If anything, the T’ang Dynasty that ruled China between 618 and 907 AD, is famous for the brightly coloured tomb figurines they brilliantly modelled out of clay. These famous figurines known as mingqui in Chinese were crafted from low-fired earthenware for the exclusive purpose of high profile ceremonial burials to accompany the deceased in the afterlife.
These highly admired and distinctive pottery figurines of camels, horses, servants, dancers, musicians, courtesans and civil officials are a time capsule of society and culture in the 7 – 9th century AD. The tomb figures are always of earthenware and generally with Sancai three colour glazes – They are immensely popular among connoisseurs and collectors who appreciate their cultural and decorative context. Terracotta armies, of course, pre-date the Tang Dynasty, but it is during this reign that they were combined with the colourful lead glazes that we know today.
Chinese T’ang dynasty potters excelled at producing utilitarian pieces with great refinement and are acknowledged to have discovered porcelain. Potters of the T’ang Dynasty were the first ones to discover porcelain as we know it, when they used an exclusive type of clay to create their masterpieces.
Why we call this clay “exclusive” is because it possessed special qualities – qualities that the potters working for the T’ang Dynasty were unaware of. This special element was the presence of ample amounts of kaolin (mineral) in the clay. Besides, the T’ang potters fired the kaolin-rich clay at extremely high temperatures, which made the clay vitrify to a glass-like substance – translucent and shiny.
Surprisingly, the T’ang potters weren’t just good at creating porcelain pottery; they were also the ones who introduced the world to lead-based glazes, also known as sancai, used to add coloured gloss to the white clay.
These three colour glazes were fused over the dried white clay pottery, giving it a glossy glass-like surface. The glazes were seemingly applied with little reflection of the object itself which adds to the uniqueness and charm of these early pieces.
For the most part, T’ang potters made use of green and brown glazes on their products. The most commonly sold and appreciated sancai glazed porcelain products included sculptures of camels, horses and their riders – all glazed in the signature colours of brown, yellow and green.
The horse and the camel also became points of interests for the traders of the Islamic Empire that interacted with the Chinese artisans through the Silk Road during the Early Middle Ages. It was these Silk Road traders who introduced porcelain to the markets in West and Central Asia, where the heavy and fragile porcelain instantly gained popularity making it one of the biggest trades of the Silk Road.