The TT Tsui collection of Chinese ceramics

Introduction | History | Burial Rites and Mingqi | Spiritual Beliefs | Ceramics


History of Chinese Funerary Ceramics

The Neolithic Period 'Jar' Late Yangshao period – Banshan type c.2,500 – 2,000 BC

The Neolithic Period   Jar   Late Yangshao period – Banshan type  c.2500 – 2000 BC   earthenware, pigments   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   more detail


The Neolithic Period
c.10000 to 1500 BC | more information

Much of our knowledge of Chinese cultural history is based on material found in ancient burial sites. The extensive array of objects which have been unearthed from tombs and graves provide a fascinating insight into life in ancient China. Some of the earliest evidence of civilisation in China dates from the Neolithic period.

There were two predominating cultures during this time: the Yangshao culture based in the central plain region and the Longshan culture centred around northern Shantung and the eastern seaboard. The excavation of burial sites reveal that even then death was accompanied by ritual. Bodies were buried with food containers and other possessions, presumably to assist the smooth passage of the dead to the next world.

Since the first unearthing in 1922 of neolithic artefacts at a cemetery site near Lanzhou, evidence of Yangshao culture has been found throughout an extensive area in central and northwest China including the provinces of Shaanxi, Henan and Hebei. Later remains have been found in the northwest provinces of Gansu and Qinghai.

The Yangshao culture is divided into 3 phases – Maijiayao (c.3,000–2,500 BC), Banshan (2500–2000 BC) and Machang (2200–1500 BC). Artefacts from each neolithic era are usually identified by the type of decoration found on the objects.

Shang Dynasty – Zhou dynasty
c.16th to 11th centuries BC – c.1050 to 221 BC | more information

By the Shang Dynasty there were well ordered rituals associated with burial, and belief in the power of gods and spirits played an important cultural role. Excavations of burial chambers have uncovered a wealth of funerary goods including bronze vessels, jade ornaments, weapons and most importantly, human sacrifices, often on a large scale. People and animals were often buried alive with the deceased emperor – battle chariots with their horses and human drivers have been discovered buried with their masters.

It is now better understood that the zoomorphic designs found on the magnificent metal vessels and ornaments and the intricate carvings on precious stones relate to Shang practices of consulting oracles, and their beliefs in auspicious signs and symbols. Before making important decisions such as when to plant crops or go into battle or even for more trivial matters such as whether the king would enjoy the day, the oracles would be read. The four cardinal points had great importance and were associated with the Ruler of the Four Quarters and the Eastern and Western Mothers. The sun and the dragon were allied with the east and the moon and the tiger with the west. South was often represented by the 'red bird' or phoenix while north was the direction of death.

In subsequent dynasties death rituals followed similar patterns until the time of the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius (551–479 BC), whose teachings would have a fundamental influence on all future Chinese religious and philosophical beliefs. Human sacrifices were greatly frowned upon by Confucius who promoted humanity as a moral virtue. However, the deeply held beliefs that ancestral spirits needed worldly trappings to ensure their comfort in the next life led people to craft figurative substitutes in the form of life-like sculptures which were buried in the tombs. Called mingqi, 'spirit wares', their manufacture eventually became a full-scale industry overseen by the government.

Saddled horse - 25–220 - earthenware, slip decoration - 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

Han Dynasty   Saddled horse   25–220 earthenware, slip decoration   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   more detail

Han Dynasty
206 BC to 220 AD | more information

During the Han Dynasty burial rituals became increasingly complex and hierarchical. Burial mounds formed the shape of hills, a reference to the belief that the dead made their homes on mountains. Symbolism was also more defined with the 'Five Elements' playing an increasingly important role. Comprised of the four cardinal directions with earth at the centre representing equilibrium, each point was associated with different animals, seasons, colours and properties.

Symbols of the east included the Green Dragon, the sun, spring, wood and the planet Jupiter. The east was also associated with the Emperor and positive yang energy. The island of Penglai, the home of the Daoist Immortals, was also in the east. The south was represented by the Red Bird or phoenix, summer, fire and Mars. It also symbolised the Empress and negative yin energy. The west was the realm of the White Tiger and represented the moon, autumn, metal and Venus while the north was associated with the Tortoise and Snake (also known as the Dark Warrior), winter, water and Mercury. The relationship between the Five Elements is eternal; water subdues fire that melts metal which crushes wood which subdues the earth which absorbs water.

