Western Han Terracotta Sculpture of a Spotted Ox - H.662
Circa: 206 BC to 9 AD
Dimensions: 15.25" (38.7cm) high
Style: Western Han Dynasty
The overextension of the labor force during the Qin Dynasty would result in a popular uprising against the empire. In 206 B.C., Liu Bang, a Qin official, led an army composed of peasants and some lower nobility to victory and established his own Dynasty in place, the Han. However, unlike the Qin, the Han would unify China and rule virtually uncontested for over four hundred years. It is during this time that much of what is now considered to be Chinese culture was first actualized. The bureaucracy started under the Qin was now firmly established. The vast lands of China were now under the firm grip of a central authority. Confucianism became the state ideology although the worship of Taoist deity remained widespread, both among the peasants and the aristocracy. Ancient histories and texts were analyzed and rewritten to be more objective while new legendary myths and cultural epics were transcribed.
The Han era can also be characterized as one of the greatest artistic outpourings in Chinese history, easily on par with the glories of their Western contemporaries, Greece and Rome. Wealth pouring into China from trade along the Silk Road initiated a period of unprecedented luxury. Stunning bronze vessels were created, decorated with elegant inlaid gold and silver motifs. Jade carvings reached a new level of technical brilliance. But perhaps the artistic revival of the Han Dynasty is nowhere better represented than in their sculptures and vessels that were interred with deceased nobles. Called mingqi, literally meaning “spirit articles,” these works depicted a vast array of subject, from warriors and horses to ovens and livestock, which were buried alongside the dead for use in the next world, reflecting the Chinese belief that the afterlife was an extension of our earthy existence. Thus, quite logically, the things we require to sustain and nurture our bodies in this life would be just as necessary in our next life.
During the Han Dynasty, sculptural effigies of domesticated animals were often interred in the tombs of nobility and elite members of the social hierarchy. Created in all media, these sculptures accompanied the spirit of the deceased into the afterlife. This bovine sculpture is exceptional for two reasons. While similar examples exist, most were found harnessed to wagons and carts and were meant to function as beasts of burden. However, this sculpture was discovered buried as part of a herd, contained inside a pen with other domesticated animals, suggesting that this ox served as food. Besides it function, this sculpture is also remarkable for its massive size and exquisite state of preservation. The painted coat of white spots against a black background imitates the classic black and white pattern typical of bovines. Such delicate painted surfaces rarely survive the ravages of time and the stresses of excavation.
The Han culture believed that the afterlife was a continuation of our earthly existence. Thus, logically, as humans require food to nourish our bodies on earth, so too will we require food to nourish our souls in the afterlife. However, even in this incomplete state, the evocative nature of this sculpture is uncanny. The charming facial structure of this ox is so naturalistic that one feels the presence of the animal possessing this sculpture. Created to serve as food for the afterlife, this work is more than a mere sculpture; it is a gorgeous memorial to the religious and philosophical beliefs of the Han Dynasty. This ox effigy has served its eternal purpose well. Today, it continues to nourish our souls with its beauty and grace. - (H.662)