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Pottery Pooches a Lasting Legacy of Han Dynasty

Nanyang, a historical city in central China's Henan Province, is renowned for its wealth of relics dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

Of the large number of figurines unearthed in burial sites in the city, pottery dogs are among the most unique. These marvelous animated tomb figurines display the dynamic qualities of Han funeral objects and provide a wonderful portrait of everyday life in the Han Dynasty.

Nanyang, the "southern capital" where Emperor Guangwu rose to power, was one of the most prosperous cities in the country and spawned a vigorous middle class that wallowed in luxury. In particular, raising dogs became a favorite hobby of Nanyang's well-to-do.

People believed dogs were able to protect them from evil and help them enjoy a peaceful life in heaven. The dog was also one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac, another reason for its popularity as a tomb figurine.

Archaeologists discovered that in the Han Dynasty tombs in Nanyang -- both large and small -- pottery dogs were always found buried alongside their owners.

According to "Liji (Book of Rites)," which was compiled in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), domesticated dogs were mainly divided into three types: watchdogs, hunting dogs and dogs for diet.

Most of the pottery dogs unearthed in Nanyang fall into these three categories, along with a kind of toy dog favored as pets by the aristocracy.

The dazzling variety of tomb figurines illustrates the Han artist's ability to embody the spirit of the animal in sculptured form.

They vary remarkably in size and shape, with the largest standing 56 centimeters tall and the smallest a mere 5 centimeters. They are either squatting, standing or reclining.

During the early period of the Han Dynasty, the dog figurines were mostly made of gray clay (occasionally red), and featured realistic styles. Most were watchdogs with a slightly raised head and an alert expression.

A gray reclining dog figurine unearthed in Nanyang was one of the representative artworks of the period. The dog has an elongated neck, perhaps a deliberate artistic feature to accentuate the idea of movement. With its raised head, pricked up ears and open mouth suggesting a bark, the overall impression is that it was suddenly roused from sleep -- perhaps a reference to its role as a watchdog.

With the development of glazing in the middle and late period of the Han Dynasty, the earthenware figurines were covered with a low-fired, lead-fluxed coating, with copper added as a colorant before it was fired in an oxidizing kiln.

Copper green and iron-derived yellow and reddish brown make up the normal palette of the Han glazed pottery dogs.

The figurines from this period feature more advanced craftsmanship and sophisticated designs. For example, a reddish-glazed hunting dog found in Qilingang features a sturdy, compact body standing at alert. The dog's head is raised, and the face features a half-open mouth and two protruding eyes.

In addition to reflecting realistic form, potters of the late Han Dynasty used artistic exaggeration when fashioning dog figurines.

Another reddish-glazed dog unearthed in downtown Nanyang is a good example. At first sight its round head, cocked ears, snarling mouth and protruding teeth look more like a ferocious tiger.

Whatever the style, experts agree these dog sculptures are the treasure of Han Dynasty pottery and have both historic and artistic value.

(China Daily September 1, 2003)

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