A trusty steed for the afterlife
Yellow, green and white are the three predominant colors associated with the ceramics of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). For that reason, the name sancai, or three-color, is given to the artifacts.
Actually, beyond the three hues, sancai ceramics come in many colorful variations, including black, blue and amber. San, or three, in ancient Chinese texts is an approximate number meaning many.
Colorfulness is the major character of sancai ceramics. Before the Tang Dynasty, monochromatic pottery was common, and a porcelain was decorated with at most two colors — green and yellow.
The polychromatic ceramics were an invention of the Tang Dynasty, which represented the aesthetics of the time and echoed the cultural diversity of society.
Instead of decorative artworks, sancai figurines were funeral objects placed in tombs.
The ancient Chinese believed that the figures that the artifacts stood for would become available for the service of the deceased in the afterlife. Therefore, the sancai artifacts are most often of horses, camels, drivers, servants, soldiers, officials, musicians and dancers.
Prosperous and peaceful, the Tang Dynasty was one of the most powerful nations in the world at that time.
It was the golden age for cosmopolitan culture. Poetry flourished during the era along with arts. Sancai ceramics are just one of the symbols of the dynasty.
During the reign of Emperor Taizong (598-649), considered one of the greatest emperors, the nation had a developed economy and advanced military. With comfortable living conditions, citizens, especially the aristocracy, stressed the importance of elaborate burial rituals, from which delicate sancai ware derived. The pottery also symbolizes the social status of its owner.
Coated with colored glaze, the body of the ceramics is made of white kaolin clay.
After selecting, hammering, washing, precipitating, drying and molding, the plain clay is fired at a temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius before glazing.
Sancai ware uses lead oxide as the principal flux in the glaze, which can lower the melting temperature. Adding different minerals to the glaze creates various colors, for example, copper turns green, iron gives amber, and cobalt makes blue.
The glazed pottery needs to be fired a second time at a temperature of 800 degrees Celsius.
The brilliant ceramics were not well-known to the public until the early 20th century. An array of the Han and Tang dynasties tombs were accidentally unearthed in Mangshan Mountain in Luoyang, Henan Province, when workers were building the Longhai Railway.
Lacking awareness of heritage protection, a group of workers and farmers crowded into the site to rob the tombs. The valuable sancai wares, intriguingly, were ignored by the grave robbers at first, and nobody knew the name of the artifacts then. Many of them even smashed the figurines into pieces.
Some intact ceramics were taken to Liulichang Street, an antique market in Beijing.
Although the prices were very low, there were few dealers and collectors interested in purchasing them because they considered burial objects ominous and of little value.
Hidden in the corners and under a thick layer of dust, the neglected ceramics were found by Luo Zhenyu, a Chinese scholar and antiquarian.
He was intrigued by a sancai horse and bought several pieces. He spoke highly of the artifacts in his articles due to their long history and supreme artistry. Sancai ceramics soon became popular among collectors.
In 1976, a large-scale archeological survey was conducted around Luoyang.
When the experts came to Gongyi, a county-level city belonging to Zhengzhou in Henan Province, they saw a mass of shards of white ceramics in a creek called the Baiye.
Going downstream, they also found yellow shards in the Huangye creek and concluded that some kilns of sancai ceramics were located in the area.
Thriving during the Tang Dynasty, the Silk Road was vital for trade and cultural diversity. The road deeply influenced sancai pottery.
Blue is very rare among sancai figurines. It is said its color agent — cobalt — was imported from foreign countries through the Silk Road. Besides, the market for sancai ware expanded along the Silk Road.
The relics were unearthed in countries like India, Japan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Italy.
Figures like camels and horses are the most common.
Camels played a significant role in the silk road transportation. Chin up and chest out, sancai camels look like they are walking across the desert.
With fleshy hips and wide neck, the horses featured in the sancai figurines are believed to be exotic.