Covered Jar (Hu)

Period: Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9)

Date: 2nd–1st century B.C.

Culture: China

Medium: Earthenware with painted decoration

Dimensions: H. 18 in. (45.7 cm); Diam. 11 in. 27.9 cm); Diam. of rim 6 7/8 in. (17.5 cm); Diam. of foot 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm)

Classification: Tomb Pottery

Credit Line: Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Collection, Gift of Charlotte C. and John C. Weber, 1992

Accession Number: 1992.165.20a, b


This mortuary vessel, known as a hu, is decorated with the animated drama of a blue beast with bared fangs lunging at a mounted archer. Roaming the other side of the hu is a long, striding tiger. Executed with brilliant pigments and confident black brushstrokes, the decoration on this vessel perfectly expresses the boldly assertive character of the Western Han dynasty and is, moreover, one of the finest known examples of Han painting.

The iconography of the decor is celestial: the blue beast represents the star Sirius, known in China as the Heavenly Wolf, and the archer is a personification of the adjoining constellation, Bow, whose arrow always points directly at the Wolf star. Their companion on the other side is the White Tiger, consmological symbol of the West, whose domain in the night sky borders that of the Wolf and Bow.

The Wolf is a baleful star. He governs thievery and looting and represents the "barbarian" Xiongnu tribes that warred with the Han people on the northwestern borders of China. It is said that when the twinklings of the Wolf star change color, banditry will curse the land; when the star shifts from its normal position, the Xiongnu will be on the warpath. Fortunately, there is the vigilant Bow, who "punishes rebels and knows those who are crafty and evil." Forever pointed at the Wolf, across whose body is an array of ill-boding meteors, the Bow was considered the protector of China. Interestingly, the mounted archer, the eternal image of the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes, is shown hunting the symbolic representation of the Xiongnu.