A “Laowai” from ancient times: A closer look at a Han dynasty bearded foreign groom

Han dynasty tomb figurine


Laowai (老外) is a common Chinese word often heard by any foreigner in China. Literally translated as “old foreigner” we often hear it all to many times. Yet, it seems foreign devils in China are not recent occurrences, judging by this foreign gentleman, who is a bearded Xianbei – Xiongnu guardian (or more likely a groom) based on the hat, eyes, large nose and upturned chin & beard.  He’s lost a hand along the way, though understandable after 2000 or so odd years. He is likely from either the Western Han dynasty or  the Northern Wei Dynasty (Ad 386 to 534). (Quite an interesting article debating the origins of the Xianbei people can be found here.) While foreign grooms are more common during the Tang dynasty, the rough features seem to lend more towards Han.

This particular Chinese tomb sculpture is about 40 cm tall, from the Shanxi – Shaanix region and is made from low temperature fired earthenware with cold-painted red and blue pigments over a white ground.  His long flowing robe is draw up in the front. While ceremonial/ritual representations and funerary art predate Han as far back as neolithic times (5000 BC – 3000 BC), it was during the Han dynasty that it flourished and became almost a true art form in itself.  Belief in the immortal world was particularly strong in all layers of society during this time. However unlike the archaic Bronze forms often seen in Shang,  Zhou and prior dynasties, Ming Qi goods were not seen as ritual offerings but rather symbolic and practical representations of personal items and were found in both the common man’s tomb as well as in royalty’s.

Often placed near the front of the tomb (or in larger tombs nooks and  in side chambers), they were intended to provide the tombs occupant with surrogates of various daily objects which might be needed for the next life. As burials became increasingly more elaborate, reaching a golden age during the Han period, an entire industry sprang up creating Ming Qi goods. Often relatively inexpensive to produce (as opposed to bronze wares), these objects would have many times been very “middle class” in nature, though not exclusively.  Nor was Ming Qi limited to pottery, as specially made clothing was even considered a form of Ming Qi.

Whats fascinating is that not only were model houses, granaries, wells, coins and even farms complete with miniature animals included, but towards the end of the third century, a vast range of different ceramic figures began to be placed in tombs as well. During and before the Shang Dynasty, human and animal sacrifice  occured and as this practice declined in the third century BC, possibly these figures were gradually considered as substitutes. They also served to show the occupants social status, military power and/or to provide protection.

Not to be confused with Sheng Qi items 生器 (which were used during the lifetime of the deceased and may have been included as well), pottery Ming Qi was deliberately made to be “non-functional” in nature.  In order to further make the distinction between the world of the living and the dead and to show humanity towards yet not confuse the dead, Ming Qi surrogates offered a delicate symbolic balance.  As Sheng Qi 生器 items may have be included as well (yet disabled in some manner so as not to be functional), an interesting ancient text states that “articles used in life (Sheng Qi items 生器) have the correct form but no function and spiritual items (Ming Qi 明器) have the right appearance but cannot be used.”

For an interesting “work in progress” database of Ming Qi Chinese tomb figurines have a look at http://www.willemclaessen.com

Han dynasty tomb figurine

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3 Comment

  1. Justin Liu says:

    The ethnic make up of ancient China is one of those things I’ve always wanted to learn more about though there is a dearth of good information in English. Thanks for the quickie history lesson.

  2. Jason @ Chesterfield sofa says:

    I think in the West we forget how beautiful artifacts are in the East – or at least take them for granted.

    Thanks for this article. Enlightening

  3. “The ethnic make up of ancient China is one of those things I’ve always wanted to learn more about though there is a dearth of good information in English” – there is still a lot to say about this.

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