Companionship and Service
Grave goods in the shape of human figures, made from materials such as wood and terracotta, have a long history in Chinese culture. By the time of the so-called First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, whose terracotta army is widely known as the most impressive example of terracotta grave goods, it would seem that the inclusion of imitation human figures in burials was considered essential to ensure companionship and service in the afterlife.
Known in Chinese as mingqi, these terracotta painted figures of servants, concubines and entertainers have been found from across numerous dynasties, distinguishable by their style of dress and hair. As implied above, traditional Chinese understandings of the afterlife led to the belief that mingqi would provide a contingent of companions for the deceased who would still require their services.
Mingqi during the Tang Dynasty
Though examples have been found from the Han through to the Ming Dynasty, it is the Tang Dynasty that presents the largest volume and variation of figures. The advent of new production techniques in this period, using moulds, allowed for production on an unprecedented scale. This, in turn, made mingqi accessible to those outside the highest social ranks for the very first time. Consequently, we see a greater range of quality in mingqi from this period.
A New Ideal of Beauty
One of the most recognisable types from the Tang Dynasty is the ‘fat lady’ type – figures of concubines and entertainers depicted with round faces and rosy cheeks and a more plump figure. This way of representing courtiers and dancers appears in 730 AD. Emperor Zuanzong’s love for the concubine Yang Guifei seems to have been at the origin of this change in representations of dancers and courtiers in Tang Dynasty art.
Aside from human figures, the terracotta statuettes found in burials could also take the form of animals considered to be essential even in the afterlife, such as horses. Horses were considered to be of vital importance in Ancient Chinese culture for their uses in both warfare and daily life; thus, they appear frequently in terracotta form, in Chinese burials from across the centuries, in the hope that they too could be brought through to the afterlife.