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Mingqi Unwrapped: A Collector's Guide to Early Chinese Figural Terracotta

Mingqi (冥器), rendered in English as “spirit articles”, are a broad and very interesting class of ancient Chinese funerary material made specifically for the dead. Eastern Zhou philosopher Xunzi (298-238 BC), defines them as, “Spirit articles that resemble real objects but cannot be put to use”. [1] Objects classed as mingqi became distinct from other elements of tomb assemblage, such as everyday objects used by the deceased in life or Shengqi (生器) in the early 3rd century BC. [2]


Mingqi were made from a wide variety of materials into an even wider variety of objects. As the Chinese believed death to be a transition and extension of the living world, mingqi worked in concert with the other elements of the tomb, for example, the wall paintings and the architecture of the tomb itself to comfort and delight the deceased. [3] As "mingqi" encompasses such a broad range of objects, we will be sticking to figural terracotta statues from the Qin to Tang Dynasties for the purposes of this article. Not only because they are exceedingly beautiful, but also because they only gained popularity relatively recently in the eyes of the Western collecting world, entering public discourse and museums mostly in the mid-20th Century (Fig. 1). [4] Our journey through the history of these early Chinese terracotta sculptures will focus on how they were made, how they developed in terms of style and subject matter, and how their function and significance are inextricably linked to their funerary context.


The Beginning of Figural Mingqi: Qin (221-206 BC) and Han Dynasties  (202 BC-AD 220)


One of the first, and the most famous collection of mingqi is the “terracotta army”, a truly massive assemblage of life-size soldiers, chariots, and horses, buried in pits and flanking the tomb of the Emperor Qin Shi Shang (221-210 BC). Created presumably to defend the emperor in the afterlife, over 7000 soldiers were estimated to have been made. They were sculpted with supreme attention to detail, and set out in military formation, with some even holding real bronze weapons and bearing specific attributes of the many ranks of the Qin army. [5] They are a testament to the strength and formidable nature of the short-lived Dynasty.


Figural mingqi from the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 206) survive in great numbers and are generally more animated than their Qin predecessors, despite their smaller size (Fig. 2). This was essential for their purpose of providing sustenance, service, and entertainment for the deceased during the afterlife. [6] While military figures continued to be made in great numbers, for example in tombs in the Xiangan and Xi-an region, Han dynasty sculptors are most notable for their depictions of entertainers. [7] Acrobats, musicians, and groups of dancers filled contemporary tombs, along with other highly-idealised depictions of hunters, servants, and storytellers. Animals are very dynamically rendered, with birds, dogs, and pigs being particularly common. However, certain features were greatly exaggerated to bring out the personality of each creature, for example in this charming sher-pei dog statue with his large, jowly muzzle and attentive, curved ears (Fig. 3).


The most notable sculptural preference of the Han Dynasty was mingqi in the form of buildings, made to provide the practical support system needed in life for the dead. Examples include entire granaries, wells, farms, and watchtowers, all recreated on a miniature terracotta scale with minute attention to detail. [8] While they crop up occasionally in the funerary art of later Dynasties, it is during the Han period that these architectural models became the sculptures par excellence (Fig. 4).

Green Han Dynasty well mingqi
Figure 4. Chinese Han Dynasty Green-Glazed Terracotta Model of a Well. Ca. 202 BC - AD 220.


Mingqi Divided: The Six Dynasties (AD 220-589)


The collapse of the Han Empire was followed by a period of chaos and regional conflict known as the Six Dynasties. This change in the political landscape led to a swift reaction against the elaborate tombs of the Han, considered to be emblematic of their moral downfall. [9] In terms of mingqi production, trends were split between the South and North. Though not as widespread, enough examples have surfaced from tombs to tell us that the pre-existing preferences for architectural models and human sculpture prevailed in Southern China. Due to the popularity of Daoism, animal sculptures and elements were also more readily infused into funerary practice. In terms of style, however, these figural mingqi are simplified and less animated. [10]

Mingqi were, however, very popular with the Northern Dynasties, with particularly high-quality examples coming from the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386–534). Here again, existing trends in subject matter persisted, but a considerable number of new figures were added to the repertoire (Fig. 5). Human and animal-faced guardians (zhenmouyong and zhenmoushou), with exaggerated features and body parts, became popular and were placed outside of the above-ground sections of tombs. [11] Camels appear in the 3rd Century and become increasingly common as part of an upswing of popularity in pack animals. [12] Used to transport military goods, traders, and occasionally nobles around China’s northern deserts, their usefulness in the afterlife is apparent. Other popular figures not yet mentioned included civil officials, shamans, and pack-animals (Fig. 6).

