A Set of Ten Entertainers and Two Dancers

  • China
  • China, Tang period
  • 618 - 907
  • Ceramic and pigments
  • H-20 D-9 W-8.5
Catalogue Entry(1997)

Life in Chang'an, the cosmopolitan and culturally diverse capital of the Tang dynasty, is extensively documented in excavated tombs. Murals in more than sixty Tang-period tombs around Chang'an depict the opulent and sophisticated everyday life of the aristocracy.1 In addition, several murals feature female entertainers and dancers whose dress and hairstyles are similar to those found on tomb figures from the Shumei collection.2

These tomb figures are slimmer and more three-dimensional than their previous Sui-dynasty (589-618) counterparts. The potters paid more attention to the details of dress, hairstyles, and even makeup then in vogue. In fact, artisans were so accurate in their facial details that even eyebrow shapes can be traced to particular dates, and those found on the figures help date the Shumei pieces to from the early to mid-seventh century.3 Ten entertainers are seated on square bases; seven were originally depicted as playing musical instruments, but one of the instruments is now missing. Two dancers are featured in graceful swaying dance poses with right arms extended. All twelve figures were molded and then, after firing, their pink-toned clay bodies were colored with a white slip. Red and green pigments color all twelve figures' garments, which are identical in cut, with the exception of the dancers' sleeves, which extend beyond their hands. This dress style, a holdover from Sui dynasty, was still popular in the early years of the Tang.4 The costume ensemble includes a long dress, with a pleated or striped skirt, a low-cut bodice, narrow sleeves, and an empire waist. A shawl-like garment, called a ban hi, which partially covers the arm, is worn over the bodice.5

The single chignon hairstyle of the musicians and the double bun hairstyle of the dancers, popular in the previous dynasty, were adopted in the early Tang period, primarily by court women. But the coiled buns featured on the Shumei figures have more volume, and tomb murals indicate that such coiled buns were often wrapped in cloth, giving the illusion of their being hats.6 All figures feature white faces, chests, and hands. Historical records and literature indicate that Tang women applied a white lead power--a cosmetic used in China since the Shang period (1500-1028 B.C.)--before applying rouge and lipstick.7 The figures' lips were colored red, and their hair, eyes, and eyebrows painted black.
Although a group of twelve female entertainers are found etched on the wall of Emperor Li Shou's tomb,8 extant clay tomb figure sets generally number fewer than twelve. A similar set of twelve figures is part of a Japanese collection.9 Sets with fewer than twelve figures have been excavated from tombs in Henan and Shaanxi provinces.10

1. Li 1994, pp. 27-30.
2. For Tang-period women dancers wearing similar dresses and hairstyles see Wenwu 1959.8, pp. 31-33. For examples of Tang women entertainers, see carved stone murals found in Li Shou's tomb is illustrated in Shaanxi sheng bowuguan 1990, p. 114; a wall painting also featuring women entertainers from Li Shou's tomb is in Zhongguo bihua shi gang 1995, pl. 20.
3. Zhou and Gao 1991, p. 131.
4. Zhou 1984, p. 202.
5. Zhou and Gao 1987, p. 77.
6. For examples of this particular hairstyle see: the carved stone murals in the tomb of Yong Tai, dated 706 (Shaanxi wenwu luyou bolan 1995, p. 264), and the Wei Jiong tomb, dated 692, at Wangchun village, Chang'an, Shaanxi province. See also He, Zhang, and Guo 1987, p. 22.
7. Zhou and Gao 1987, p. 149.
8. Li Shou reigned from 618 to 626, died in 631, and was buried in 632.
9. See set illustrated in Sugimura 1966.
10. For set of six see Wenwu 1992.3, pp. 1-7; see also figures from the tomb of Zheng Rentai, Shaanxi province in Wang 1992, p. 214.

Catalogue Entry(2004)

Female Dancers and Musicians
Painted pottery
Tang dynasty
Dancers: H. 20.2cm
Musicians: H. 15.5cm
Miho Museum

This group of figurines consists of two dancers and ten female musicians on a rectangular plinth. The dancers have long fluttering sleeves. The musicians are seated, playing instruments. All of the figurines were made from slightly peach-tinged, white clay. The major parts of each figure were mold-formed. The remaining areas, such as heads, hands, and accoutrements, were made separately to allow for different gestures depending on each figurine’s role. After firing, the figures were coated with white slip and then painted. The women wear relatively low-rise hair buns. Their upper bodies are draped in long-sleeved short jackets which leave most of the chest exposed, with shawls draped over the jackets. The sinuously twisted hips of the dancing figurines share common features with the musicians, albeit have different hairstyles. They wear long skirts that drape from the chest down to the floor. The figures of the musicians, including their facial expressions, are extremely close in depiction to the attendant women seen at cat. Nos. 31 and 34, but here there is no glaze use as seen on the attendant female figurine at cat. No. 34 excavated from Zhang Shigui’s tomb. Also, the figures in this group do not have the revolutionary degree of realistic expression seen in the musicians and dancers figurines at cat. No. 35, excavated from Zheng Rentai’s tomb. Thus, if we were to posit a production date for this group of attractive figurines in terms of the stylistic changes seen in Chang’an figurines, we can consider a date around the first half of the 7th century, prior to the burial dates of the cat. Nos. 34 and 35, both of which were around 660.