A distinctive early 6th-century Northern Wei period style is manifest in the present figure, from its slender, elongated, compressed form to the delicately detailed face with a hint of a smile to the dapper outfit–cap, jacket and pantaloons. Further the present retains much of the original color over its refined grey earthenware body. A cohort of kindred figures have been excavated from datable Northern Wei period tombs, their numbers increased by museum and private collection holdings (figs. 1-4). The present stands out nevertheless for its extreme attenuation and a sense of fragility and the sublime tenderness of its expression.
The distinctive sculptural style of these figures was created by the end of the 5th century, when the Turkic Xianbei dynasts moved their capital to the old city of Luoyang in Henan and it continued to be the predominant figural style in their arts until the end of their rule in A.D. 534. Unnaturalistic attenuation along with flattening of forms, the flat patternization of facial details and clothing, as well as unnaturalistic proportions, are the special features also characterizing the figures depicted in the Buddhist sculpture, pictorial engravings and paintings of the period. The privileged of this foreign dynasty, as was true of most elites throughout Chinese history, had in their service, recruited through the officialdom and the military, individuals to ensure the safety and security of their dynasty and their own personal well-being as well. Those retainers are immortalized in such figures as the present who carried the duties of the living they represented on into the afterlife.
Fig. 1: Earthenware official, Northern Wei dynasty, early 6th century A.D., from the tomb of Wang Wen (d. A.D. 532 ), Beichen village, Luoyang, Henan province, after Wenwu, 1995:8, color plate 1 (opposite p. 16).
Fig. 2: Earthenware official, Northern Wei dynasty, early 6th century A.D., from the tomb of Yuan Shao (d. A.D. 520 ) and his wife (d. A.D. 528 ), Luoyang, Henan province, after Kaogu, 1973:4, fig. 4:2, p. 219.
Fig. 3: Earthenware officials Northern Wei dynasty, early 6th century A.D., from the tomb of Yuan Shao (d. A.D. 520) and his wife (d. A.D. 528), Luoyang, Henan province, after Kaogu, 1973:4, fig. 5:1-2, p. 220.
Fig. 4: Earthenware official, Northern Wei dynasty, early 6th century A.D., from a tomb in Yanshi, Henan province, after Kaogu, 1993:5, p. II:3.