The Semiotics of Ancient Chinese Art

Early Chinese art expresses a love of simplicity, nature, and organic designs. From the Neolithic Period through the 10th century, popular materials like earthenware and jade were used to create highly detailed pieces for funerary use and religious purposes. Vessels and pendants, among other works, were usually minimal and reflected the creator’s character and philosophical views like Confucianism. During the Shang dynasty (1600-1050 BC), bronze vessels and jade pieces were used in rituals to honor ancestors and gods. Later in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), Confucian ethics were better seen through elaborate burial practices. The importance of ancestor worship and the growing belief in the afterlife contributed to the use of funerary art objects like architectural models and figurines of animals and mythical guardians meant to protect the deceased from evil spirits.

Heavenly Guardian/King of the South explained in the following paragraph
“Heavenly Guardian (Lokapala),” 7th century, Chinese, Tang dynasty

This “Heavenly Guardian” from the Tang dynasty made of earthenware and pigment wears military armor from the time period. The outfit includes a helmet resembling a phoenix and epaulets, or shoulder pieces, resembling dragon heads. His raised arm used to have a weapon in it, and he triumphantly stands atop a demon. In parentheses beside Heavenly Guardian on his plaque is the word “lokapala.” This is Sanskrit for “guardian of the world” and, in China, relates to Buddhism. This sculpture is said to have been the King of the South because of his demeanor, making him one of four heavenly kings that signify the four cardinal directions. These sculptures were usually placed at the corners of an altar. They were considered Samsaric and therefore were not worshipped, operating solely as protectors.

Tomb figures typically acted as servants for the deceased in the afterlife. They were also known to be entertainers, soldiers and horses or other animals. This practice of placing sculptures in gravesites and tombs was not uncommon in ancient times. The idea of the afterlife was changing and many civilizations believed these earthly items would help their loved ones in the spirit realm. Lokapala, like the King of the South, were guards meant to repel not only evil spirits but humans as well. They protected the Dharma, or spirituality, of the person in their designated tomb.

Though we no longer tend towards burying our loved ones with objects for protection, Buddhists still view their deceased as vulnerable to evil or instability. Some current Buddhist traditions involve leaving the person undisturbed for at least 4 hours. In many cases, after about 4 days have passed, they avoid embalming if possible and are cremated. This does not exempt the possibility of burial, however, and altars are still present for family and friends to put candles and offerings, including an image of Buddha.

Two statues of Civil Court Officials explained in the following paragraph
“Civil Court Officials,” 8th century, Chinese, Tang dynasty

Other funerary sculptures included ones like these “Civil Court Officials” from the 8th century made of earthenware and polychrome glaze. They wear elaborate headpieces and standard wide-sleeved tunics over their long gowns. The glaze, or sancai, is multicolor with primarily browns, greens, and blues. Sancai is Chinese for “three colors,” so it was common to find this type of glaze executed in combinations of threes but that was not always the case. It was a technique exclusively for burial items and first seen during the Tang dynasty. The amount of glazed figures in your tomb or grave was dependent on your rank when you were alive. Sancai was later used “for large items made for temples” and became popular in other East Asian ceramic arts. (Goran 2017).

Glazing ceramics is a popular treatment that we still see today. It was originally used for practicality because most stone- and earthenware pots were “too porous to act as containers.” (Christie’s 2019) Glaze was painted on in a fashion that would keep the colors from running together, resulting in spots being left intentionally uncolored or filled in with pigment that wore away over time. The glazing technique(s) today continue to aid in waterproofing pottery, but it can also be used for aesthetics. Glaze’s color comes from oxides, which combine with the silica that’s clear but slightly green. Additionally, the temperature of a ceramic kiln effects its ability to melt and cool, so there is a risk of clay cracking. The concept of putting glaze over clay and other pottery materials dates back to ancient Greek times.

Two seated figurines wrapped up in a game of Liubo, without the board
“Liubo Game Players,” 1st century BC-1st century AD, Chinese, Han dynasty
Line drawing of a typical Liubo game board featuring a square at the center and one at each corner as well as angled lines seeming to separate the board into sections
Line drawing of a typical Liubo game board

Earlier during the Han dynasty, we find more light hearted sculpture work like the “Liubo Game Players.” They are made of earthenware with pigment that colors their robes. The figures sit on the floor and hold poses suggesting they are very wrapped up in the game. Liubo is a military battle board game whose rules have been lost over time but was most popular during the Han dynasty. The name comes from the Chinese words liu (six) and bo (sticks) and was mentioned in Confucius’ Analects. Its geometric pattern has also been seen on mirrors from the Han dynasty, and there have been boards found in numerous graves alongside other pieces like 14 sided die and figurines of players. There is debate on how the game was truly played and speculation that the rules depended on when and where the players were.

Chinese board games that are still played today resemble the geometric, gridded design of the Liubo board. Games like Go date back to the Zhou dynasty (1100-221 BC) and Xiangqi from the latter half of that same period. There’s a common theme of strategy and tactical gameplay, requiring players to capture other pieces or take up the most space on the board. Some historians theorize that Backgammon and Xiangqi actually evolved from Liubo. Maybe it was the strategy game to start them all.

Ancient Chinese art was largely used for funerary purposes. Objects excavated from tombs and gravesites tell us about the philosophies and religions from the Shang dynasty to the Tang dynasty, and beyond. There was extreme care taken in creating these pieces for loved ones who had passed, seen in sculpture details and specifically placed sancai-glaze. The intense love and respect that individuals had for their parents and elders was translated through the items placed in their burial sites and the belief that figurines like the King of the South would protect them from evil. Including recreations of people playing games and the games themselves somewhat reflect what the person buried in a particular location enjoyed during their time alive. We continue these traditions in our own ways by placing images, flowers, and stuffed animals in the hopes of comforting those who have died. Even though it’s no longer common to create these elaborate pieces for the deceased, modern day offerings still convey the same amounts of love and respect.

Works Cited

Deason, Rachel. “A Brief History of Chinese Chess.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 9 May 2017, theculturetrip.com/asia/china/articles/brief-history-chinese-chess/.

Cartwright, Mark. “Ancient Chinese Art.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Nov. 2019, www.ancient.eu/Chinese_Art/.

“Lokapala.” Lokapala – Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia, www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php/Lokapala.

Person. “Chinese Ceramics – An Expert Guide to Glazes: Christie’s.” Chinese Ceramic Glazes: Collecting Guide | Christie’s, Christies, 5 Mar. 2019, www.christies.com/features/Glazes-A-Chinese-Ceramics-collectors-guide-7651-1.aspx.

Isselhardt, Tiffany R. “The Mysterious Game of Liubo.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 28 Dec. 2016, owlcation.com/humanities/The-Mysterious-Game-of-Liubo.

“Buddhist Funerals.” The Buddhist Society: Buddhist Funerals, www.thebuddhistsociety.org/page/buddhist-funerals.

Goran, David. “Sancai: Three-Colored Glazed Figures Used in Funerary Rituals during the Tang Dynasty.” The Vintage News, 28 Mar. 2017, www.thevintagenews.com/2017/03/29/sancai-three-colored-glazed-figures-used-in-funerary-rituals-during-the-tang-dynasty/.

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