An excavation of hu-man traits

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

The excavation of the tomb of the Tang Dynasty general Mu Tai (660-729, buried in 730) took place in Qingcheng County in China’s Gansu Province in 2001. Unearthed were colorfully painted and realistically detailed small-scale sculptures of “foreign” peoples and their animals, such as horses and camels, which were used for transport and livelihood. These stand as counterpoints to the better known figural realism in bronzes of the earlier Warring States (475-221 B.C.) and Western Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 9) periods, and also the revered Terracotta Army made for the Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259-210 B.C.).

Tang Dynasty (618-907) China was cosmopolitan, prosperous and enjoyed dynamic cultural exchange with foreign and diverse peoples traveling the ancient mercantile Silk Road that connected East and West. The trappings of these exotic cultures became all the rage in the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), to the degree that they were incorporated into the decorative burial programs of society’s elites.

Around 60 yong (ceramic funerary tomb figures) of the hu ren (non-Han peoples of the Western regions of the Tang Dynasty) are being shown for the first time in Japan at The Museum of Oriental Ceramics Osaka in the exhibition “Tang Dynasty Tomb Figures of Hu People: Portraying the Multicultural Vigor on the Silk Road.” Belatedly, perhaps, the exhibition also commemorates the 45th anniversary of the normalizing of diplomatic relations between Japan and China.

Hu ren refers to a vast geographical and cultural spread, though a particular focus is on the ancient Iranian Sogdians who exerted considerable influence on mainstream Chinese culture. The assumedly exaggerated figural qualities of the hu tend toward realistic excess combined with almost comical caricature. Eyes are frequently sunken or bulge outward, noses are up-turned and sharply angled. Earlobes droop pendulously, beards are eccentrically groomed, and figures are clothed in fanciful clothing. Facial features, pose and costume conjoin to create dramatic images of “foreignness.”

One male figure has a suggested Indian origin in the turban he wears and the plaited hair that peeks out beneath it. Wearing a round-necked tunic, his lower-body attire almost appears to the modern eye as a pair of 1980s aerobics class leopard-print leggings. Initially the man was thought to be dancing because of his raised arms and grasping hands. Recent thought, however, suggests that he may have been originally reining in a horse or camel, the rest of the funerary tomb arrangement lost to us today.

Another hu figure of note is a pointy-bearded male wearing a shoulder-covering garment that sharply cuts down his sides, exposing his bare chest, distended belly and extraordinary sagging nipples. Fine body hair is painted on his skin in black ink.

Posed in a dramatic boastful bodily expression, his shoulders are squared and his hands rest on his bottom. The representational characteristics of his protruding eyes and clenching teeth suggest an influential relation on Japan’s early dance/drama gigaku masks, which are now housed in the repositories of the Shosoin and Horyuji temples. Such masks were created in the mid-Asuka, Hakuho and Nara periods (552-794), when Japan was the Silk Road’s eastern extremity.

“Tang Dynasty Tomb Figures of Hu People: Portraying the Multicultural Vigor on the Silk Road” at The Museum of Oriental Ceramics Osaka runs until March 25; ¥1,200. For more information visit www.moco.or.jp.