North China; Tang period, early 8th century

North China; Tang period, early 8th century

North China
Tang period early 8th century
Earthenware with multicolored lead glaze
23 x 24 ¼ x 8 in.


Archeological discoveries reveal that in early Chinese history, sacrificial victims were buried with the bodies of royalty and the nobility. By the 4th century B.C.E., these practices began to change and tomb figurines were substituted. These tomb furnishings, which included models of attendants, entertainers, and pets as well as reproductions of the daily world of home and farm, attest to the belief in an afterlife in which the activities of this world continued.
During the Tang dynasty (618-906 C.E.), China was powerful and prosperous. Trade was extensive and tomb sculpture reflected the influences from other regions that were pervasive during that time.

Many tomb sculptures from this period are coated with the lead glazes known as three-color (sancai). These wares were produced at a limited number of kilns, some of which are known to have produced goods for imperial use. The earliest known examples of these sancai glazed ceramics were excavated from a tomb dated to 675 C.E. After the mid 8th century production of these ceramics slowed. The majority of sancai wares were made during the late 7th and early 8th centuries.
The native Chinese horse is relatively small in stature. Chinese emissaries first came across the monumental horses bred in Ferghana in the second century B.C.E. It was under Tang rule that the horse came to symbolize power and strength in China.

How to look at this work

This life-like animal stands on all four legs with its head down, mouth open, and nostrils slightly flaring. The modeling of the figure is convincing and the pose is realistic. Splashes of glaze give the effect of a spotted coat. Originally, this horse would have had a mane and tail of real hair.

This figure was made to be placed in a tomb. It would have been one of a much larger group of figures, including soldiers, servants, musicians, guardians, camels, and spirit figures as well as a variety of articles of daily life, placed with the deceased person to provide for his or her daily needs after death. Tomb furnishings were perhaps placed as an act of homage to the ancestors. They also attest to the wealth, status, and interests of the deceased.
Horses were an important part of the funerary regalia of high-ranking officials and members of the imperial family. Many had saddles, bridles, and other ornaments.

How this object was made

Tomb figures were generally made of earthenware and shaped in one or more molds. This horse was coated with a three-color lead glaze known as sancai (pronunciation "san-tsigh"), and then fired in a kiln. Additional pigments and gilding would sometimes be applied after firing.