Entertainers such as acrobats, dancers and musicians were among the many foreigners travelling to the Chinese capitals of Luoyang and Chang’an during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). They performed at the imperial court or in rich households and were represented both in pottery and bronze. The present figure probably portrays one of those entertainers sent as tribute from a foreign country that had been conquered in the course of the Han territorial expansion.
Figures of bronze lamp or candle bearers are well known from the funerary items found in Han tombs. Usually cast in the static form of kneeling servants, figures of performers do not otherwise appear to be recorded in such a lively snce.
The current figure’s non-Chinese appearance, notably the high-ridged nose, the curly hair tied in a knot and the semi-naked attire, evokes that of an Eastern Han period (AD 25-220) bronze lamp bearer in the Hunan Provincial Museum, Changsha, illustrated in Jonathan Tucker, The Silk Road. Art and History, London, 2003, fig. 98, together with a virtually identical lamp holder of the Dong Son culture (c. 1000 BC – 1st century AD), datable around the 1st century AD and reportedly found in Northern Vietnam, fig. 99.
These two near identical objects, which have been discovered more than 550 miles apart, reflect the extensive cultural exchange between China and its southern border states. In 111 BC, the Han troops defeated the independent kingdom of Nanyue, composed of present-day Northern Vietnam, Guangdong and Guangxi. The founder of Nanyue, Zhao Tuo (r. 203-137 BC) was originally a Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) general, who had fled to the south after the fall of the Qin. The succeeding king, Zhao Mo (r. 137-122 BC), is known to have kept close cultural ties with China, as witnessed by the presence of both Han period and Dong Son culture artifacts in his tomb, see Tucker, op.cit. p. 85.
Compare a related figure of a kneeling lamp bearer from the Dong Son culture, discovered at La Truong, Hau Loc district, which displays an attire similar to that of the current figure, in the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi and illustrated in John Onians, Atlas of World Art, London, 2004, p. 90.
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