Terracotta model of orange ox pulling a two-wheeled cart with a roof. Pointed wheel spokes with rosette patterns on the sides.
Figure 6. Lot 544, Chinese Northern Wei Dynasty Terracotta Model of Ox and Cart - TL Tested. Ca. AD 500. Est. £4000-6000.

The Golden Age of Mingqi: Sui (AD 581-618) and Tang Dynasties (AD 618-907)


The reunification of China under the short-lived Sui dynasty, followed by the long and prosperous reign of the Tang Dynasty, brought about a level of economic prosperity and stability not seen in China for centuries. Tang dynasty ceramics became some of the most sought-after pieces in the world, blending the artistic styles of the North and South Dynasties and combining this with the increased cross-cultural influences brought about by trade along the Silk Road with Sasanid Persia, Mesopotamia, and Central Asia (Fig. 7). [13] This mix of factors led to burials once again becoming increasingly elaborate, despite the government’s attempt to curtail this, and several innovations in the corpus of Tang figural mingqi.

Image of a camel with a dionysiac scene embroidered on the saddle.
Figure 7. Chinese Sui Dynasty Terracotta Camel. Ca. Late 6th-7th Century AD. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 2000.8. Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 2000.

Funerary sculptures of women were constructed with sensitivity to the pecking order of the court, with younger women painted with less intricate garments and more reserved countenances, perhaps to mimic the emotional reserve appropriate to their social station. Female mingqi in the later Tang Period also took on a different aesthetic ideal, with the preference for slender women with tight-fitting garments changing to the famous “Fat Lady”, by the 8th Century AD (Fig. 8). [14]

Although not a novel invention, figurines of foreigners became more common due to the increasing number of people traveling and living in China from more western regions. Central Asian traders were carefully differentiated by pointed beards, deep-set eyes, and high noses. Increased trade along the Silk Road led to a particular favourite of the period being a trader perched atop a large, braying camel (Fig. 9). [15]

Terracotta camel and rider, camel with braying head and wearing decorated saddle
Figure 9. Chinese Tang Dynasty Terracotta Camel and Rider - TL Tested. Ca. AD 618-907. £35,000.


Tang Dynasty animal sculptors perfected a sense of animation, naturalism, and personality in their creations. The dynamic and varied poses of many animals demonstrate a break from the more serene, slender animal figurines of the Sui (Fig. 7). [16] The rendering of bone, musculature, and skin is masterful, with a similar impulse to Han sculptors to emphasise the personality of an animal by exaggerating certain features.


Nowhere is this better represented than in Tang horse sculptures (Fig. 10). Often adorned with purple and black pigmentation – symbolic of the spirit of the Tang military – these horses are a far cry from their more frontal, symmetrical Han forefathers. [17] They were sculpted with bulging eyes, small heads, long muscular necks, and broad bodies were contorted into a variety of poses. Their popularity stems from their key role in Tang military operations. Indeed, they were so prized that Emperor Taizong (reigned AD 627-649) commissioned a huge bas-relief of the animals for his tomb. [18] There is no mingqi more emblematic of the Tang period.


Finally, Buddhism, the most prominent religion in the Sui and Tang dynasties, had an impact on the construction of tomb-guardian statues. Zhenmouyong were replaced by statues of the “Heavenly Kings,” protectors of Buddhism who guard against evil forces, in the mid-8th century AD. Zhenmoushou persisted, with even more otherworldly and exaggerated wings, flanges, and decorative patterns. Their cat-like paws are also replaced with cloven hooves. [19]


How Are Mingqi Made?


Surprisingly given the animated nature of many of the sculptures, most figural mingqi were mass-produced through the use of moulds. For smaller figures, the back and front were cast separately and then fused. Larger figures were cast in lots of separate pieces, all carefully crafted to the same scale and put together using clay slip. Often the base or the underbelly of these larger sculptures was left open to help with the firing process, as we can see on this Tang Dynasty bull (Fig. 11). [20] These figures would then be decorated in a range of techniques and styles, either painted on after firing or glazed. The extreme variations in decorative scheme, even for those examples known to have come from the same mould, is a testament to the demand for tailor-made artefacts in Chinese funerary culture.


