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Sancai: Three-colored glazed figures used in funerary rituals during the Tang dynasty

David Goran

Sancai (three-colors) pottery is a particular kind of pottery that evolved in the Tang Dynasty, during the late 7th and early 8th-century.

It is a type of lead-glazed earthenware figures and vessels intended exclusively for burial, and it follows the development of green-glazed pottery dating back to the Han period (25-220 AD).

Sancai figures  Photo Credit

Sancai figures  Photo Credit

 

Sancai-glazed pieces enjoy a unique status in the long history of Chinese ceramics  Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

Sancai-glazed pieces enjoy a unique status in the long history of Chinese ceramics  Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

 

Polychrome glazed pottery statue of heavenly guardian, Sancai, a collection of Shanghai Museum  Photo Credit

Polychrome glazed pottery statue of heavenly guardian, Sancai, a collection of Shanghai Museum  Photo Credit

The Tang craftsmen drew inspiration from master painters and sculptors combining them together to create these astonishing figures.  Sancai wares are among the most charming types of Chinese ceramics, known as a shining treasure among ancient Chinese pottery.

They were produced at a limited number of kilns, and the Tang government directly managed some sancai kilns. Since almost all of the pieces were originally burial objects, the Ceramic style did not attract collectors in earlier times.

Green-glazed pottery dog, Eastern Han, 25-220 AD   Photo Credit

Green-glazed pottery dog, Eastern Han, 25-220 AD   Photo Credit

 

Duck-Handled Cup. Tang Dynasty, 618 – 906 AD. Gansu Provincial Museum   Photo Credit

Duck-Handled Cup. Tang Dynasty, 618 – 906 AD. Gansu Provincial Museum   Photo Credit

 

A horse figure, one of the most popular sancai figures  Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

A horse figure, one of the most popular sancai figures  Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

 

Tang dynasty tomb figure, sancai horse, 7th-8th-century  Photo Credit

Tang dynasty tomb figure, sancai horse, 7th-8th-century  Photo Credit

 

Sancai horse. Palace Museum, Beijing   Photo Credit

Sancai horse. Palace Museum, Beijing   Photo Credit

 

Sancai camel with Persian merchant   Photo Credit

Sancai camel with Persian merchant   Photo Credit

 

Left – Earthenware Tang dynasty tomb figure with sancai glaze, 7th-8th century   Photo Credit Right – Sogdian on a camel, in sancai, Tang dynasty tomb figure    Photo Credit

Left – Earthenware Tang dynasty tomb figure with sancai glaze, 7th-8th century   Photo Credit Right – Sogdian on a camel, in sancai, Tang dynasty tomb figure    Photo Credit

People have found a variety of three-colored glazed burial wares in many tombs of the Tang Dynasty. The pieces were commonly shaped as soldiers, slaves, and foreigners.

The largest and most popular ones were the representations of camels and horses that were cast in sections, in molds with the parts luted together using clay slip. In some cases, a degree of individuality was imparted to the assembled figurines by hand-carving.

Sancai pottery from an 8th-century found in a Chinese tomb   Photo Credit

Sancai pottery from an 8th-century found in a Chinese tomb   Photo Credit

It is a type of decoration on Chinese pottery which is made by using mainly three colors. However, the colors of the glazes which were used to decorate the wares of the Tang Dynasty were not limited to three in number. Sometimes, for their use of green, yellow, and white, sancai wares were referred to as egg-and-spinach by collectors in the West.

Read another story from us: John Kay was a caricaturist who made caricatures of all public figures in Scotland during the 18th century

Sancai continued to be produced in later periods, very often for large items made for temples and it also became a popular style in Japanese and other East Asian ceramic arts.