This exceptional camel is one of the most handsome and dignified examples of Chinese earthenware sculpture. The quiet naturalism of the pose and the artist’s attention to detail make for a particularly sensitive portrayal of the animal. Here, the camel is not subjected to his usual heavy load of goods. Rather, he is equipped with a circular blanket topped by a simple roll or bag. Lavish ceramic figures of the Tang period were made for commemorative and memorial purposes and, therefore, had protective and symbolic meaning. In Tang culture, a camel always referred to prosperity and wealth. The immediate impact of this camel, however, remains its life-like appearance and perceptive depiction. It is an outstanding example of Chinese dynastic ceramics.
The Camel in Detail
This spectacular camel is the epitome of Tang dynasty artistic achievement. Standing proudly upright with its head raised and ears pulled back, the creature has an imposing presence. The camel is protected from its load by a circular blanket with a decorative border. The blanket has been perforated to accommodate the creature’s two humps. A simple pillow-shaped pack or roll has been slung over the blanket between the humps.
The naturalistic depiction of our camel is created through a combination of pose, details and colour. With its head precisely poised and raised nose, our camel seems to be sniffing the wind or sensing his surroundings. The head is beautifully executed with naturalistically rendered representations of eyes and hide. Likewise, the neck, which is held at a natural angle, is finished with a fringe of fur down its outer edge. The legs also carry highly textured fur, as do the humps. Traces of pigment indicate that the figure was subtly painted. The animal’s hide is a rich tan with deeper pockets of colour. The blanket and roll were also painted as well.
Although they were not indigenous to China, camels became a potent image of the success of the Tang dynasty, which was dependant on its lucrative trade with the West. Silk was one of the main commodities sought by traders, but even during the first millennium BC, long before the establishment of what we now know as the Silk Route, this material was exchanged as gift, barter, or tribute between chiefs. During the beginning of the first millennium, the intermediaries in this trade between East and West were Scythians, but gradually, the various nomadic tribes that roamed the Eurasian Steppes played a prominent role in this trade. The nomads were a powerful and threatening presence along China’s northern borders and silk was among the most important gifts offered to placate them. However, this was not a one-way exchange. The Chinese coveted the strong, fast horses from Ferghana, modern-day Tajikistan, but the nomad’s camels were highly sought after for their great load-bearing capabilities and physical tenacity. It was not until the reign of Han Wudi (141-86 BC) that China was able to establish direct contact with regions in the west, including Greek Bactria.
Our camel is a fine example of the type and can be compared to a work in the National Museum of Asian Art – Guimet, Paris. The comparative piece shares the same pose and composition, but lacks the fine articulation of the details. Our camel is a wonderful testament to the mastery with which its artist has captured the characteristics of this important part of Chinese culture.
Private Collection, Canada (B.K.W.), 1980s.