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Mingqi

CHINESE TOMB FIGURINES

BY
WILLEM CLAESSEN

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Tomb figurines of mythical figures

The majority of Mingchi are realistic since they are modelled on recognizable forms from everyday life. A number of Mingchi are clearly more fantastic than realistic and exhibit combinations of human and animal features. In some instances, the meaning or role of the figures is not yet clearly known. Some might have been created as an auspicious omen while others seem to have been designated as protectors to fend evil spirits from the tomb and its occupants.

An image which appears frequently on tomb murals and sculpture is that of the intertwined mythological deities of ceation - Fuxi, a male and Nuwa, a female.

A second type of auspicious image is the human-headed fish.  In traditional Chinese symbolism, fish are associated with wealth or abundance because of the similar pronunciation of the words for fish and wealth (both are pronounced yu).

Other beasts, some clearly fantastic and others quite naturalistic, were apparently created as ferocious guardians that fended off evil from the tomb. Beginning from the Han period , a type of winged feline creature is found in tombs.  A roaring mouth and staring eyes are typical features. Large standing versions, carved in stone, are found above the ground at tomb sites of the Six Dynasties period.  During the late Han period, the lion was traditionally designated as a guardian of the tomb.

Such composite beasts have been called by a variety of terms in English and Chinese, including chimera, guaishou (strange animal), or tianlu (heavenly deer). Currently, the correct Chinese term for such beasts is zhenmushou, literally "tomb guardian creature".