The TT Tsui collection of Chinese ceramics
Burial Rites and Mingqi
Ming Dynasty Head of an official14th–17th century
limestone Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995
The Neolithic Period
c.10000 to 1500 BC | more information
The excavation of Chinese Neolithic (c.8000–2000 BC) burial sites reveal that death was already accompanied by rituals. Bodies were buried with food containers and other possessions, a gesture believed to assist the smooth passage of the dead to the next world.
Shang Dynasty – Zhou dynasty
c.16th to 11th centuries BC – c.1050 to 221 BC | more information
Belief in the afterlife strengthened during the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Grave goods were an essential part of the burial ritual as the deceased was provided with the material necessities to ensure a comfortable existence in the spirit world.
Bronze funerary vessels were decorated with elaborate designs of stylised animals and plants, illustrating the importance of the natural world. Human sacrifices became part of the death ritual. At its most extreme, aristocrats were buried with their full entourage including wife, servants, chariots, horses and riders.
From around the 5th century BC, the popularity of Confucian teachings lead to a reaction against human sacrifices and they had virtually ceased by 400 BC. In their place, replicas of earthly possessions were made in wood, pottery, bronze and precious stones.
206 BC to 220 AD | more information
By the Han dynasty, pottery was the most popular medium for grave goods and the manufacture of these spirit wares, called mingqi, became a full scale industry. Han potters adapted manufacturing techniques used by metalworkers. Containers and some figurines were made in pieces from moulds which were joined and decorated.
Funerary wares of the Han dynasty provide a wonderful picture of everyday life. They included models of houses and granaries, farm animals and household goods along with figures of court officials and entertainers. Mingqi attested to the power and wealth of the deceased and included images of soldiers, their horses and weapons.
618 to 907 | more information
Under the Tang rulers, in keeping with centuries of tradition, funerary rites remained very important. A specific government department was responsible for overseeing the manufacture of funerary wares. While officially there were limits on the number of grave goods and restrictions on the size of the objects that could accompany the deceased based on rank, these rules were frequently broken.
The deceased's relatives believed they could improve their ancestor's status in the afterlife by providing mingqi in excess of necessity, thereby ensuring their own good fortune. The highest ranked officials were meant to have a maximum of 90 figurines no more than 30cm tall while members of the Imperial family were allowed several hundred up to about one-metre tall.
The excesses of the Tang dynasty eventually lead to its downfall. The state-supported mass production of funerary ceramics never regained its former popularity.
960 to 1279 | more information
The excesses of the Tang dynasty eventually lead to its downfall. The state-supported mass production of funerary ceramics never regained its former popularity. Under the Song rulers funerary rites were more restrained and the accompanying ceramics were generally smaller in scale.
1368 to 1644 | more information
During the Ming dynasty, for the elite, funerary wares still accompanied the deceased but only the Emperor and his family still followed the tradition of being buried with vast numbers of grave goods. Commissioned by relatives rather than being part of a set ritual, the type of figures changed. It was no longer considered appropriate to fill tombs with representations of daily life, rather, it was a more sombre affair in keeping with the prevailing neo-Confucian philosophy.
People's Republic of China
Today, many Chinese still believe in an afterlife. Instead of making permanent replicas as they did in the past, paper models of luxury cars, houses, clothes, TVs, money any other objects we use have taken their place.