Nicely Preserved Ostensibly Eighth or Ninth Century A.D. Tang Dynasty Sancai Glazed Ceramic Statuette of a Female Musician Holding a Stringed Instrument (Probably a “Pipa”).
CLASSIFICATION: Ceramic Statuette.
ATTRIBUTION: In the Style of Ancient China, Tang Dynasty, 8th or 9th Century A.D. Possibly a Ming Dynasty or 18th or 19th Century Qing Dynasty Revival Imitative.
Height: 151 millimeters (6 inches).
Breadth: 81 millimeters (3 1/4 inches).
Thickness: 82 millimeters (3 3/8 inches).
CONDITION: Very good, no repairs but the majority of glaze is gone. A little wear and a few blemishes consistent with any decorative item which was buried for over one thousand years. Not flawless, but certainly in a better than average state of preservation – and unrepaired! Stands on its own.
DETAIL: A nicely preserved clay statuette so wonderfully characteristic of Tang Dynasty statuary. Sancai, or three-color glazes principally in yellow, green and brown was a development of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Sancai ("three-colored") wares were first made for burial, using lead-based glazes that produced mottled and streaky effects in green, amber-brown, and cream, with an occasional addition of blue or black. The production of such exquisite porcelain items required multiple firings of fine white clay at temperatures near 1000c (1800f) degrees. A wide variety of statuettes were commonly produced such as musicians, chamberlains (butlers), maids, cooks, even animals; all designed to serve their deceased master.
In early Tang dynasty, production of sancai pottery figurines dominated the pottery scene, and their production continued well into the Ming era which advanced the art with more intense colors and finer porcelain clay. The pottery and porcelain figures produced from the Tang all the way through the Ming Dynasties are famous even until today for their beautiful multicolored glazes occurring on both mortuary pieces for funerary use as well as on utilitarian pieces for use in China as well as exported to Egypt and elsewhere. However it was the artisans of the Tang Dynasty which started the tradition of producing these funerary statuettes. This piece is a long ways away from being perfect. Some of the sancai glaze has decomposed due to the caustic action of the alkaline soil within which it was buried. However ordinarily statuary like this is unearthed in pieces – shattered. So the fact that this is unrepaired and intact is noteworthy.
Although it is probable that this specimen is much older, it is also possible that this piece might be a revivalist imitative produced for the European market of the 18th or 19th century. It is widely known that Chinese porcelain and other ceramic artwork was quite popular in Victorian Europe. Carrying Chinese porcelain from China to Europe was an industry for the seafaring mariners of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Entire fleets of sailing ships plied the trade, especially the Dutch and English. However in addition to porcelain, ancient Chinese ceramics were also extremely popular in Victorian Europe, where Chinese ceramic artwork was highly appreciated and in great demand.
Although the style of this specimen is very convincing and suggests it might indeed be of Tang Dynasty origin, a large portion of the antique/ancient Chinese ceramics in Europe date to the late Ming, or 18th or 19th century Qing, so it is quite possible that this is an imitative revival piece. Judging by the style it is likely considerably older, but only a $1,000 thermoluminescence test would establish this conclusively (and even then the reliability and accuracy of such testing is still debated). So we’ll simply err on the side of being conservative and suggest that you consider it a revival piece, and if it is indeed older, so much the better. However whether an antique several centuries old, or an antiquity a few centuries older, this is a valuable and collectible piece of art.
The depiction here is a very traditional, beautiful portrayal of a female musician holding a stringed instrument, probably the instrument known in ancient China as the “pipa”. Of course there is the customary and expected minor scuffs, marks, dings, etc., all evidence of a lifespan of many centuries spent mostly buried. Realistically one would expect some blemishes after such an extended period of burial, and there are no surprises here except that there are so few blemishes. Overall the statuette is in very good condition and is a highly collectible piece of Tang Dynasty ancient Chinese sancai ceramic art. If you’d like an authentic piece of Tang artwork, you could not go wrong with this one. It is solidly shaped, nicely featured, and perfectly proportioned. You could display this one with great pride either at work on your desk or at home in the kitchen or dining room. Whether at home or at work, it will certainly generate curiosity and perhaps even a little envy!
HISTORY OF TANG EARTHENWARE: The four century period between the Han Dynasty and the Sui/Tang Dynasty was characterized by the fragmentation of China and a prolonged power struggle. Despite the chaotic conditions of the period, ceramic production flourished. There were many notable advances in ceramic arts, including green-glazed stoneware, highly durable and often fashioned into bowls and jars. Potters of the era continued improving the quality of these early “Celadon” wares both with respect to glaze color and in body clay. The production of glazed porcelain was a significant achievement in Chinese ceramic history. It was eventually exported as far as the Philippines and Egypt. Ceramic figurines produced during the period were notable for increased detail. The most profound influence on the art of the period (including ceramics) was the Buddhist religion which came from neighboring India. Objects imported from the Middle East and Central and West Asia also strongly influenced the period’s ceramic arts.
