Ceramic Sculptures From Ancient China on Display in Moscow Museum

By Oksana Khan

MOSCOW—On display in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, an exhibit called the “Guardians of Time,” spotlights 34 sculptures from ancient China up to 2,000 years old. The oldest of the artifacts were created during the Han Empire, during the second century BC.

The statuettes, or ming qi, meaning “bright things” or “models,” were crafted from ceramics, wood, and other materials.

Among them is a small figure of a grinning boar. It is believed to be a symbol of the forest’s courage and wealth of natural resources. In China, the wild pig was domesticated as far back as the Neolithic period, the end of the Stone Age.

A small sculpture of a grinning boar
A small figure of a grinning boar, believed to be a symbol of the forest’s courage and wealth of natural resources on display at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia on March 8. 2019. (Screenshot/NTD)

“The Han dynasty began to make things smaller,” said Kirill Danelia, collector of antiquities of the East. “Because the first great emperor made a terracotta army, which greatly undermined the economy of the empire. So [the] Han dynasty greatly reduced the size of the models.”

Zodiac Guardians

Twelve animal figures, made in the Ming Dynasty and representing what are known today as the Chinese zodiac animals, stand at the heart of the collection. In ancient China, time was measured in a cycle of 12 years. Each year was symbolized by an animal: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each day was also divided into 12 distinct time periods, and were thought to be under the protection of the same symbolic animals.

The sculptures’ attire reflects the wardrobe of Chinese officials from those dynasties, dressed in long robes and painted with a green-tinted glaze. The eye-catching color was achieved by adding lead oxide to the terracotta glaze.

“At first they were used at home altar, then accompanied the person further after death,” said Danelia. “Served as symbols of the year, a symbol of the hour … These are all things from noble people. Ordinary people in those days could not afford these things / They did the same rituals, but made of simpler materials: paper and wood.”

Guardians of Time Animal sculptures
Small figures depicting a mouse, a snake, and a sheep from the Tang dynasty on display at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia, on March 8, 2019. (Screenshot/NTD)

Crafted during the Tang Dynasty, small figures depicting a mouse, a snake, and a sheep give museum-goers a window into the most prosperous, cultured era of Chinese history. 

In China today, buying this kind of artifact is forbidden. The sculptures featured in the exhibit were exported from the country before 1949, the year the Communist Party took over mainland China.

“When China was in Renaissance, Europe laid in ruins and was literally barbaric,” said Danelia. “The 7th century of our era was sad time in Europe. But in China the Tang dynasty is the Renaissance: a game of polo, horses, court ladies, silks, poems, philosophical texts.”

The exhibition is open to public viewing until March 15.

Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia, on March 8, 2019. (Screenshot/NTD)