It was under the Han that regular trade commenced with those outside the Han boundaries. Usually referred to as 'Barbarians', travellers and traders from the West, including the Greeks from the Middle East, the Kushans from what is now Pakistan and Turkic people from Central Asia, were cautiously welcomed. The arrival of these colourful people with their exotic array of goods and animals introduced new ideas that were adapted and integrated into Chinese culture.

Funerary wares from the Han period provide a fascinating insight into the nature of daily life. There are replicas of complete farms with granaries, animal pens and domestic dwellings. Aristocratic tombs also contained substantial terracotta and wooden figures which attested to the status and power of the deceased, such as sculptures of warriors and their chariots, foot soldiers, grain stores and horses.

The figures are stylistically interesting as they fall into two quite distinct groups. One group draws directly from the painted wooden tomb figures of the preceding Zhou Dynasty. These works are characterised by their elongated form, as seen in the figure of the Kneeling figure of a lady. The other group represents a shift in style. The figures become highly animated and, while still abstracted, show a clear move towards realism. Han potters also succeeded in imparting an air of contained energy within these figurines.

The wonderfully dynamic figure of a Saddled horse is a fine example of Han Dynasty ceramic style. It is unglazed, as are most of the larger Han figurines, with remnants of decorative pigments. The abstracted horse is a battle steed and is depicted open-mouthed, rearing its head up, its legs thrust forward as if coming to a sudden stop. The figure of a Male dancing figure is also typical of the large unglazed figurines in this group. He portrayed in a highly animated pose, with none of the solidity or stiffness seen in the Kneeling figure of a lady.

Another example of this new dynamic characteristic is the smaller glazed figure of a Reclining dog. The animal is portrayed lying down but with its head raised and eyes wide open as if it has been suddenly startled by a noise. Its elongated neck demonstrates that both styles are still in a transitional phase, as the 'old' is slowly replaced by the 'new'. Watch dogs were often placed near the tomb entrance as well as forming part of the general group of tomb goods.

While tomb figurines became increasingly popular during the Han Dynasty, vessels for offerings still played a very important role in the funerary ware repertoire. As the number of grave goods increased, the demand for bronze vessels, which were used extensively in burials during the Shang Dynasty far exceeded supply and the costs were becoming prohibitive. Earthenware gradually replaced bronze as the preferred medium for mass-produced funerary goods.

Potters continued to use traditional bronze forms, such as the hu, when making these ceramic imitations and the glazing was chosen to mimic the appearance of bronze. This substitution of ceramic for metal food containers and drinking vessels marked the beginning of what would become one of China's most important artistic fields, the production of fine porcelain. Vessels were also made in the shape of animals as well as more conventional forms, often richly decorated with hand painted pigments.

Tomb sites of the Han elite were very large. A central corridor lead to the burial chamber while side annexes and niches provided room for the necessary funerary wares.

Three Kingdoms – Six Dynasties
(220–280) – (220–589) | more information

At its peak the Han Dynasty controlled a region which extended into Vietnam and Yunnan in the south, into Turkestan in the west, north to Mongolia and to the eastern coastline including northern Korea and Manchuria. Following a period of civil unrest the Han lost some of its territory and the capital moved eastward to Lo Yang in Honan. This represents the division into the Western Han (206 BC – 25 AD) and Eastern Han (25–221) dynasties. Following the eventual collapse of the Han kingdoms China was ruled by a number of short-lived dynasties and it would be 400 years before the country was united again.

In spite of the political and social confusion of the period, major changes were occurring in the spiritual life of the Chinese. Daoism, which had played a previously minor role in religious thought, was revitalised, and Buddhism reached the Chinese court from India and Tibet. New imagery and symbolism was introduced such as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, alluding to Daoist scholars who achieved great fame for their wisdom.

The Buddhist notion of Bodhisattvas – compassionate beings who have delayed their own enlightenment in order to guide others along the right path – was integrated into existing beliefs, along with ideas of Buddhist heavens and symbols of worship. The quest for eternity gained great favour and people sought methods such as drinking mercury and other potions devised by alchemists to prolong their lives.

The more unsettled times between the end of the Han and the start of the Tang Dynasty in 618 was a period of transition in the development of ceramics wares. One of the most significant developments was the experimentation with celadon type glazes. These 'proto-celadons' were the precursors of the renowned celadons wares of the Song Dynasty (960–1279).

