He bears the hoofed legs and muscular body of a bull with a distinctively equestrian head. Bosses rise from his body, following his spinal chord, and culminate in two pointed horns that protrude from the top of his neck. His arched tail, held up over his back, appears to be more canine that bovine or equestrian.

The menacing expressions are obviously meant to serve an apotropaic purpose, perhaps reflecting the northerners's greater awareness of the dark world of spirits.

Such a composite animal first emerged during the Western Jin period (265-316) and later evolved in the phantasmagorical human headed tomb guardians known as earth-spirits (Chin: du sheng), so popular during the Tang dynasty in northern and central China. Instead, in the south tomb guardians quickly disappeared after the Eastern Jin period (317- 420). An abrupt change of practice that probably reflected different cultural approaches. In fact, northern people -being more mindful of spirits and demons- were always more inclined to protect the dead from undesirable encounters and went into a lot of effort in creating wonderful sculptures of tomb guardians; southerners instead simply chose to continue to transmit the age-old practice of providing for the daily life of the deceased in the afterlife.

Clearly, this is a fierce, untamed beast. With its head lowered, he appears to charge forward like a pull, thrusting his horns forward into whatever obstacle might block his path. Remnants of the original polychrome pigment are visible in his red ear, although most of the work is covered in a layer of encrusted dirt. Rarely do such delicate details survive the ravages of time and the stresses of excavation. A similar example was unearthed from a Western Jin tomb in Henan province at Yanshi.

This magnificent sculpture is an insightful glimpse into the fantastic mythology of ancient China.

For a in-depth description of horned tomb guardians see: Fong Mary H., “Tomb Guardians Figurines: Their Evolution and Iconography” in Kuwayama ed, Ancient Mortuary Traditions of China: Papers on Chinese Ceramic Funerary Sculptures, Los angeles, 1991: 84-115.

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