Chinese painted pottery figure of a court lady

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Tang dynasty (618-907)
40.5 cm

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The lady is modelled standing gracefully with one hip slightly thrust outwards, with both hands held in front of her body and her full face with delicate features and a high topknot. There are traces of pigments on the cheeks and hair and the dress is covered with a rusty red colour.

Figures of court ladies, as well as figurines of animals such as camels and horses, as well as ritual objects, accompanied the death in their burial chambers in ancient China. The earlier Han dynasty shows more slender figures, often engaged in musical activities or dance, where in the early Tang dynasty ladies are sometimes depicted riding horses. Later on, however, reflecting perhaps the leisurely life at court, the ladies became plumper but also more elegant. The rulers of the Tang dynasty idealized the glory days of the Han empire. Once again, they based themselves on the confusion values, the dynasty knew many enlightened rulers and cultured scholars worked for the government. The Tang Dynasty is still considered as the Golden Age of Chinese classical culture: an era of elegance and of beautiful art and literature. This is partly the effect of the foreign influences in the 7th and 8th centuries. The capital Chang’an was one of the largest junctions on the most important trading route, the Silk Road- a source of wealth, new ideas and exotic luxuries.

The Tang Dynasty stood for artistic innovation and refinement, which is clearly expressed in the burial figurines. Large pack animals and guardian figures were now made, and just as in the Han dynasty, dancers, musicians and servants. Previously earthenware figures had been covered with a white slib on which pigments were drawn, now sculptures of white clay are also made that are covered with a tri-coloured, sancai, glaze- an artistic influence from Central Asia. Sancai-glazed objects were exclusively produced for tombs. Furthermore, foreigners were depicted, a sign that China was a cosmopolitan society that exchanged influences with foreign cultures. Again, the mingqi were part of a complex decoration scheme, often with stone sculptures marking the way to the tomb. The monumental graves were used to display wealth and power. Important funerals were sponsored by the state and were used to strengthen the ties with the elite. The tombs and burial gifts were regulated according to an official hierarchy related to rank and status. There were rules for the number, size and types of burial gifts for the aristocracy as well as for the middle classes. It is however uncertain whether these regulations were followed strictly. It is certain that in the most important tomb of an aristocrate, surrounding the coffin, a set of ten figures was placed: a pair of lokaalt’s, a pair of civil servants, a pair of military servants, a pair of camels and a pair of horses. This became a standardized set of burial gifts.  Another development was that of the idea of feminine beauty. In the early days of the dynasty the women had athletic figures and were depicting playing polo or hunting, later they became voluptuous wearing long robes with intricate hair dresses, round faces and blushing cheeks, as seen in the current example. These charming ladies show that the life at Chinese court had changed from an active lifestyle to a more sedentary life.

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