This elegant, beautifully garbed, and aristocratic Tang lady stands thoughtful and self-absorbed; her contemplative air reinforced by her stance and expression. Her head, turned to the left and slightly inclined to the right, displays the delicate features of a classic plump-faced Tang beauty: elongated narrow eyes, a small nose, and full, pursed lips with the barest hint of a smile. Described by fine incised lines, her hair has been fashionably swept up from the nape of her neck, pulled forward, and secured by a comb at the crown of her head; then, at the front, the gathered hair is parted, and folded over at the temples with the looped endsbound and secured in place with two-flowered, gilt hairpins.1
This exquisite lady appears to be modeled entirely by hand from reddish-brown earthenware, and the ceramic transformed into a sensuous range of textures. Embodying the sculptural hallmarks of Tang, the keenly observed form has been fully realized in the round, is equally well-finished on all sides, and is eminently satisfying from any angle. Her posture with its subtle contrapposto conveys a strong sense of immediacy.
Fashionably attired, the figure appears to be wearing a long thin robe with a seemingly diaphanous full-sleeved jacket or blouse tied delicately at the breast as well as a shawl that crosses the midriff and drapes over the right shoulder.2 The robe falls in elegant folds over the contours of her voluptuous body, reaching down to the upturned "cloud-toed" shoes and fanning out over the base. Over this robe, she wears a wide-lapeled coat loosely draped over her left shoulder and pulled under her right arm; one sleeve hangs empty down the left side of her back, while the other hangs empty below her right arm. The red coat, which retains light green pigment on the lapel and white on the border, effectively simulates a much heavier fabric than her robe. Traces of floral decoration painted in red, cream, and black can be found on the back and sleeves of the coat.
Her clothing includes two unusual features, the coat and the gilt bracelets. Only a very small number of Tang-period clay tomb figures or mingqi represent voluptuous ladies wearing coats; two examples have been excavated from the Xian area in Shaanxi province. However, these clay sculptures depict the coat draped over both shoulders with the sleeves hanging empty, one on each side.3 The magnificent Shumei lady has two plain gilt bracelets clearly modeled on each wrist. No presently known clay tomb sculpture of a female figure from the Tang period has gilt bracelets. In addition, this figure is very heavy for its size, with a tubular vertical channel hollowed out, probably, to prevent explosion in the kiln.4 The features, the bracelets coupled with the superb level of modeling, and the unusual construction of the figure raise the question of whether this is or is not a tomb sculpture. The figure may have been created for some purpose other than burial.5
This yong figurine shows a woman in clothing that was in vogue in Tang-period China: shoes with curled-back tips; a shawl over a thin, white, long robe with long sleeves; and a red foreign-style overgarment draped on her left shoulder without her arm in the sleeve. The overgarment is decorated with a baoxianghua (“precious flower”; Jap. hosoge) floral pattern rendered in “rainbow coloring.” Many of these fashions derived from the “Western Regions,” that is, Central and West Asia. The baoxianghua pattern, for example, developed in Tang China under the influence of Central Asian plant motifs. During the High Tang period, plump women of the type depicted in the present work were regarded as paragons of feminine beauty, and many figurines like this were produced from moulds as funerary goods. However, this particular example shows exceptionally delicate workmanship and has a distinctive presence. It is thought to have been formed from a reddish-brown clay without the use of a mould, and there is also conjecture that it was made for some purpose other than for grave burial. In any case, the figure’s distinguished-looking face is wreathed with a mysterious smile.