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Tang dynasty

Painted Terra-cotta Figurines of the Twelve Birth Signs: Dragon

Period: Tang dynasty (618–907)

Medium: clay

Dimensions: height: 24 cm, width: 6.5 cm


Known colloquially in English as the Chinese zodiac, the twelve birth signs (shengxiao) comprise the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, ram, monkey, cock, dog, and pig. The earliest known document discussing the twelve birth signs is an ancient work called The Book of Days (Ri shu). Written on bamboo slips unearthed from a tomb at Shuihudi in Yunmeng County, Hubei Province, the work was completed before the reign of the First Emperor (r. 246–208 BCE) of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE); this hemerological work is distinct in several ways when compared to similar works written in later times. During the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220), following the circulation of scholarly conceptions of yinyang and the five phases (wuxing), the ancient Chinese gradually represented the twelve earthly branches (digan) on the calendar with the birth signs in the following combinations: the rat for zi, ox for chou, tiger for yin, hare for mao, dragon for chen, serpent for si, horse for wu, ram for wei, monkey for shen, cock for you, dog for xu, and pig for hai. While being used to represent the years in the traditional Chinese sexagenary cycle, these markers elucidated the birth sign (also called shuxiang) for a given year. The tomb of Lou Rui—constructed during the Northern Qi dynasty (550–577) in present-day Taiyuan, Shanxi Province—has murals featuring the four symbols (sixiang) and immortals alongside the twelve time periods of the day (shier shi), which correspond to the aforementioned earthly branches and birth signs.


Artistic representations of the twelve birth signs made during the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties may be divided roughly into three types. The first type has the head of a beast upon a human body wearing a robe and with hands at rest or holding an audience tablet (hu) at chest level. Each figure wears the garb of a civil official (wenguan) but has a head of one of the twelve birth signs. The second is formed as a seated or standing human figure wearing a lacquered, woven hat (longguan) and broad-sleeved robe while holding one of the birth-sign animals. The third type comprises depictions of the animals.


The tops of epitaphs at the tombs of Li Siben and Li Jingyou in Yanshi, Henan Province and the stone frame around the resting places of An Pu and his wife in their tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province feature the twelve animals in simple yet vivid portrayals—a type of decorative theme most commonly seen in Sui and Tang stone epitaphs. Legal statutes of the Tang period allowed for officials from the ninth to first rank to be buried with depictions of the twelve birth signs as a form of tomb protection. Arrangements of these grave goods usually begin with the rat in the north and then turn east, south, and west while the rat (zi) and horse (wu) delineate the north-south meridian (ziwu xian).


Covered in a layer of powdery, white slip, this terra-cotta figurine has the head of a dragon and a human body wearing a broad-sleeved robe and makes a cupped palm-over-fist gesture (gongshou) while standing atop a square base.

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