These rare plaques record a moment of interaction between the two protagonists in a manner so sensitive that it belies the qualities of the material itself. The openwork treatment of the plaques accentuates the unusual pictorial quality of the scene, as do the plaque's borders, which act like a frame. Even within such a restricted format, several subtle pictorial devices define the relationship between the four figures. The most important of these is the stylized tree that emerges from the lower right hand comer of the plaques, spreading towards the upper left hand comers. The tree separates the two seated figures on the left from the two standing attendants at the right-hand edge.
Several details reveal that there is an imbalance in status between the two seated figures, with the figure towards the centre of the plaque having the more prominent position. He is also seated on a higher platform than his companion. They are separated by a small table or cooking pot over which an offering is being presented to the central figure. The difference in status between the two is again made apparent by the manner of offering. The figure to the left uses both hands to present his offering while the recipient is rather casually accepting it with one hand; his other arm is shown propping him up with its sleeve hitched.
The figures’ garments are typical of Han dynasty dress with their long sleeves, rolled collars and low waists, seen more commonly in pottery funerary figurines of the period. However, much of our knowledge of the conventions of Han dress come from tomb reliefs and paintings, to which these plaques are related.
The format of these plaques is based on that of belt plaques that were commonly used by the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes that roamed China’s northern frontiers. Throughout the Western Han period, threat of invasion from the north made the protection of the borders a national concern. Belt plaques, however, became a popular commodity among the Chinese who must have been exposed to the art of the nomads through commissions and trade. Several Han period Chinese burials have been excavated in which belt plaques in the style of nomadic art were buried alongside more traditional Han Chinese burial items. This provides evidence both for the influence of the nomads and their art as well as the status of the owner who wished to display his or her cosmopolitanism. It is only through having close contact with the nomads that he would have developed an appreciation of their artistic forms.
Unlike nomadic belt plaques, these plaques depict a scene featuring only people. In many nomadic belt plaques, animals and animal imagery in varying degrees of stylization or abstraction are given prominence. Where humans are featured, they are often shown only in relation to animals, for example, as riders or in combat with them. That this scene features humans alone shows the influence of Han Chinese artistic conventions, as found in scenes in Han tomb reliefs and paintings. It is probable that these plaques were produced by Chinese craftsmen for a Chinese patron utilizing a nomadic artistic convention that, like the nomads themselves, had been gradually absorbed into Chinese culture.
The figures shown in the plaques wear pointed hats, which are one of the visual attributes given to peoples known during the Han period as hu or ‘barbarians’. The term was used specifically to refer to the Xiongnu, though after the Han it was used to denote all foreigners. The greatest numbers of representations of ‘barbarians’ are to be found in stone in Shandong province where stone carving was particularly highly developed during the Han period. Representations of ‘barbarians’ were stereotyped, showing them with pointed hats, deep-set eyes and large noses. However, the different contexts in which such representations have been found reveal that there were a number of levels at which such images were used.
While stereotyping made foreigners, understood to be strange, mysterious, culturally different but above all inferior, more palatable, it also became useful shorthand for otherness. The nomad ‘barbarians’ heralded from the north and the west. In Chinese cosmology, the north is associated with the netherworld and thus ‘barbarians’ were regarded as the guardians of the netherworld. However, the west was also understood during the Han period as the home of the immortals. The greatest numbers of ‘barbarian’-type figures have been found depicted in tombs as immortals. It would appear, then, that the images of foreigners, thought of as exotic and strange, were absorbed into a larger pantheon of mythological and spirit creatures.
These plaques may be interpreted as depicting a scene from a story about immortals, but the possibility that the scene is a secular one cannot be ruled out. The act of tribute-giving between representatives of different tribes or interests was practiced well into China’s modem history. ‘Civilizing’ the four barbarian tribes and receiving their tribute from brought from afar was a central political ideal of ancient Chinese rulers. Such tributes were viewed as gifts from heaven.
These extraordinary plaques are a rare example of the complexity of ancient Chinese life in which religious and folk beliefs as well as historical events contributed to the way in which artistic expression developed. Intricate in their composition and design, these plaques are a fitting testament to the iconographic depth of Han dynasty art that cannot be understood in isolation but as part of a greater system of expression that included painting and sculpture, as well as bronze.
Zheng Yan, ‘Barbarian images in Han art’, Orientations, June 1998, pp. 50-59.
Private Collection, Hong Kong, 1968.
New York art market, 1991.