Tang Dynasty (618 - 907)
Height: 38.7 cm (15 1/4 inches) and 36.2 cm (14 1/4 inches)
One squatting earth spirit has hooves, wings and an unglazed humanized face with prominent rounded features and elephantine ears. Its well-modelled face has a threatening expression with a knitted brow, menacing eyes and a closed mouth under a handlebar mustache. There is a dab of glaze in the middle of the forehead, most likely for decorative purposes and a single horn spirals upward. The glazed body of this guardian figure is combined with an unglazed pottery head adding realism to the appearance of the face.
The other figure has a very similar body but its draconic face is fully glazed, predominantly in straw and blue. It has fin style ears and its antennae-like horns curve inward on top. Its whole of the back is amber, smooth all the way down to the base.
Earth spirits such as these, usually found in pairs, were commonly found guarding at the entrance of Tang Dynasty tombs.
These entities come in various forms, including some with human heads. Basic features include flame-like hair, horn(s) on the head, and a monstrous head atop an animal body. Features such as these evolved from a long line of protective spirits. Exorcism and the protection of the tomb occupant were primary concerns in ancient Chinese funerary practice. Since the late Han Period, mythological creatures were molded in pottery as tomb guardians.
The brilliant sancai, or tri-color, palette of lead glazes was a Tang innovation. It was developed during the end of the seventh century and reached its peak in the eighth. Green, amber, and straw are the most prevalent colors, but blue and white were also used less frequently.
The control of blue, amber, and straw, such as on these figures, is quite extraordinary. The faces are masterfully sculpted and the level of control of the rare blue color make these figures truly exceptional treasures.
Private Collection, Toronto, Canada
Earth spirits were produced in several different sizes, however they rarely appear in such small scale as our pair. A similar pair in style and coloring, though slightly larger, is published in Ceramic Art of the World: Sui and Tang Dynasties by Masahiko Sato and Gakuji Hasebe, Volume 11, pl. 185. In Margaret Medley’s Tang Pottery and Porcelain there is a single earth spirit of similar size, though slightly varying in design, pl. 52, p. 59. Other much larger examples are published in A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, Early Wares: Prehistoric to Tenth Century by Liu Liang-yu, Volume 1, pp. 258, 259.