Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Vibrant Role of Mingqi in Early Chinese Burials

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Burial figurines of graceful dancers, mystical beasts, and everyday objects reveal both how people in early China approached death and how they lived. Since people viewed the afterlife as an extension of worldly life, these figurines, called mingqi or "spirit utensils," disclose details of routine existence and provide insights into belief systems over a thousand-year period. Mingqi were popularized during the formative Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) and endured through the turbulent Six Dynasties period (221–589) and the later reunification of China in the Sui (589–618) and Tang (618–906) dynasties.


Mingqi worked in concert with other tomb objects and architecture to support a larger funerary agenda, the goal of which was to comfort and satisfy the deceased.

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Mingqi in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.)

Earthenware mingqi are today the most visible legacy from the Han dynasty due to their durability and number. Although most mingqi were mass produced using molds, they are remarkably animated. Dogs, their ears perked and noses all but twitching, stand alert. Dancers are frozen in mid-step, the alignment of bodies and sweep of sleeves transcending their suspended state to imply the flow of choreography. Drummers succumb to the rhythm of their instruments, kicking up their toes and laughing with joy. This delightful naturalism was central to the figures' purpose of providing the deceased with entertainment, service, and guardianship.


Meanwhile, mingqi in the form of buildings and tools provided staples and comforts for the deceased in the tomb. Entire farms complete with granaries, wells, and watchtowers were recreated in miniature. Details like wooden brackets and tile roofs were loyally reproduced, as were regional differences in building styles, ranging from tall towers in the north, courtyard structures in the south, and houses perched on stilts in marshy areas. Since most of their above-ground counterparts were made of wood and have long since disintegrated, mingqi preserve information about architecture in Han China.


Mingqi worked in concert with other tomb objects and architecture to support a larger funerary agenda, the goal of which was to comfort and satisfy the deceased, who was believed to have two souls: the po, which resided underground with the body, and the hun. While the hun could ascend to the skies, funerary rituals sometimes sought to reunite it with the po in the safer realm of the tomb. Here, valuables such as bronzes, lacquers, and silks, frequently decorated with Daoist imagery, surrounded the coffin. Around the turn of the millennium, Han tomb architectural styles morphed from pits into multichambered underground dwellings, often with elaborate carvings and wall paintings. Constructed of brick and featuring vaulted ceilings, these tombs were aligned along north-south axes and tied to above-ground stone shrines. Many shrines in turn were covered with low-relief carvings depicting paradises and stories underscoring Confucian virtues like filial piety and loyalty.


In the first century A.D., the site of ritual offerings for the deceased transferred from the shrine to the tomb itself, and people erected large stone statuary of officials and animals along a "spirit path" leading up to the tomb mound. The shrines and spirit paths became an important way for the living to proclaim the deceased family member's and their own commitment to Confucian values.


Ultimately, funerary objects such as mingqi worked in concert with other funerary objects, tomb architecture, shrines, and spirit-road sculptures to achieve a goal that exceeded the well-being of the family. According to Confucian doctrine, when every person performed their prescribed social role to perfection, the cosmos would achieve harmony. By ensuring the well-being of the dead, the living promoted accord in the celestial realm and in their own terrestrial existence.


Mingqi in the Six Dynasties (221–589)

The symbiotic relationship between individual and state, as well as between life and afterlife, meant that tombs underwent dramatic changes after the Han's central authority weakened and ultimately collapsed in 220 A.D. The period of disunion that followed, known as the Six Dynasties (220–589), saw an immediate reaction against ornate tombs, which were considered emblematic of excesses responsible for the downfall of the Han. Even imperial tombs were spare, reflecting ideology as well as economic realities in unstable times. The overall number of mingqi, as well as their quality, declined in the early Six Dynasties.


In southern China, people turned to Daoism, and mingqi, as well as above-ground sculptures, became ever more infused with animal iconography and energized with dynamic lines. The north of China was eventually united by nomadic Tuoba invaders who founded the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534) and established a measure of stability. Their rule fostered both preservation, seen in Han tomb styles and funerary practices, as well as innovation, seen in new types of mingqi such as human-faced guardian animals called zhenmushou, human guardians, and increasing numbers of pack animals and military figures.


Mingqi in the Sui (589–618) and Tang (618–906) Dynasties

When China was unified again, first briefly under the Sui and then under the long and prosperous Tang, mingqi truly resurged as a part of elaborate tombs. Tang mingqi integrated the guardian figures and pack animals of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, but also incorporated the many international influences that were popular during this time of stability and expansion. As in the Han dynasty, Tang mingqi frequently take the form of musicians, dancers, and servants in clay, but are ornamented with sancai (three-color) glaze, an artistic influence that was transmitted from Central Asia along the Silk Road. Foreigners were also frequently depicted, reflecting a cosmopolitan society that embraced exchanges with other groups and cultures.


As in the Han dynasty, Tang mingqi were part of a complex tomb program, often with stone statuary lining a spirit road. However, their function was firmly rooted in consolidating power in the earthly world. Important funerals were sponsored by the state and were a way for the imperial government to strengthen ties with influential Chinese families and even solidify loyalty with foreign emissaries and the governments they represented. As in the Han dynasty, Tang mingqi and the larger program of funerary practices reflected ties among the living.

Heather Colburn Clydesdale
Independent Scholar

Cutaway view showing a tentative reconstruction of Liu Sheng's tomb at the time of burial. Drawing by Phyllis Ward after Beijing, 1978b, p. 15, fig. 6. Excerpted from Wen Fong, ed. The Great Bronze Age of Chin: An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980, p. 326.