With regard to subject matter, the increasing prominence of Daoism and the emergence of Buddhism in China greatly expanded the design repertoire. Daoist Immortals, cosmological symbols and Buddhist guardians were all represented in ceramic forms. The replicas of humans and animals became more and more life-like, while images of the 'unreal' such as guardian spirits, became more and more imaginary and fanciful.

Sui Dynasty
581 to 618 | more information

After the Five Dynasties period, China became united again under the Sui Dynasty. Following Chinese conquests in Central Asia there was increased accessibility to foreign goods and customs. Dating Sui ceramics is problematic as the dynasty was very short and stylistically the pieces were very similar to those of the early Tang Dynasty. While pieces from dateable tombs help to clarify design characteristics of this brief period, too few have been found to allow a full interpretation of Sui style. However, it is clear that the trend towards realism started during the Sui period, a marked contrast to the more abstracted Han style, and sculptural tomb figures took on a cosmopolitan and sophisticated air.

Ming Dynasty Head of an official 14th–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

Tang Dynasty Standing horse   8th century earthenware, sancai glaze   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   more detail

Tang Dynasty
618 to 907 | more information

The short-lived Sui Dynasty was followed by the Tang Dynasty. Under the Tang China experienced a period of great cultural flowering, remarkable for its achievements across all areas of the arts and sciences. The tolerance of the Tang Imperial Court to outside influence and the free movement along the East-West trade route known as the Silk Road saw major urban centres become thriving cosmopolitan cities, with the Chinese capital, Chang'an (modern Xian) expanding to reach a population of over one million.

In keeping with centuries of tradition, funerary rites remained very important. A separate government department existed with responsibility for overseeing the manufacture of funerary wares. Officially there were limits on the number of grave goods and restrictions on the size of the objects which could accompany the deceased, according to rank – 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. However, 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.

Tang Dynasty figurative ceramics share particular characteristics. The forms are animated and life-like, the subject matter covers all aspects of social and ritual life and the scale of the figures was reasonably small with the exception of some magnificent larger works commissioned for the tombs of the elite.

Another feature of Tang Dynasty ceramics is the appearance of the sancai or 'three-colour' glaze technique. The glazing, most commonly in green, cream and brown though blue and black was sometimes used, was applied to the figure in a haphazard manner leaving drip and run marks. On the smaller mass produced figures the glaze was obviously applied hurriedly while on the larger more prestigious wares, this method was often used to great effect to highlight various details.

Nearly all three-coloured ware was intended for funerary use though some remains have been found in Japan and Egypt, no doubt taken there by traders. The earliest appearance to date of sancai glazed tomb figures is the mid seventh century with an occasional glazed piece found amongst other funerary wares. In a dated tomb of the Crown Prince Deyi from 701 many sancai glazed figures were discovered.

Tomb imagery was changing to reflect the influence of Buddhism and Daoism. Buddhism reached China around the 2nd century AD but it was not until the Tang dynasty that its popularity became widespread. Imagery related to the Northern, or Mahayana school of Buddhism became a feature of funerary wares, particularly depictions of the guardians of the four directions - the four cardinal directions have great significance in both Buddhist and Daoist cosmology. Statues of ferocious warriors, trampling a demon underfoot, guarded the tomb entrance. Other figures, half-man and half-beast, would often make up the two pairs of guardians, whose purpose was to scare away intruders and evil spirits.

Figures of courtiers and entertainers, polo players and the exotic travellers who now regularly arrived in the Chinese cities with their great pack camels became common place, illustrating the cosmopolitan nature of the times. The variety of forms tells us that craftsmen had scope for individual innovation and were not controlled by rules regarding particular styles.

Now the funerary wares spoke not only of power and military strength, but also of the sophistication and intellectual achievements of the deceased.

Song Dynasty
960 to 1279 | more information

Protecting the vast territory of the Tang was expensive – the royal coffers were slowly drained and the great dynasty eventually collapsed. Various alliances tried to gain control but were unable to do so in any convincing way. This period, known as the Five Dynasties, lasted from 907–960. Eventually all was brought under a central ruler again and the Song Dynasty was established with its northern capital at Pian.

The Song dynasty is a period recognised for its achievements in the arts, particularly painting. However, by 1115 the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) wrested control of the north and west while the Song only controlled the south. The capital moved south to Linan (now called Hangzhou, Zhejiang province) and the Southern Song Dynasty became isolated in effect, from the main overland trade route to western Asia.