Eventually China was reunified under the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.). China's Golden Age was characterized by a stable government, and the resulting economic prosperity brought about a flourishing of all the arts, including painting, ceramics, metalwork, music, and poetry. Important influences from the Middle East, brought by traders and artisans from many nations, stimulated new styles in metalwork and ceramics. Colorfully glazed earthenware, especially ewers and rhytons (drinking vessels) closely resembling Persian silverwork, drew inspiration from metal prototypes. During the Tang era, the technique of producing and firing fine-grained white clay into what is known today as porcelain was perfected. The combination of fine white clay and sophisticated kiln technology gave birth to the first translucent white ceramics which were truly porcelain.
Both the white and the green-glazed porcelain varieties became highly prized by both the wealthy Chinese and foreigners. The green “celadon” porcelains possessed a subtle bluish-green glaze and were characterized by their simple and elegant shapes. Both the celadon and white varieties were so popular that production on a huge scale continued at various kiln centers throughout China well into the succeeding dynasties, and the product was shipped as far as Egypt, Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan. It was also during the Tang dynasty that sancai ("three-colored") wares were first made for burial, using glazes that produced mottled and streaky effects in green, amber-brown, and cream, with an occasional addition of blue. The technique is most famed today as the beautiful multicolored glazes of the Tang dynasty pottery figures of both humans and animals. The glaze occurs on both mortuary pieces for funerary use as well as on utilitarian pieces for use in China as well as for export.
HISTORY OF EARTHENWARE IN ANCIENT CHINA: The first Chinese ceramics archaeologists have found date back more than 10,000 years. These were earthenware, which means they were made from clay and fired at the kind of low temperatures reached by a wood fire or simple oven. In China, most ceramics made before the Tang dynasty (600 A.D.) are earthenware. They may be glazed or unglazed, and are occasionally painted, often brightly colored. Stoneware ceramics are harder and less porous than earthenware and are fired at hotter temperatures—between 2100°F and 2400°F. At these high temperatures, the surface of the clay melts and becomes glassy. Although stoneware is usually waterproof, most stoneware ceramics are glazed for decoration. The glazes often contain ash, which allows the glaze to harden at stoneware temperatures.
During the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 B.C.) bronze metallurgy superceded ceramics as the favored art form of the ruling class. However both the ceramic and the bronze industries evolved into complex systems of production that were supported by the aristocracy. Decorative designs rich in symbolism were created first in bronze were then imitated in clay. Chinese burial customs included the tradition of placing clay replicas of material possessions, animals and people in the tomb to accompany the deceased and serve them in the next life. Although archaeological finds have revealed that glazed pottery was produced as early as 1100 B.C. during the Zhou dynasty, the production of glazed wares was not common until about 200 B.C. during the Han Dynasty. However from about 1000 B.C. onwards during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, primitive porcelain wares emerged. Real porcelain wares appeared in the Han dynasty around 200 A.D. In the process of porcelain development, different styles in different periods blossomed.
The production of porcelain became widespread by about 500 A.D. Using a special clay with ground rock containing feldspar, a glassy mineral, the material was fired at very high temperatures above 2400°F. The surface of the clay melts at such high temperatures and becomes smooth as glass. Early porcelains were undecorated and were used by the Imperial court and exported as far as the Middle East. For instance during the Han Dynasty principally celadon (green) and black porcelain were mainly produced. The famous blue and white porcelain was created with blue paint made from cobalt and then covered with a clear glaze, which can withstand the high temperatures of the kiln. The technical and creative innovations of Chinese potters are unique accomplishments in the cultural heritage of the world. Today, archaeological excavation and research in China are revealing new sites and new examples of the genius of the Chinese potter.
HISTORY OF THE TANG DYNASTY: The collapse of the Han dynasty was followed by nearly four centuries (220-589 A.D.) of relative anarchy. Petty kingdoms waged incessant warfare against one another. Unity was restored briefly in the early years of the Jin Dynasty (A.D. 265-420), but by 317 A.D. China again disintegrated into a succession of petty dynasties that was to last from 304 to 589 A.D. China was reunified in A.D. 589 by a military leader from Northwest China who founded the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581-618 A.D.). The tyrannical Sui Dynasty met an early demise due to the government's imposition of crushing taxes, compulsory labor, and ruthless attempts to homogenize the various sub-cultures. Though monumental engineering feats such as the completion of the Grand Canal and the reconstruction of the Great Wall were accomplished, it was at an enormous price. There were noteworthy technological advances including the invention of gunpowder (for use in fireworks) and the wheelbarrow, as well as significant advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography. However weakened by costly and disastrous military campaigns against Korea and faced with a disaffected population, the dynasty disintegrated through a combination of popular revolts, disloyalty, and a coup which culminated in the assassination of the Emperor of the Sui Dynasty.
