Tomb Guardian (Zhenmushou)

Period: Northern Wei (386–534)–Northern Qi (550–577) dynasty

Date: mid-to-late 6th century

Culture: China

Medium: Earthenware with pigment

Dimensions: H. 12 1/4 in. (31.1 cm)

Classification: Tomb Pottery

Credit Line: Purchase, Ann Eden Woodward Foundation Gift, 1979

Accession Number: 1979.438


This brilliantly modeled gray earthenware figure of a crouching guardian belongs to a class of objects called mingqi (spirit goods), made specifically for burial with the dead. In Chinese archaeological writings, this type of figure is called a zhenmushou and at times identified as a spirit that has the power to keep the spirit of the dead from roaming. Popular from the sixth through the eight century, zhenmushou figures are often found in pairs at the entrance to a tomb. The origin of these figures is unclear. Some scholars speculate that they evolved from dog or doglike figures found in some later Han-dynasty tombs. Others trace their roots to three-horned, four-legged creatures produced during the Western Jin dynasty (265–317 A.D.).

This animated figure is typical of the stylistic innovation that made its debut in Northern Wei–dynasty tomb sculpture. The lines are elegant, its modeling well articulated and powerful. Each of its parts is sharply defined, yet one is aware of the entire figure and its innate sense of pent-up energy. The exceptionally expressive modeling of the face is virtually a hallmark of the best Northern Wei tomb figures. The use of a rectangular base was also introduced during this period.