Cosmopolitisme in the Tang Dynasty: A Chinese Ceramic Figure of a Sogdian Wine- Merchant
by Suzanne G. Valenstein
This monograph investigates a Tang-dynasty (618–907) fifteen-inch-high, white porcelaneous figure of a Sogdian wine-merchant that is one of the most remarkable examples of Chinese mortuary sculpture to come to light in recent years. Only six Tang porcelaneous figures have been located during this investigation, and no documented analogous tomb figures appear to have been published to date. However, this figure—which is in the collection of Alexandra Munroe and Robert Rosenkranz—clearly belongs to a small, cohesive group of Chinese ceramic figures depicting foreign wine-merchants that can be attributed to the early Tang period.
The study shows that the figure’s relationship to a very small group of analogous tomb figures substantiates the attribution of “early Tang dynasty, ca. 625–75” assigned to this piece. It also considers hu ren, a term that by the Tang dynasty had come to refer specifically to those non-Chinese people with origins in the “Western Regions,” especially the Sogdians. These hu ren, or non-Han Westerners, are portrayed in the art of the Tang dynasty as having curly hair, heavy beards, a prominent nose, and deep-set eyes. Recent archaeological findings have verified the identification of the Rosenkranz, Croës, and Cernuschi ceramic figures, as well as the Duan Boyang head, as ethnic Sogdians, an Eastern Iranian people whose home, Sogdiana, lay in a region that encompasses today’s Uzbekistan and part of Tajikistan.
The book also delves into the construction of the figures and the head, taking into consideration the fact that the nature of China’s clays dictated the development of both its high-fired porcelaneous wares and low-fired earthenwares. The history of both ceramic types is helpfully summarized.
The history of Chinese mortuary furnishings, known as mingqi, is also discussed; these were manufactured for the afterlife. This study traces the evolution from the human sacrificial victims that were placed in Chinese tombs to meet the needs of the dead during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–ca. 1046 BC) to surrogate Tang-dynasty mingqi porcelaneous figures of Western wine-merchants.
The study then examines the various decorative motifs on the Rosenkranz figure and its analogous examples—tasseled streamers issuing from an ornamental disk, the makara, pearled roundel, monster-mask, five-petaled palmette, and the dragon set in a pearled roundel. These are traced both chronologically and geographically to their origins. Most of these ornamental motifs can be found in the West. They were passed along a large and complex system of cultural interaction and exchange that can be traced from ancient Egypt and Greece until they eventually reached China. At the same time, most of these ornamental elements can be directly or indirectly associated with the Buddhist religion, which originated in India and came to northern China from India by way of Central Asia.
The most remarkable feature of this Rosenkranz figure is its porcelaneous body. As opposed to the literally thousands of known Tang-dynasty earthenware tomb sculptures, only six Tang porcelaneous figures have come to light during this study. This paucity of porcelaneous tomb figures is not surprising, which makes this study all the more unqiue.
Cosmopolitanism in the Tang Dynasty will be valuable to art historians, particularly specialists in the history of Chinese ceramics; to scholars investigating Chinese mortuary practices; to medieval historians; as well as to others whose interests lie in China and the West, and in the Silk-Road trade that connected these two different worlds.
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