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Tomb Figure of a Bactrian Camel
Tomb Figure of a Bactrian Camel, 8th century
Chinese
Earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze
32 x 10 x 25 inches (81.3 x 25.4 x 63.5 cm)
Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1964
1964-9-1
[ More Details ]

About This Figure

This sculpture of a Bactrian, or two-humped, camel was probably made as a burial object for a tomb of a wealthy person from the Tang dynasty.With his neck proudly reared, his mouth open, and teeth bared, this fine camel would have been expensive, probably only affordable to someone with means, like an aristocrat, a highranking officer, or a prosperous merchant. Other objects commonly found in tombs include fierce guardian figures, soldiers, and entertainers, representing what one might find useful in the afterlife as well as displaying the affluence and status of the family of the deceased.

This camel was decorated with a tricolor (sancai) glaze of cream, green, and amber. The glaze was allowed to run after it was splashed on, creating a free-form effect typical of such objects. The rough texture of some areas, such as the thick neck fur, the upper front legs, and the tips of the camel’s humps, has been carefully highlighted and left unglazed.

Camels symbolized the prosperity of the Silk Route—trade routes between China, Europe, and the Middle East—because they were the main form of transportation in the caravans. This one carries a variety of goods on its packsaddle boards: saddlebags with fanged guardian faces, a twist of wool, an object resembling a large leaf that may be a ladle, and a flask with a shape commonly associated with the Sasanian Empire, which ruled the area of present-day Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Indeed, camel sculptures were trade goods themselves and have even been found as far away as Japan and Egypt.

Silk Route

The Silk Route, also called the Silk Road, refers to a 5,000-mile system of trade routes that linked the eastern Mediterranean region to Central and East Asia. During its peak, the Silk Route was the longest road in the world. Merchants traveling in caravans across the route’s wide expanse carried prized commodities like silk, tea, and jade from China, often exchanging them with other traders for gunpowder, paper, and glassware from the West. Few caravans or merchants traveled the whole distance from Xi’an, the Chinese capital and center of the Silk Route, to the Mediterranean Sea. Most journeyed back and forth over one particular segment, loading goods in one oasis town and unloading them at the next one before heading back in the other direction with new goods. New caravans were organized to transport the merchandise to the next destination. Each time an item changed hands, its value rose; by the time goods reached their final destination, they commanded high prices. Animals, especially camels, were a key part of the success of these trade passages. Despite their time-consuming training and high cost, camels could carry more weight, walk on mixed terrains more efficiently, and needed less water than any other animal.

Because of the active exchange among cultures along the Silk Route, artistic styles and religious beliefs were also transmitted. Skilled craftsmen, clerics, and political envoys often trekked the network of roads, and by the time of the Tang dynasty (618–907), when this camel was made, China was among the most sophisticated and successful empires of the medieval world. Throngs of visitors from India, Persia, Arabia, Syria, Korea, and Japan filled the streets of Xi’an, making foreign languages a common part of ordinary life in China.

This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: China, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.
 

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