Tomb Brick, 206 BC–9 AD
Earthenware with red and white pigment
24 3/4 × 47 1/2 in. (62.9 × 120.7 cm)
Gift of Carol and Robert Straus
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Research the history of Han art and symbolism
- Explore Han techniques for decorating clay
Connecting to the Work of Art
This tomb brick was created by an anonymous, probably male, Chinese artisan.
At the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. baked clay bricks were used to build chambered and single tombs for the middle classes, including merchants and the families of scholars, in the Western Han Dynasty of ancient China. In the late 3rd century B.C. the bricks began to bear decorative and pictorial motifs, which reflect Western Han religious beliefs and the rites associated with them. Xiang was the customary practice of using art to capture and describe the spirits of the afterlife that were otherwise invisible to the living world. Han tombs were filled with familiar everyday objects, such as wine flasks, lamps, and incense burners, as well as with statuary and wall carvings depicting the realms of the afterlife. This setting served both to bring comfort and the continuity of the rituals of life to the deceased and to assert the deceased’s claims to prominence in the hierarchy of the afterlife. The scene on this tomb brick is typical of Western Han images and literature, in which immortals or other supernatural beings are shown traveling through remote realms. However, this tomb brick shows the unusual scene of a warrior, with sword in one hand and shield in the other, standing assertively on the back of a fierce dragon, which is often a symbol, interchangeably, of the emperor, the direction east, and the force of life. The creation of this, and other warrior figures found buried in the tombs, may have been motivated by the fear of evil sprits in the afterlife.
The buoyant, flourished line used in the depiction of this Han dragon, which moves from the right to the left of the picture, is a distinct departure from the grounded squat dragon of the preceding Chou dynasty. The warrior is animated by his flamboyant posturing on the dragon’s back. His bent knees reveal the sense of balance needed to ride the undulating beast. Unlike the dragon, which is seen completely in profile, the warrior’s upper body twists toward the viewer, facing out as defiant protector of his realm. The scene is framed with a wide border of incised lozenges forming a pattern.
Multiple wooden stamps impressed separate sections of the images into the wet clay of this tomb brick. The dragon and warrior scene and the border pattern are deeply incised. Because stamps were made of wood or ceramic, they would have been useable for only a limited time. Therefore, if a particular stamp appears on several different bricks, it would be reasonable to assume that they were manufactured by the same workshop at about the same time. An occasional misregister of the impression can be noticed along the border and the tail volute of the dragon. Because the bricks were used for burial purposes, artisans did not strive for perfection. The scene was painted with red and white pigment.
Unlike the feared dragons of Medieval Europe, the most powerful Chinese dragon, the lung dragon is a beneficent creature and represents the yang of the yin-yang cosmological belief system. Yin and Yang complement each other and make up all the aspects of life. While Yin is the principle of earth, darkness, passivity, and the female, Yang is the principle of heaven, activity, and maleness. Since ancient times the lung dragon has been the emblem of the Imperial family, and until China became a republic in 1911, it adorned the Chinese flag. Nine different resemblances can be used to represent the lung dragon. The dragon on this tomb brick bears the claws of a hawk and the neck of a snake.
- What do you think this object’s function is? Defend your answer.
- Tell how you think this image was made; defend your answer. Look closely at the dragon, warrior, and border; small details or mistakes can reveal a lot.
- What is happening in this image?
- Look at the image on this brick. What words would you use to describe the warrior and the dragon?
- What associations do you have with dragons? Are they good or evil? Beautiful or ugly? Consider all sorts of examples of dragons in media or memory—from medieval European art to movies like Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon. Does it seem like there is one universal idea of the dragon, or do people in different cultures disagree about dragons’ characters?
- Revisit the words you used to describe the dragon and warrior. What do you think the makers of this brick thought about this dragon? (If you wanted to draw a scary dragon, what would it look like? Is that what this artist did?)
- Why do you think the Chinese were buried with objects in tombs covered with decorative bricks? Why would someone want this image on the brick wall of his or her tomb?
- Do you think this brick is the only one of its kind, or is it mass produced? Why? What are the benefits of mass producing objects such as this one?
Research Han funerary art. Compare the style of funerary art to other Han art. How is it the same or different?
Research and discuss the symbolic meaning of the lung dragon in Chinese history.
Try your hand at incising stamps into moist clay. Why did Han artists use this technique? Would this technique be easier or more difficult than incising by hand?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.