Each figure bears the significant weight of martial dress and armor. The thick-sleeved tunics fall to mid-thigh over heavy leggings protected by chaps, on one of the figures painted to simulate a tiger’s pelt. That same figure is wearing a lamellar-plated skirt, outlined in red. Each wears padded shoulder guards and breast and back plates. The close-fitting helmets which rise decorative upturned points above the foreheads are bound with straps over the skulls and around the sides, the flaps fitted with ear guards The boots are upturned and flattened in front, the left foot of each balancing a large upright shield emblazoned with the fearsome visages of lions in high relief, the tops of the shields steadied by oversized hands. The faces are carefully finished with prominent bone structures, intense eyes painted black under expressive brows, sharp noses and strong lips, one with teeth exposed the other with closed mouth and both with mustaches. The robust figures were fashioned from earthenware clay that turned an orange color in firing while the surfaces still retain a good deal of the original pigment, including traces of gold.
The style of armor here is known as mingguangkai, “bright-and-shining armor,” characterized by pairs of breast and back plates made of metal polished to a mirror sheen, and worn not only on the battlefield but also by court officials.1 Military figures garbed in this style of armor often hold large shields identical to those of the present figures, and while the great similarity between many of these figures suggests some might have been made from the same mold, the faces here are set somewhat apart, actually handsome in comparison to most. Stylistically overall they fit well into the first half of the 6th century, which was dominated by the Wei states of the Turkic Xianbei nomads, and pre-dating the columnar figures that became the hallmark of later Northern Qi and Sui sculpture of the second half of the 6th century.
1. Albert Dien, “A Study of Early Chinese Armor,” Artibus Asiae, vol. XLIII: 1-2, 1982, especially pp. 25-30.
Fig. 1: Armored earthenware figure, 6th century, after Albert Dien, “A Study of Early Chinese Armor,” Artibus Asiae, vol. XLIII: 1-2, 1982, pl. VIII.
Fig. 2: Armored earthenware figure, mid 6th century, from a tomb at Wanzhang, Cixian, Hebei province, after Kaogu jinghua, Beijing, 1993 fig. 1, pl. 283.
Fig. 3: Back view of figure 2, ibid., fig. 2, p. 283.