The use of terracotta glaze in mingqi decoration changes significantly over the period in question. The lead-based glaze common in the Han dynasty was generally used sparingly. It produced a green or grey colour and was generally reserved for the multi-story architectural mingqi produced for very elite burials. The Six Dynasties brought about the introduction of polychrome glaze decoration on funerary sculpture, achieved through the incorporation of metal oxides, but this innovation is mostly confined to the Northern Dynasties. [21] Glazed mingqi of animals and humans became more widespread during the Sui Dynasty, but again these were monochromatic and generally confined to the limited colour palette of yellow, white, green, or red. [22]

It was only during the Tang Dynasty that there occurred a revolutionary development in the decoration of figural mingqi, through the introduction of so-called Sancai (三彩), or three-colour glaze (Fig. 12). Using metal oxides of iron, copper, antimony, and manganese to make respectively yellow, green, bright yellow, and purple, the artisans of the Tang Dynasty transformed established decorative schemes to allow for the vivid mixing and blending of colours. [23] Blue glaze, made from cobalt oxide and exceedingly expensive, was also invented during this time and was only used on the highest quality funerary sculpture. The combination of this new technique with cold painting added after firing allowed Tang artisans to create a wide array of designs.


zhenmoushou animal guardian with long horns, painted in sancai glaze
Figure 12. Chinese Tang Dynasty Sancai Glazed Zhenmoushou Figure - TL Tested. Ca. AD 618-907.


Some Context


It is important to remember that these sculptures were not purely aesthetic objects. To develop a fully-rounded picture of mingqi it is vital to consider them in their context. Tombs excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries have generally been focussed upon in scholarship, and especially Western scholarship due to our love of medium-specific analysis, as containers of objects. [24] What we do not often emphasise is how these objects formed part of a unified design scheme, and what their function within that scheme might be.

In ancient burial rituals, mingqi are known to have been exhibited before being placed in the tomb, and some sources mention a ceremony within the tomb for the living to say their goodbyes in which mingqi are likely to have been present.[25] Aside from this, and except for the tomb guardians, these works of art are concealed from view, never to be viewed by the living again. This is a radically different concept from the eye-catching, accessible, and continually revisited funerary art of the Hellenistic Egyptian, Greek and Roman worlds.

This decision ultimately ties into the central idea of burial goods providing for the deceased, which is underpinned by values of filial piety and strong family structure that persisted throughout ancient Chinese history. [26] It is what drives the extreme attention to detail that goes into making each tomb’s decorative program unique, and likely what spurs the choice of subject matter when it comes to figural mingqi. Figural mingqi, whilst remaining beautiful aesthetic objects that tell us much about the lives, interests, and social values of Early China, form just one small part of a broad and varied tapestry of funeral art, all aimed at providing a healthy and happy (after)life for the deceased.


Written by Ella Wakefield


Interested in purchasing Chinese figural terracotta? Have a look at the listings on our gallery website.


Or register to bid in our upcoming auction on the 28th of January to discover the world of mingqi first-hand.





Colburn Clydesdale, H., 2009, “The Vibrant Role of Mingqi in Early Chinese Burials.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.


Susanne Griefe, S., and Shenpeng Y., 2001, Das Gtab des Bin Wang: Wandmalereine der Ostlichen Han-zeit in China. Mainz.


Hung, W., 2009, “Rethinking East Asian Tombs: A Methodological Proposal.” Studies in the History of Art74, 138–165.


Li, Z., Bower, V., He, L. & Sensabaugh, D. A., 2010, Chinese Ceramics: From The Paleolithic Period Through The Qing Dynasty. Yale University Press.


Sensabaugh, D. A. 2001, “Guardians of the Tomb.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 56–65.


Sewell, J. V., 1976, “T’ang Dynasty Tomb Pottery.” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1973-1982)70(2), 2–6.


Xunzi, & Watson, B., 1963, Hsün Tzu : basic writings / translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press.



[1] Watson 1963, 104; Hung 2006, 72-81.

[2] Hung 2009, 148.

[3] Colburn Clydesdale 2009.

[4] Sewell 1976, 3.

[5] Li et al 2010, 134-7.

[6] Colburn Clydesdale 2009.

[7] Li et al 2010, 135-51.

[8] Colburn Clydesdale 2009.

[9] Colburn Clydesdale 2009.

[10] Li et al 2010, 162.

[11] Sensabaugh 2001, 57.

[12] Li et al 2010, 163.

[13] Sewell 1976, 4; Li et al 2010, 198-203.

[14] Li et al 2010, 250-6.

[15] Li et al 2010, 257.

[16] Li et al 2010, 241.

[17] Li et al 2010, 250.

[18] Li et al 2010, 260.

[19] Sensabaugh 2001, 60.

[20] Sewell 1976, 4.

[21] Li et al 2010, 151-76.

[22] Li et al 2010, 208-15.

[23] Sewell 1976, 5.

[24] Hung 2009, 140.

[25] Griefe and Shenpeng 2001, 77.

[26] Hung 2009, 140.


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