Pair of painted tomb guardians

Anonymous, Chinese
Pair of painted tomb guardians
China, Tang dynasty
ca. mid-8th century
Ceramic figure, Sculpture
Earthenware with silver, gold, and painted decoration
h. human-face figure 60.7 cm.; h. animal-face figure 60.0 cm. (without bases)
Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund

These spirit tomb guardians are shown subduing figures of animal-demons on top of rock plinths

These spirit tomb guardians are shown subduing figures of animal-demons on top of rock plinths.  The human-faced beast has a taloned foot on the back of a screaming deer-demon, and in each hand he grasps a snake.  The lion-faced beast guardian is seen pouncing on a squealing green-spotted, winged boar-demon, and he raises his taloned right hand while clutching a snake in the other.  Painted down the front of both beast guardians is a central band of stylized peony flowers, and side floral bands on a partly silver ground.  The forearms and ankles of both guardians are painted to simulate fur, and the beard on the human face is executed in fine lines in contrast to the strong brushwork representing the mane surrounding the lion face.  Deep thin slits are found along the tops of the arms on both figures.  They originally may have held flame-shaped spikes made of perishable material.  Flames made of ceramic are found on similar figures of the Tang dynasty (618–907).  The backs of both guardians are painted with red circles to resemble fur pelts.   


Tang burial practices mixed those of previous dynasties with different ethnic and local customs.  The prevailing belief of life after death encouraged members of the Tang ruling elite to favor extravagant burials.  Their tombs are often filled with lavish objects such as figures, gold and silver ware, silk textiles, and jewelry.  Among the most important of the tomb figures are pairings of large chimeric beast guardians and warrior guardians.  Because of their usual position near tomb gates and their ferocious demeanor, such beast figures are thought to have served as "tomb guardian creatures" (zhenmushou), sentinels capable of protecting the earthbound soul of the deceased by quelling demon spirits. 


This pair of beast guardians represents the final stage in the long sculptural evolution.  Tomb guardians may have precedents in antlered creatures carved in wood from the Warring States period (ca. 470–221 B.C.).  Excavated from tombs in southern China, many of these figures are shown with long dangling tongues and holding or biting snakes.  Burial sculptures of this type became rare in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), but vivid descriptions of fantastic creatures found in Han literature, pictorial carvings, and Buddhist iconography may have provided rich models for the subsequent evolution of tomb guardian figures.  In this later period, beast guardians have human or animal faces, feline-like bodies with pawed feet, and are shown walking on all fours or sitting on their haunches.  During the early Northern Dynasties (386–581), single beast guardians were sometimes placed in tombs.  By the sixth century, pairings of beast guardians, one with a human face and the other with a lion-animal face, were frequently buried, and often grouped with accompanying pairs of standing warrior figures. 


The standard grouping of pairs of beast and warrior tomb guardians in the Tang dynasty corresponds to mention in burial regulation of the Four Spirits (Sishen).  During the Tang, the use of the Four Spirits remained a privilege of the ruling members.  In the early Tang, beast guardians may have become associated with pairs of deerlike spirits—auspicious tianlu with one horn and apotropaic bixie with two—which may have resulted in a reassessment of their iconography.  Cloven feet replaced paws and horns were added.  The final stage in the development of tomb guardian figures occurred from the mid-seventh to mid-eighth centuries, when their function as demon quellers began to be represented visually.  Spirit beasts were shown with more human bodies sitting erect while subduing anguished demons underfoot.  Surviving examples all date to about the mid-eighth century, and have been recovered primarily from around the Tang capital of Chang'an (present-day Xi'an). 


Published References & Reproductions


Kaikodo Journal 20 (2001), cat. no. 75. 


"Tang Dynasty Guardians of the Tomb," Princeton University Art Museum Newsletter (Winter 2002), p. 8, illus.




Guardians of the Tomb: Spirit Beasts of Tang Dynasty China

      Princeton University Art Museum,  2/ 9–9/1/02


Asian galleries

      Princeton University Art Museum,  9/16/02–