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Green-glazed dog
Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE)
Clay with green glaze
H. 40.2 cm, L. 40 cm
Excavated from Donggu River, Gaotang
Collection of Shandong Provincial Museum
(cat. #22)


The green-glazed ceramic dog stands, ferocious, with his toes poised for movement and his legs bent. Head and ears alert, he appears to strain forward either to hear his master’s command or to protect his master’s tomb from disturbance. His eyes are deep-set with large eye sockets extending down to his jowls. He bares his fangs menacingly. His harness is twisted behind his neck and wraps around the body behind his front legs. His large, upturned tail coils inward. There is a similarly posed green-glazed dog with bared fangs and open mouth in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, but it is smaller, stands flat-footed, and has a tiny tail and ears curved forward. Its disposition is much less animated and its body less articulated than the dog in our exhibition.[1]

The association of dogs with heavenly prognostications is found in one of the silk manuscripts excavated from Tomb 3 at Mawangdui (ca. 168 BCE). Entries on the manuscript concern the oracles of the clouds, and they relate specific animals to military augurs. Next to a depiction of a cloud in the shape of a dog it states: “if this appears over the city wall it will not be taken.”[2]

The apotropaic properties of the dog in Chinese religion, with regard to burials, go back to the Shang dynasty. In cross-shaped Shang tombs, a dog was often buried in the central hole at the bottom of the pit. This dog has been compared to the Manchurian psychopomp dog who guides souls to the Mountain, dwelling place of the ancestors.[3] The dog as vatic icon is confirmed in texts such as the Fengsu tongyi, in which Ying Shao describes the custom of anointing doorways with the blood of a white dog to ward off evil.[4] The Zhouli documents that when the ruler was in mourning, a dog-skin carpet was placed on the funerary chariot. The dog’s role as guide for the deceased and guardian of the tomb is given in the famous text excavated from the late Warring States or Early Qin dynasty tomb at Fangmatan near Tianshui, Gansu province.[5] According to the bamboo slip manuscripts excavated from Tomb 1, a man named Dan killed himself after stabbing a man in Yuanyong Village; he was buried and three years later (297 BCE) was released from his tomb by the underworld authorities to return to the world of the living. Dan’s patron in the living world, Xi Wu was convinced that Dan “was not yet fated to die” and initiated legal proceedings on his behalf, seeking Dan’s return to life. The declaration was made to the underworld magistrate Scribe of the Director of the Life-mandate, Gongsun Qiang, who then had a white dog dig up the pit to let Dan out. Dan stood on top of the tomb for three days and then departed. Unfortunately for him, although his body had come back to life, he still bore the scars of his death, sparse hair, and useless limbs. He then began to tell people what the deceased truly wanted in their tombs to ease their passage to the afterlife.[6] To release Dan, the dog was either situated inside the tomb and had dug up to the surface, or it was dispatched by the underworld authorities to help with his release. In either case, the presence of a dog in a tomb can be attributed to his role in guiding Dan back to the world of the living. Demonstrating the continued association of dogs with tomb burials since the Shang dynasty, dog sacrifices have been found near the entrance of an Eastern Han tomb near Luoyang and a dog on a leash was portrayed in the mural near a door to a Three Kingdoms tomb in Liaoyang, Liaoning.[7]

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. Zhongguo wenwu jinghua [Gems of China’s Cultural Relics], no. 107. There is no provenance listed for the Beijing piece. It stands 30 cm high and 29 cm long and also dates to the Han dynasty. A number of other similar dogs have been published; in all cases the Shandong dog is not only the largest example, but also the most animated in its features and the most articulated in the modeling of its body. Another similar figure, in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is 34.9 cm long. Also green-glazed ceramic, its head and body position are very similar to those of the Shandong dog. He has similar fangs, eyes, and harness, and his head and ears are perked back as if he were ready to bark. However, its tail, with only one curl, is not as elaborate, and it has four toes on each foot instead of three. Furthermore its feet, toes, and body are not articulated nearly as well as those of the Shandong model. Rose Kerr, ed., Art and Design: The T.T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1991), p. 49, fig. 14, right. A similar green-glazed dog unearthed at Lingbao county, Henan province, and now in the collection of the Henan Provincial Museum has a height of 31 cm and a length of 31.5 cm. Another green-glazed dog with a larger harness and with its legs tilted forward and its back haunches thrust out was unearthed in 1977 in Xi’an and is now in the collection of Xi’an City Historical Park; it has a height of 26.3 cm and length of 29.5 cm. An unglazed dog, almost identical to the Shandong example but smaller, was unearthed at Dongguan, Wangdu county, Hebei province, and is now in the collection of the Hebei Provincial Museum; it is 26.5 cm in height and 28 cm in length. Wong, Treasures from the Han, p. 50.

2. Michael Loewe, Divination, Mythology and Monarchy, p. 193.

3. Rolf A. Stein, The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, trans. Phyllis Brooks (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 147.

4. Donald Harper, “Resurrection in Warring States Popular Religion,” Taoist Resources 5, no. 2 (1994), p. 22.

5. Ibid., pp. 13–28. For the excavation report of the tombs at Fangmatan, see Gansu sheng wenwu kaogu yanjiusuo and Tianshuishi Beidaoqu wenhuaguan, “Gansu Fangmatan Zhanguo Qin Han muqun de fajue” [Excavations of Warring States, Qin, and Han period tombs at Fangmatan in Tianshui, Gansu], Wenwu, no. 2 (1989), pp. 1–11, 31. In the first archaeological reports, the resurrection account is identified as concerning the occupant of Fangmatan tomb 1. See He Shuangquan, “Tianshui Fangmatan Qin jian zhongshu” [A comprehensive survey of the Qin dynasty bamboo slips from Fangmatan at Tianshui], Wenwu, no. 2 (1989), pp. 28–29. Harper thinks this is incorrect and bases his treatment of the resurrection on Li Xueqin, “Fangmatan jian zhong de zhiguai gushi” [Stories recording strange occurrences in the bamboo slips from Fangmatan], Wenwu, no. 4 (1990), pp. 43–47. Harper’s analysis of the resurrection account is what has subsequently been generally accepted.

6. See Beningson, “Spiritual Geography,” in this catalogue for more on both this resurrection account and the role of objects in the tomb.

7. Harper, “Resurrection in Warring States Popular Religion,” p. 22.

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