Cultures & Traditions


According to early Chinese belief, the soul of the deceased had two distinct parts: one that remained with the human body at death and one that traveled to paradise. The part of the spirit that journeyed to paradise was given provisions such as food and money while tombs were furnished to make sure the part that remained would be comforted by familiar surroundings and protected from evil forces. In early periods, it was Chinese custom to sacrifice and bury with dead persons their wives, attendants, and servants, together with various animals and vessels containing grain and wine. Also included were weapons, ceremonial bronze and pottery vessels, and certain prescribed articles of ceremonial dress. This custom of human sacrifice appears to have been discontinued during the latter half of the 6th century B.C.E. and was gradually replaced by substituting replicas of human sacrifices. These m__ingqi or “spirit objects” are pottery or wood figures buried with the deceased in underground tombs in the form of attendants, animals, and objects of everyday use.

The Qin (221-206 B.C.E.) and Han (206 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) dynasties are especially noteworthy for their mingqi. The armies of the state of Qin, under the leadership of Qin Shi Huangdi (r. 221-210 B.C.E.), conquered all rival states, imposing order on political chaos and unifying the country. As the first Emperor of China, Shi Huangdi built the Great Wall and suppressed Confucianism. Upon his death, an immense funerary complex was constructed which replicated his palace and contained life-size ceramic figures of his armies and courtiers. Also on his death, the people of Qin revolted, which led to the founding of a new dynasty, the Han. Despite these political changes, the tradition for elaborate burial rituals and funerary complexes continued into the Han dynasty. Wealthy noble families created great tombs containing myriad objects for the care and comfort of the departed. Although these funerary offerings came in a variety of media, the only pieces that survive in significant numbers are of bronze and ceramic.

With the accession of the emperors of the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.), the mortuary ware industry entered a period of great activity. The amount and quality of the ware placed in the tomb depended on the wealth of the deceased. The grave of a poor man might include six or a dozen small objects which were usually mass-produced, while the wealthy had many more finely produced objects. Many tombs of royals and nobility were ostentatiously decorated, and funerary art became a means for the public display of wealth in funeral processions that paraded these objects through the streets before the burial. Mingqi became so popular and funerary art so abundant that authorities eventually gave orders limiting the number and size of mingqi allowed in a tomb. These regulations varied according to the rank of the deceased and seem to have been largely disregarded. The use of mingqi in tombs reached its peak during the Tang dynasty but continued on a lesser scale for several centuries. After the fall of the Tang dynasty in the 10th century, mingqi decreased in number and burials became more austere.

Adapted from

  • "Tombs and Funerary Art," DMA Connect, 2012.
  • Charles Venable, DMA unpublished material, 1995.
  • DMA unpublished material.

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