Chinese painted pottery model of a Bactrian camel with Sogdian rider

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Tang dynasty (618-907)

A Belgian private collection

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The large camel is modelled with its head slightly turned the left with protruding eyes, flaring nostrils and ears lying against his neck. A moulded saddle bag hangs between its humps and is surmounted by a bearded Sogdian rider, who is seated in a relaxed posture with his right hand raised to goad the camel and the other hand originally holding the reins. 

The rulers of the Tang dynasty idealized the glory days of the Han empire. Once again, they based themselves on the confucian 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 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. Before, 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 aristocrat, surrounding the coffin, a set of ten figures was placed: a pair of lokapala's, a pair of civil servants, a pair of military servants, a pair of camels and a pair of horses. 

This camel demonstrates the high quality and technical skill of the pottery makes in the early Tang dynasty. In the first half of the dynasty, up to the An Lushan rebellion of 756, the level of luxury enjoyed at court and Tang elite ensured the production of a wide range of goods of the highest quality. The prosperity of China was largely based on the trade over land with the West along the famous Silk Road. The Bactrian camel with two humps, although not indigenous to China, is known as 'the ship of desert'  because of  its ability to withstand hunger, drought and sandstorms. These animals were an indispensable means of transport for merchants along the Silk Road and were imported from the states of the Turim basin, Eastern Turkmenistan and Mongolia. They were of such importance that Tang civil servants created a special office to supervise their breeding and service. Apparently, they were exceptionally hard to handle, and as it seems, no camels accompanied by Han riders have been excavated. Only foreigners were able to tame and guide these beasts, as is shown in this example with a foreign rider, whose features suggest he could be of East Asian origin, possibly a Sogdian merchant. 

These elegant camels were placed in the tombs of the members of court and rich merchants.  The Tang elite rivaled with each other in size, elegance and number of pieces on display at funerals to the extent that sumptuary laws had to be implanted. This way of life of the elite exhausted the country in due course and facilitated the rebellion of 756. However, this enables us today to enjoy the beauty of this superb Tang camel. 

Comparative literature
For a similar, yet larger example please refer to Robert D. Jacobsen, ' Celestial Horses & Long Sleeve Dancers: The David W. Dewey Collection of Ancient Chinese Tomb Sculpture', USA 2013, p.239.
TL test
The dating of this object is consistent with the results found in the Oxford Authentication Sample No. C100b25, 14 January 2000.

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