Oil Lamp Stand in the Form of a Wrestler

  • China
  • China, Eastern Zhou period
  • 4th century B.C.
  • Bronze
  • H-24.8
Catalogue Entry

This lamp stand, cast in the form of a man with high cheekbones and small eyes, is an outstanding example of early Chinese sculpture. Inserted into a hollow cylinder in his joined hands is the stem of a circular lamp dish that has a projecting spike over which a wick for an oil lamp presumably was placed, since wax candles had not yet been invented.

The lamp bearer is represented in extraordinary detail. Every strand of his hair, which is gathered into two braids that hang down on either side of his face, is rendered realistically. His brief jacket has sewn-in sleeves with a striped pattern but no front panels, leaving his chest bare to display well-developed pectoral muscles. A skirt that wraps around his waist closes over the left hip and appears to be separate from the jacket. Boots, apparently leather, end above the ankle. The man's belt, tied at the waist, is hung with tasseled ornaments. A ring-pommeled tool in a case hangs from the belt on the right side, and a small pouch from the left side.

His appearance identifies the man as one of the pastoral peoples who inhabited the northern frontiers of dynastic China during the Eastern Zhou period, but his clothes are not those of a mounted warrior. His costume specifically identifies him as a wrestler.1 Wrestling was a major sport among the northern peoples then as now. The short jacket that leaves his chest bare is basically the same upper garment as that worn by wrestlers in Mongolia today, combined with very brief pants that leave the legs bare and cover only the essentials.2 Similarly brief pants were presumably worn by ancient northern wrestlers, but their seminudity might have been covered with a skirt when not performing, in deference to a Chinese sense of modesty, which would have dictated more appropriate attire for an entertainer at an Eastern Zhou court.

It is hard to say in which northern state the Shumei lamp was cast, but an almost identical figure now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is said to have been excavated from the royal Zhou cemetery at Jincun, near Luoyang in Henan province.3

1. For an extensive discussion of this piece see Bunker 1997.
2. Peck 1996, p. 5, fig. 3.
3. Umehara 1937, pls. 46-47; Fontein and Pal 1969, p. 177, pl. 61.