One of the coup leaders installed his father as emperor, thus founding the T'ang Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.), and eventually succeeded his father to the throne. The Tang dynasty is regarded by historians as a high point in Chinese civilization. During the Tang dynasty China became an expansive, cosmopolitan empire. The capital city became the world's largest city, a center of culture and religious toleration, and attracted traders and immigrants from all over the world, enriching Chinese art and culture with their foreign influences. Stimulated by contact with India and the Middle East, the empire saw a flowering of creativity in many fields. Originating in India around the time of Confucius, Buddhism flourished during the Tang period, becoming a distinct variation and a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. The system of civil service examinations for recruitment of the bureaucracy, designed to draw the best talents into government, was so well refined that it survived into the 20th century. The civil service which developed created a large class of literate Confucian scholar-officials who often functioned as intermediaries between the grass-roots level and the government.
Branches of both the imperial and local governments were restructured and enhanced to provide a centralized administration, and an elaborate code of administrative and penal law was enacted. The military exploits of the earliest rules created a Tang Empire even larger than that of the Han. Block printing was invented, making the written word available to vastly greater audiences and the Tang period became a golden age of literature and art. Handicraft guilds, the use of paper money, and commercial centralization all started during the late Tang Dynasty. However by the middle of the eighth century A.D., Tang power was ebbing. A unified military had dissolved into a series of petty military chiefdoms who regularly withheld taxes and support from a crumbling central government. Domestic economic instability and military defeat by Arabs in Central Asia marked the beginning of five centuries of steady decline. Misrule, court intrigues, economic mismanagement, and popular rebellions weakened the empire, making it possible for northern invaders to shatter the unity of the dynasty in 907 A.D. The next half-century saw the fragmentation of China into five northern dynasties and ten southern kingdoms.
HISTORY OF CHINESE CIVILIZATION: Remains of Homo erectus, found near Beijing, have been dated back 460,000 years. Recent archaeological studies in the Yangtse River area have provided evidence of ancient cultures (and rice cultivation) flourishing more than 11,500 years ago, contrary to the conventional belief that the Yellow River area was the cradle of the Chinese civilization. The Neolithic period flourished with a multiplicity of cultures in different regions dating back to around 5000 B.C. There is strong evidence of two so-called pottery cultures, the Yang-shao culture (3950-1700 B.C.) and the Lung-shan culture (2000-1850 B.C). Written records go back more than 3,500 years, and the written history is (as is the case with Ancient Egypt) divided into dynasties, families of kings or emperors. The voluminous records kept by the ancient Chinese provide us with knowledge into their strong sense of their real and mythological origins – as well as of their neighbors.
By about 2500 B.C. the Chinese knew how to cultivate and weave silk and were trading the luxurious fabric with other nations by about 1000 B.C. The production and value of silk tell much about the advanced state of early Chinese civilization. Cultivation of silkworms required mulberry tree orchards, temperature controls and periodic feedings around the clock. More than 2,000 silkworms were required to produce one pound of silk. The Chinese also mastered spinning, dyeing and weaving silk threads into fabric. Bodies were buried with food containers and other possessions, presumably to assist the smooth passage of the dead to the next world. The relative success of ancient China can be attributed to the superiority of their ideographic written language, their technology, and their political institutions; the refinement of their artistic and intellectual creativity; and the sheer weight of their numbers.
A recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the sedentary Chinese against the threats posed by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory in the north, northeast, and northwest. China saw itself surrounded on all sides by so-called barbarian peoples whose cultures were demonstrably inferior by Chinese standards. This China-centered ("sinocentric") view of the world was still undisturbed in the nineteenth century, at the time of the first serious confrontation with the West. Of course the ancient Chinese showed a remarkable ability to absorb the people of surrounding areas into their own civilization. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule.
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Most of the items I offer come from the collection of a family friend who was active in the field of Archaeology for over forty years. However many of the items also come from purchases I make in Eastern Europe, India, and from the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean/Near East) from various institutions and dealers. Though I have always had an interest in archaeology, my own academic background was in sociology and cultural anthropology. After my retirement however, I found myself drawn to archaeology as well. Aside from my own personal collection, I have made extensive and frequent additions of my own via purchases on Ebay (of course), as well as many purchases from both dealers and institutions throughout the world – but especially in the Near East and in Eastern Europe. I spend over half of my year out of the United States, and have spent much of my life either in India or Eastern Europe. In fact much of what we generate on Yahoo, Amazon and Ebay goes to support The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, as well as some other worthy institutions in Europe connected with Anthropology and Archaeology.
I acquire some small but interesting collections overseas from time-to-time, and have as well some duplicate items within my own collection which I occasionally decide to part with. Though I have a collection of ancient coins numbering in the tens of thousands, my primary interest is in ancient jewelry. My wife also is an active participant in the “business” of antique and ancient jewelry, and is from Russia. I would be happy to provide you with a certificate/guarantee of authenticity for any item you purchase from me. There is a $2 fee for mailing under separate cover. Whenever I am overseas I have made arrangements for purchases to be shipped out via domestic mail. If I am in the field, you may have to wait for a week or two for a COA to arrive via international air mail. But you can be sure your purchase will arrive properly packaged and promptly – even if I am absent. And when I am in a remote field location with merely a notebook computer, at times I am not able to access my email for a day or two, so be patient, I will always respond to every email. Please see our "ADDITIONAL TERMS OF SALE."