Seated Female Musicians

Period: Tang dynasty (618–906)

Date: late 7th century

Culture: China

Medium: Earthenware with pigment

Dimensions: H. 5 3/4 in. (14.6 cm), H. 5 3/4 in. (14.6 cm), H. 6 in. (15.2 cm); H. 5 7/8 in. (14.9 cm)

Classification: Tomb Pottery

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1923

Accession Number: 23.180.4–.7


Ensembles featuring female musicians often served as a musical bridge between elite and popular culture. As expert musicians, they were often musical innovators. Here, a small ensemble is shown clapping and playing the pipa, tongbo (small copper cymbals), and konghou (harp). The pipa is played in its original position, like an Arabic lute; its silk strings are plucked with a triangular plectrum. The construction and playing style resemble those of the biwa, a Japanese lute derived from the pipa. Today, the biwa maintains the use of a triangular plectrum, the West Asian plectrum guard, and the C-shaped sound holes seen on the instrument played by the musician here. The Chinese playing style changed during the chaotic Later Tang period (921–36), when the plectrum was discarded. The angular konghou harp, introduced at the end of the Han dynasty, was in decline at this time and had gone completely out of use by the end of the Tang.
The highest-rated musicians at the Tang court performed seated, while the lower ranks played standing and were also treated less well in other respects.