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The vast majority of objects unearthed from tombs in China are three-dimensional clay sculptures. Know as mingqi, these pieces replicate humans, animals and everyday objects used by the deceased and were made strictly for funerary use.


Archaeological evidence suggests that the creation of images used in burial practice dates to the Shang Dynasty (1523 - 1028 BC). Wooden and clay figures began to appear during the Zhou Dynasty (770 - 221 BC). The spectacular discovery of the burial site of life-size clay soldiers and horses to accompany the first emperor of a unified China, Qin Shihuangdi (r. 221 - 210 BC), bears testimony to the sophisticated design and production of mingqi by that time.


During the next one thousand years mingqi became a central component of Chinese burial practices. However by the ninth century mingqi were produced in fewer quantities than before, and their quality declined. During the subsequent Liao (907 - 1125), Song (960 --1279) and Yuan (1271 - 1368) Dynasties, ceremic images were gradually replaced by those made from paper. Paper objects, rether then geing buried with the deceased were sent into the afterworld by burning, a custom still practiced in some Chinese communities today.