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Bird with ding vessels
Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE)
Clay with natural pigments
H. 53.5 cm, L. 40 cm, W. 45 cm
Excavated 1969, Wuyingshan, Jinan Municipality
Collection of Jinan Municipal Museum
(cat. #3)


The bird stands with its legs spread wide to support the ritual ceremony taking place on its outstretched wings. Plump calves and webbed feet anchor it to the square base. A carefully painted pattern of white feathers, each outlined with gray-black strokes and accented with a red dot, enlivens the surface of its body. It seems to stare ahead, waiting to take flight. This white bird might represent a celestial conveyance for the deceased, who must be placed in a cosmologically ideal position in his tomb for his soul to reach paradise and the land of the immortals.[1] On each of wing rests a ding tripod vessel, more often found in bronze (cat. nos. 4, 5), indicating that a ritual performance is in progress. The legs of each tripod are in the shape of human figures, bearing witness to the event with arms respectfully crossed. They have wide-set eyes and sport mustaches that have the semblance of whiskers; their faces are painted pink, as are those of the other figures. An attendant figure behind the ding vessels holds an umbrella over the head of the two main participants in the ritual. He stands respectfully and discreetly stares forward. The umbrella is painted red with a red and black decorative edge reminiscent of lacquer design. At one time the hooks on its rim might have been adorned with fittings similar to those found at the Shuangrushan tomb (cat. no. 31).

The two largest human figures face each other in a prominent position just behind the head of the bird. Their court robes strain around their corpulent bodies; the red ribbons of their waist sashes are edged in black and fall to mid-thigh. The presence of these red ribbons indicates the official rank of prince.[2] Gold seals of office (cat. nos. 14, 15) would have hung from the red ribbons, evidence of their acceptance into the elite strata of political power in the mundane world. These figures might give the deceased the ability to authenticate his rank and to carry out official business in the afterlife bureaucracy, or their rituals might activate his journey.[3] Their headgear, called mianguan, was to be worn along with official robes only by emperors, princes, dukes, and ministers for ritual occasions.[4] The figures have large indented eyes with black pupils and thinly outlined red irises, dark eyebrows, and small red mouths with mustaches. They bow toward the empty space in front of them under the umbrella, indicating perhaps the presence of the deceased. Although this is pre-Buddhist China, similar iconography can be found in India at Sanchi, where aniconic images included a parasol or footprints to indicate the presence of the Buddha.

Excavated from this same tomb at Wuyingshan was a second bird,[5] similar to ours but with its head tilted back and a more defined beak, carrying large hu vessels (cf. cat. no. 6) on either wing.[6] It has been argued that these hu vessels might have contained the elixir of immortality, allowing the deceased to more quickly ascend to the land of the immortals. The shape of the hu vessel itself is thought to indicate Mount Penglai, a cosmic pillar, where this elixir could be found.[7] Other finds from this famous tomb include the horses and chariot in this exhibition (cat. no. 2) and the famous tableau of acrobats where princes wearing mianguan and ritual costume supervise the performance of these entertainers, accompanied by musicians playing bells, chimes, and other instruments.[8] In these three objects from Wuyingshan, rituals are being performed with bronze vessels, as well as bells and chimes, to activate the celestial imagery allowing the deceased to begin his journey to eternity.

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. White is the color associated with ancient Chinese mortuary rituals. Furthermore, in the Han dynasty, Emperor Wudi was said to fill his hunting park primarily with white animals, the color also being associated with immortality. See cat. no. 43, n. 2 for more on the royal hunting park. From Sima Qian and Ban Gu’s descriptions, the islands of immortality are inhabited by “creatures, birds and beasts completely white” (see cat. no. 47).

2. In the official costumes of the Han dynasty, reddish yellow ribbons were worn by the emperor, red ones by princes, purple ones by the nobility or generals, and blue or black ones by lower officials. The aristocracy would wear silk girdles with a silk ribbon to which was attached an official seal. Since the seal and the ribbon symbolized the power vested in an official, they were issued by the court. According to the system, officials carried their seal in a leather bag fastened on the waistband, with the silk ribbon hanging down. Size, color, and texture of the silk ribbons worn by different people at all levels, from the emperor down to officials, were so specific that one could tell at a glance the social status of the wearer. Zhou Xun and Gao Chunming, Zhongguo fu shi wu qian nian / 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes, 3rd Chinese ed. (Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 1988), p. 32.

3. On the uppermost part of the banner excavated from Tomb 1 at Mawangdui, there are two male figures guarding the portals of paradise. Michael Loewe, in Ways to Paradise: The Chinese Quest for Immortality (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1979), pp. 48–49, quotes a passage from the Chuci in which the pilgrim “bade heaven’s gate-keeper open up his doors, and he pushed the portals open and looked out at me.” Perhaps the two princes are validating the rank of the deceased and making it easier for him to enter heaven.

4. Headgear was the primary means to indicate a person’s rank, although dress, boots, and ribbons were also prescribed. The mianguan was used solely for ritual occasions. The official costume worn with the mianguan consisted of a black garment with red skirt, pants underneath that folded at the knees, a silk ribbon, and specified shoes. In the tableau of acrobats found in the same tomb, the officials wear the same costume as the figures on the bird. They are also the largest figures in the group, with the acrobats and musicians of smaller size.

5. Jinan shi bowuguan, “Shitan Jinan Wuyingshan chutu de Xi-Han yuewu, zaji, yanyin taoyong” [Concerning the ceramic figures of dancers, acrobats, and entertainers excavated from the Western Han tomb at Wuyingshan, Jinan], Wenwu, no. 5 (1972), p. 19.

6. The hu vessels are painted with the same colors: black with a red line at the middle of their bulbous bodies and long angular red triangles painted on the neck of each vessel. Shandong wenwu shiye guanli ju, ed., Shandong wenwu jingcui [The Best Cultural Relics from Shandong] (Shandong: Meishu chubanshe, 1996), cover illus., p. 66, no. 61.

7. Loewe, Ways to Paradise, pp. 37–39.

8. Jinan shi bowuguan, “Shitan Jinan Wuyingshan,” pp. 20–21, figs. 2–5. The group of acrobats, dancers, and musicians is attached to a rectangular base of the same thickness and shape as that of the bird and measures 67 cm long, 47.5 cm wide and 22.7 cm tall. On the right side of it are five standing court officials wearing their mianguan and ritual costumes. The figures include a drummer with drum (similar to cat. no. 12) and two ceramic hu vessels, whose paint is missing and whose tops lack the three red curled knobs that are on top of the hu vessels on the second bird’s wings. The figures on the right side of the tableau, wearing dark robes with bright red sashes and trim, have the same coloring as the bird with the hu vessels on its wings. All the faces of the figures are either the same pink as the figures on our bird or a darker red color. See also Shandong wenwu shiye guanli ju, Shandong wenwu jingcui, p. 64, no. 59.

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