The glory of the Tang dynasty is characterized by its cosmopolitan openness to foreign trade and a rich flourishing of the arts. A mutual exchange of religion, ideas and culture occurred concurrently with the abundant trade along the Silk Road. Within this bustling environment, elite women had access to high levels of learning and the liberty to exercise political influence, as well as enjoying preferential access to freedom granted through religion. This liberal image of women is implied by Wu Zetian (624-705), China’s only female emperor (r. 690-705). Furthermore, as Tang society followed the traditions of Northern China, which was closely related to the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, women occupied powerful positions within society as well as being active in warfare and sports such as polo.
The present sculpture reflects that newfound confidence and aesthetic exchange. The figure is dressed in the fashionable Persian style of its time, in a high-waisted gown with tight sleeves, loose, flowing skirt and décolleté (a very non-Confucian feature). The seated pose, depicted upright, alert and comfortable, conveys the poise of privileged women at the time. Furthermore, the curled shoes that peep beneath the hem also indicate the mobility of Tang women, a marked contrast to the practice of foot-binding from the Song dynasty until the fall of the Qing Empire.
Amongst the celebrated sancai figures, sculptures of women constitute a rare and notable group. The present belongs to a distinct group of models of young girls, identifiable by their broad youthful faces framed in a double-bun hairstyle and dressed in striped skirts molded with floral designs. Of the group, those that feature the highly-prized blue glaze are particularly rare as blue pigment could have been more expensive than gold as the cobalt was imported from Central Asia. They possess a sense of individuality through their attractively painted features, often applied with blushing pink cheeks, delicately drawn eyes and red lips.
The style of dress and elaborate hairstyle are related to the elegant figures found on the frescoes on the west wall of the antechamber of the tomb of Princess Yongtai (685-701), discovered in the Qianling Mausoleum, Shaanxi province, in 1960 and excavated from 1964. Similarly slim-framed and dressed, with minimal makeup, the present figure appears contemporaneous to the tomb and can be attributed to the early eighth century, before fuller-figured women with heavier makeup became fashionable.
A closely related figure, but with one hand holding a flower at the chest and the other resting on the knee, inscribed to the base with black ink, Guang jia zhi nu zi (‘daughter of the Guang family’), was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th November 2017, lot 2916. Compare similar seated figures also dressed in molded robes colored in amber and green with ocher splashes, and modeled with youthful round cheeks, but lacking the blue glaze and their hair arranged in a variation of the two buns, such as one published in C. Hentze, Chinese Tomb Figures, London, 1929, pl. 63B; one sold in our London rooms, 14th April 1970, lot 62; and another offered in our London rooms, 12th June 2003, lot 98.
A related figure of a seated lady playing the cymbals, her long robe decorated with spotted stripes of dark blue and amber, was sold at Christie’s London, 12th October 1970, lot 99. Compare also a standing figure of related type, but her hair arranged in longer buns and skirt decorated in stripes of blue and amber with cream resist dots, offered at Christie’s New York, 19th March 2008, lot 515. A similar seated figure but green and amber-glazed and with hair in a tall winged arrangement from the Collection of Captain S.N. Ferris Luboshez and the Collection of A. Alfred Taubman was sold in these rooms, 16th March 2016, lot 272.
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