For the Song it became a period of consolidation, accompanied by a reassessment of national identity which saw the court again turning to the pursuit of the arts and intellectual thought. Artistic expression reflected the serene, contemplative nature of Buddhism alongside the more sentimental Daoist philosophy. The Confucian doctrine was reinterpreted with renewed emphasis on the concepts of yin and yang, the 'Five Elements' and a Supreme Being. Five 'qualities' became associated with the elements: benevolence with wood, righteousness with metal, reverence with fire, wisdom with water and sincerity with earth.

Song dynasty funerary wares show a departure from the magnificent statuary of the Tang. Figures of attendants and houses still accompanied the deceased but the volume and scale of funerary goods was much reduced. Imitation of early classical forms was favoured as it was thought to reflect the educated and sophisticated taste of the great ancient dynasties. The scale of funerary good production was cut back markedly, affected by a surge of interest in Confucian and Daoist thought and a falling out of favour of Buddhism, although Buddhist design elements became part of the potter's repertoire. Another factor was the Song isolation from the northern kilns of the Tang dynasty where vast quantities of funerary wares had been produced.

Ming Dynasty Head of an official 14th–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

Ming Dynasty Head of an official 13th–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
more detail

Ming Dynasty
1368 to 1644 | more information

Around 1260 there was another great upheaval, this time in the form of the Mongol invasions. Kublai Khan's conquering of China marked the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1260–1368). Probably one of the most well recognised impacts that their presence had on Chinese artistic culture was their preference for blue and white ceramics.

One hundred years later, China returned to Chinese hands following the overthrow of the Mongol court and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty. It was a period of national consolidation. Emphasis was placed on the superiority of the ruler and the ruling class. Occupying the Throne of Heaven, the Emperor was the ultimate authority. Artistically and intellectually, it was truly a period of renaissance. The Tang and Song dynasties were considered role models for the Ming. Artistic endeavours drew heavily on the past: painters were encouraged to imitate the Song style, potters used classical forms and decorations which now incorporated Mongol introduced designs. By utilising major technical advances they were able to produce wares of great size and delicacy.

The third Ming emperor, Yongle (r.1403–1424), moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. He chose a valley to the northwest of Beijing as a suitable site for the imperial tombs. Tombs were now great above-ground structures. Avenues leading to the tomb buildings were lined with massive stone sculptures of officials, representing the emperor's retinue, and wonderful animal guardian figures.

Under the Ming, the practice of burying the dead with large quantities of mingqi was not a usual occurrence. Amongst the elite, funerary wares still accompanied the deceased but there were no longer massive government run kilns dedicated to mingqi production – 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. However, tomb ceramics were generally of very fine quality – the Ming Dynasty is well recognised artistically for fine ceramics.

Qing Dynasty
1644 to 1911 | more information
In 1644, the Manchus invaded from the North and established what was to be the last Chinese Dynasty, the Qing. Faced with the difficult task of controlling a dissident Chinese population, they turned to the most conservative aspects of Chinese cultural history as a means of re-establishing central control. Confucian philosophy was paramount as were classical artistic traditions.

The early Qing Dynasty represents a time of refinement rather than new ideas. Porcelain was almost flawless and the technical skill of the painter impeccable, but on balance the work lacked much of the spontaneity and originality of previous dynasties. The focus of Chinese ceramic manufacture moved from the production of funerary wares to the manufacture of ceramics for dialy use and, most importantly, for trade. New materials such as enamel paints were incorporated into existing artistic forms such as ceramics and cloisonné to create new innovative styles.

While burial rites for the elite were still elaborate, attitudes to funerary wares were changing. Funerary wares became less significant though belief in the next world and the practice of filial piety to ancestors persisted and still exists today. Instead of burying the deceased with permanent items to accompany them on their journey, paper replicas are frequently burnt as offerings during the burial service. This does not diminish the role of grave goods but reflects the evolving nature of religious practice.

Creation myths have existed since earliest times in China – folk heroes and heroines abound, as do stories of extraordinary mythical creatures and the power of the spirit world. All of these beliefs have become completely intertwined with Confucian ideology and Buddhist and Daoist practices resulting in a very complex religious system. Through the discovery of the tombs of past rulers and their entourages we can reconstruct a picture of history – in a sense proving the continuity that had been so abundantly anticipated.