Two cocoon jars
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- Han Dynasty, 206 BC - 220 AD
- Earthenware with pigment
- 24 cm
A jar of this type excavated in Xinxiangxian, Henan province is illustrated in Historical Relics Unearthed in New China, Beijing, 1972, pl. 87.
Compare a jar with very similar decoration illustrated by Frances Klapthor, Chinese Ceramics, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1993, p. 4; and another included in the exhibition, Spirit of Han, Ceramics for the After-Life, Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, Singapore, 1991, no. 17.
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These two cocoon jars are painted in shades of dark red and white with bands of decorations. The wide bands are decorated with scrolls, the linear bands encircle the shallow pedestal foot, the base of the short neck and the faceted, everted mouth rim. The distinctive ovoid form of these terracotta Han Dynasty vases is derived from the silkworm’s cocoon. This cocoon was a key element in the production of silk, an important source of wealth, income and status in the Chinese economy. The harvested silk was not only used in China but also traded around the world, resulting in, among other things, the famous Silk Road.
The jars would have served as mingqi, literally 'spirit objects'. These objects played an important role in Chinese funeral rites. It was believed that life after death was a continuation of life in the present, and therefore the deceased was provided with all the objects necessary to continue living after death, like animals, valuables, clothing and food. The decorated vessels were most likely used for storing and serving liquids. The cocoon jars are decorated with a beautiful swirling motif of interlacing clouds, the yun wen. This traditional painted motif represents the moving clouds and celestial mists, and was related to the spirits of the deceased and beliefs surrounding heaven and the afterlife, but was also linked to good fortune; the clouds made it rain above the fields.