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HOME : Chinese Art : Masterpieces of Chinese Art : Tang Painted Terracotta Sculpture of a Camel with Removable Foreign Rider
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Tang Painted Terracotta Sculpture of a Camel with Removable Foreign Rider - H.740
Origin: China
Circa: 618 AD to 906 AD
Dimensions: 19.5" (49.5cm) high
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Painted Terracotta

Additional Information: k/price was reduced because loss of rider in shipping

Location: Great Britain
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The Tang Dynasty was an era of unrivalled wealth and luxury. The country was successfully reunified and the borders were expanded, pushing Chinese influence into new lands. Confucianism became a semi-religious instrument of the state; yet Buddhism continued to flourish, spreading into Korea and Japan. The arts reached new levels of sophistication. Poetry and literature flourished under the enlightened rulers. The Silk Road brought fortunes into China. Precious treasures were imported on the backs of camels from far away lands and bartered for Chinese silk, medicinal herbs, and pungent spices. Tang China was a multicultural empire where foreign merchants from across Central Asia and the Middle East settled in the urban centers, foremost among them the thriving capital of Chang’an (modern X’ian), a bustling cosmopolitan center of over two million inhabitants. Foreign traders lived next to native artisans and both thrived. New ideas and exotic artistic forms followed alongside. The Tang Dynasty was a cultural renaissance where many of the forms and objects we now associate with China were first created. Moreover, this period represents one of the greatest cultural outpourings in human history.

The camel is an unusual domestic animal; it carries a saddle of flesh on its back; swiftly it dashes over the shifting sands; it manifests its merit in dangerous places; it has a secret understanding of springs and sources, subtle indeed is its knowledge.

--Guo Pu, 3rd Century AD

For the Chinese, camels symbolized commerce and its associated wealth, largely concentrated on profits though trading on the Silk Road.  Trade across this extensive network of paths and trails brought prosperity, foreign merchants, and exotic merchandize into China.  However, the dusty trails of the Silk Road were an arduous journey through the rugged mountains and harsh desert of Central Asia that could only be traversed by the two humped Bactrian camel.  This remarkable beast was able to withstand the scorching heat of the desert and maintain its own nutrients, surviving for months without fresh supplies of water.  The government kept vast herds of these invaluable creatures, presided over by civil officials, for hauling their precious commodities across the Silk Road.  These exotic creatures were a common sight in the cosmopolitan cities of Tang China, carrying both traders and their goods directly into the markets.  Likewise, Tang artist began to create charming representations of these prized creatures as mingqi in order to symbolize wealth and prosperity in the afterlife. 

Mingqi were works of art specifically created in an ancient Chinese custom for interment in the tombs of elite individuals in order to provide for their afterlife.  Some of the most beautiful works of Chinese art were excavated from such tombs, and this sculpture of a camel and detachable rider is a perfect example of the refined artistry dedicated to such works despite the fact that they were never meant to be seen by the living.  The distinct physiognomy of the rider reveals that he is of foreign descent, most likely a Turkic merchant from Central Asia.  We can imagine him guiding a caravan of camel into the cities of T’ang China, carrying his precious goods directly into the market.  Both the camel and rider are elegantly painted in polychrome hues.  Most charming are the individual hairs along the camel’s neck and detailed eyes.  The rider also wears red boots and sports a full beard.  This sculpture reveals the T’ang Dynasty’s respect and admiration for this beast of burden, so essential to the prosperity of ancient China. - (H.740)


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