items in our collection THE CAMEL IN CHINESE ART
Tang Camel
Tang Camel
Tang Camel
Northern Qi Camel
Northern Qi Standing camel

Although sporadic trading contacts had existed across the Taklimakan desert between China and the West in distant antiquity, dependable communications between these great centres of civilisation were only assured during the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-9AD) with the conquest of Central Asia by the armies of the Emperor Han Wudi. With the establishment of Chinese garrisons and forts along what was later to be called the "Silk Road", goods flowed east from Rome, Persia, Bactria, and Central Asia in return for silk, porcelain, and other manufactures from China. Able to withstand long journeys over parched deserts, camels soon became the dominant mode of transport across the barren wastes between oases. The two-humped Bactrian camel came to symbolize the exoticism and wealth of the great trading caravans, and with the revival of grand tomb sculpture during the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD), their depiction became a regular part of tomb furniture.

Early Tang camels are generally large in size, stiffer and more awkward sculpturally, and made of grey terracotta. Occasionally, they come with detachable saddle and groom riding astride. As the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) advanced, modeling became much more fluid and naturalistic, and pieces can be found in grey, red, or cream terracotta, covered with a layer of white stucco and painted with pigments. Sancai (three-color glaze) camels appear during the last quarter of the 7th century with their range of hues produced by iron, copper, and cobalt introduced into the lead glaze. White camels (clear glaze over a white slip) are rarer and consequently more precious than amber ones.

Tang camels are usually depicted with saddle bags surmounted by monster masks flung over saddle boards, and loaded with various other accoutrements such as rolls of cloth, twists of wool, jugs, flasks, and the like. They are accompanied by models of Sogdian grooms, depicted with their foreign features, usually bearded and wearing a long tunic over loose Turkish trousers, with a helmet-like "Phrygian" cap on their heads.

Originally sculpted standing foursquare on its plinth, a form of striding camel had been developed by the eighth century with its head thrown back and its mouth open in the act of calling. The added movement and vitality of this model is in keeping with the increasingly baroque sculptural tendencies of the "High" Tang period.

Two extraordinary Sancai groups exist, one of seven male musicians surrounding a "Fat lady" dancer, all atop one long-suffering camel, and the other of four foreign musicians in peaked caps surrounding a bearded male dancer atop a striped carpet draped over another herculean beast.

The Tang camel is the culmination of a sculptural tradition stretching back several centuries to the Northern Dynasties period. With the demise of the Tang Dynasty and the loss of control over the Silk Road, depictions of camels in Chinese art gradually cease.