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Pair of Earthenware Chimera

Lengths: 29.7 cm. (11 5/8 in.)
& 28.0 cm. (11 in.)

Western Han dynasty
2nd-1st century BC

Two winged creatures each crouch on massive limbs supported on enormous rugged claws, with pointed breastbones jutting aggressively forward. The heads are rectangular in shape, held high and straight, with ears strongly cupped, stiff, and pointed backward. Pairs of thick rounded horns curve from above the brows and hug the backs of the heads as they flow down the necks to end in flat hooks above the wings. Each face is characterized by almond-shaped eyes, a flat, deeply furrowed snout with large rounded nostrils, short pointed chin and jaws pulled back in a tense grin to reveal rows of square teeth. The wings are thickly layered, geometrically shaped, and pulled tight along the swaying backs. In contrast, the haunches are more naturalistically modeled with visible muscle and sinew. The tails fall along the raised rumps and end in trefoil shapes. Each back is pierced by a square aperture bordered by a raised flange; the socket passes straight through the body and is reduced in size where it opens at the belly. The powerfully sculpted creatures are made from dark charcoal-grey earthenware clay with very slight traces of red and white pigment remaining on the surfaces.

Winged creatures known as a chimera, or bixie in Chinese, populate the worlds of stone, metal, and ceramic from the late Zhou through the Six Dynasties period. They exist in forms small enough to hold in a hand and as giants guarding the entrances of Han and Six Dynasties period tombs.1 The apertures in the backs indicate that the present beasts were used as bases or supports, perhaps for a small set of bells or chimes, perhaps for a painted wooden windscreen or room divider. The particular form of these crouching beasts with pointed chests, very geometrically conceived heads, and distinctly non-feline faces, distinguish them from the usual feline chimera of this period and are more suggestive of some snapping, toothy, crocodile-like creature. Stylistically they exist in a corridor between naturalism and abstraction, the state wherein late Zhou-Han dynasty sculpture achieves its special mark and attraction. Note how the wings are layered and protrude like flat plaques in contrast to the fat, bulging muscular legs; note too the contrast between the sharply defined, tight geometric faces and the more naturalistically rendered, though fantastically conceived, giant claws. Among the small number of comparable creatures of this species, although more benign and perky, is one from an early (fig. 1) and another from a later Han tomb (fig. 2). The earlier Han date for the present pair is supported by the style of carving and form of a third creature, discovered in a Qin period tomb in the area of the 3rd century BC mausoleum of Qinshihuangdi outside of Xi’an (fig. 3).

1. See Kaikodo Journal, I, Spring, 1996, no. 66.


Fig. 1: Earthenware chimera, 2nd-1st century BC, from a Western Han tomb in Xi’an, Shaanxi, after Shaanxi xinqutu wenwu jicui, Xi’an, 1993, pl. 31, p. 81.

Fig. 2: Earthenware chimera, 1st-2nd century AD, from an Eastern Han tomb at Xianyang, Shaanxi, after Zhongguo meishu quanji, diaosu bian, vol. 2 (Qin Han diaosu), pl. 129, p. 48.

Fig. 3: Drawing of an earthenware chimera, late 3rd century BC, from a Qin tomb outside of Xi’an, after The Arts of China, no. 92, April, 1993, fig. 24, p. 101.


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