Tomb Figure of a Dog

  • China
  • China, Eastern Han period
  • 25 - 220
  • Reddish brown ceramic with traces of pigment
  • H-50 W-60
Catalogue Entry

Dogs have played important roles in Chinese culture since antiquity. During the Shang Period, dogs were commonly sacrificed in burials,1 a practice continued during the Western Zhou Period. Two hunting dogs with gold and silver collars were found in the late-fourth-century B.C. burial of the king of Zhongshan at Penggu, Hebei province.2 By the Han Period (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), real dogs were replaced by mingqi (spirit objects) such as this one in burials of the elite.

Several different breeds of domestic dogs were found in ancient China, including the chowchow, the mastiff, and the greyhound.3 The most popular was the snub-nosed mastiff, identified by a tail curled up over its back, loose skin, and ears that flop forward. By contrast, the chowchow is distinguished by ears that stand up straight, taut skin, and well-developed hindquarters. The greyhound is a slim, long-legged hunting dog--similar to those found buried with the king of Zhongshan and frequently depicted in Han reliefs--that must have originally been introduced ultimately from the West via Central Asia.

This naturalistic ceramic canine figure is a chowchow, identifiable by its pricked-up ears and strong hindquarters. A very similar ceramic dog was found in Sichuan.4 Dogs were immensely popular as house guardians during the Han Period, so their appearance as mingqi to guard the tomb is not surprising. The Shumei dog leans forward, as if straining at a lead. The harness with its chest strap would allow a dog to be chained near the door of a house without the danger of strangulation possible with a collar worn around the neck. Ceramic canine figures without harnesses and identifiable as mastiffs by their flopped-over ears have also been found in Han burials, such as the example unearthed at Lingbao Xian, Henan province.5 Dog meat was also found among the food offerings in the Han Tomb 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province,6 and was considered to have great curative value.

The Shumei dog was mold cast and low fired. Traces of red pigment in the ears, nostrils, mouth, and on the harness suggest that it was once painted.

1. Chang 1980, pp. 277, 314, 114, 82, 86, 88.
2. Tokyo 1981, pl. 36.
3. For a brief history of Chinese dogs, see Schafer 1963, pp. 76-78.
4. Cheng 1957, p. 238.2.
5. Singapore 1990-91, p. 94.
6. Chang 1977, pp. 55-56.