Museum Dictionary

A Female Beauty of the Tang Dynasty:The Tomb Figurine of a Woman Holding a Pekinese

Take a look at the picture below, you see a figurine of a plump woman smiling radiantly at a tiny dog in her arms. This clay figurine was made during China's Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). It is called Woman Holding a Pekinese.

  • Woman Holding a Pekinese
    Woman Holding a Pekinese
    (Kyoto National Museum)

The ancient Chinese believed that there was an afterworld to which one would go after death. For this reason, after an important ruler or aristocrat died, he or she would be buried in a large luxurious tomb. The servants and retainers of the deceased, along with his or her horses, chariots, and other objects needed in the afterworld, would be buried together in the tomb. The servants and animals were still alive but were forced to commit sacrificial suicide by following their master or mistress to the grave!

Tomb figurines like this were molded of earthenware. In addition to figures, small representations, small representations of animals, tools, and other things that the dead person might need in the afterlife were also buried in the tomb.

Such figurines and ritual objects were made between the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) and the Tang dynasty. If you come to the Kyoto National Museum, you should be able to see a variety of such burial objects.

Chinese earthenware tomb figurines generally fall into two different catogories. One type has glassy green or three-colored glazes on the surface. The other type has no glaze on the earthenware at all but is instead painted with mineral pigments.

This figurine of a lady with a dog is made with the second method. If you look very carefully, you can see that she is made from slightly pinkish clay. A thin layer of white slip has been painted on top to make her appear white and pale. Look carefully. Can you see the other pigments with which she has been painted? You may be able to see that her hair was painted originally black and her lips and cheeks were painted with red pigment.

When someone died, many of these earthenware tomb figurines had to be made in a very short time. For this reason, a mold was used to form the clay into the basic shape of the figurine. After that, the hands, the facial expressions, the hair, and the things held in the arms would be shaped with a scraper or with hand-modeling. This final handiwork gave individuality to each figurine. The pigment coloring method has the advantage over glazing in that it gives the artisan freedom to express minute details that would be covered over by a glaze. For this reason, many objects were made with this coloring method.

These earthenware objects help us to understand the customs and trends of the day. For example, if we look at female figurines excavated from tombs with a known date, we can see the kind of woman that was considered beautiful in each period. The female figurines made in the beginning of the Tang dynasty (first half of the eighth century) were slender and willowy. However, by the middle of the eighth century, female figurines became plump and rounded. Figurines like this one, with a voluptuous face and figure and long hair tied up in a high top-knot, were excavated mainly from tombs from the beginning of the ninth century.

From these examples, we can see that the slim women were considered beautiful in the beginning of the Tang dynasty, but that the preference had changed to a plumper more voluptuous form by the middle of the eighth century. By the beginning of the ninth century, this preference had become the accepted trend.

This figurine of the quintessential "Tang Beauty" has an excellent sense of movement and rich expression, representing the richness of the period in which it was made: the end of the eighth century, when the Tang dynasty was at its cultural peak. This piece is one of the finest figurines of its kind: its carving is attractive, its colors well-preserved, and the charming dog in the woman's arms give it an unique appeal.

Tang culture had a strong influence on Japanese art. The typical "Tenpyo beauty" seen in Japanese art of the Nara period (710-794) is, in fact, very similar in appearance to this Tang lady.

Text by Masahiko Kawahara, Department of Applied Arts
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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