Ancient people believed in the immortality of the soul and its continued existence in the afterlife. In early antiquity, it was not uncommon to bury humans alive alongside the dead. During the Shang (ca. 1600–ca. 1100 BCE) and Zhou (ca. 1100–256 BCE) period, the nobility generally lived a luxurious life; in order to main this lifestyle after death, a large number of the deceased’s slaves would be interred alive alongside their master. Such practices were extremely cruel and barbaric and later societies viewed them as ignorant and a dark age in civilization. When the slavery system collapsed during the Eastern Zhou (770–256 BCE), each state established its own feudal system. The cruel practice of human sacrifice changed, and the importance of human labor was gradually valued as well. Instead of humans, funerary figurines took the place of living retainers.
Burying funerary figurines with the dead instead of living men and women was a sign of social progress. By the time Qin annexed the six rival states, (Chu, Qi, Yan, Han, Wei, and Zhao), its laws already prohibited human sacrifice. The practice of using funerary figurines instead of human beings reached its peak during the Qin era (221–206 BCE), and it is of great significance in the history of the human sacrificial system. The archetypal example of this change is the burial of the First Emperor of Qin (r. 221–210 BCE) and his terracotta army. On March 29, 1974, a farmer from Xiyangcun village found the head of a terracotta warrior when he was drilling a well in the northern foothills of Li Mountain, Shaanxi. An archaeological team was organized to investigate this finding, and an exploratory excavation began on July 15 of the same year. Currently, four pits have been excavated covering an area of 25,000 square meters. More than 2,000 terracotta soldiers and horses, 20 wooden war chariots, and over 40,000 weapons and tools have been excavated from the first pit. There are different theories regarding the relationship between the First Emperor and his terracotta soldiers and horses. Some scholars suggest that burying funerary figurines was a form of spirit medium arts and that the unprecedented large numbers of terracotta soldiers and horses, in reality, were props used inspirit medium arts to ward off malevolent forces. They may have been used for defense against an invasion by the six rival states. The discovery of thousands of terracotta soldiers, horses, and four-horse drawn chariots, as well as real bronze weapons, shocked the entire world. The phalanx of chariots, soldiers (both mounted and on foot), and crossbows formed a funeral procession for the First Emperor. This, we understand looking at it, is a powerful army and the pride of the Qin; it is easy to imagine what the people of the time thought and why one person wrote: “the Qin king swept over the world.” The “motionless force of art” is evident in these terracotta soldiers. A realistic appearance was emphasized. Taking a panoramic view of the pit of terracotta soldiers, the visual effect is one of neat and tight ranks just as the actual military must have been organized. In terms of plastic arts, these are a group of three-dimensional figures, and large-scale masterpieces of realism. The life-size terracotta soldiers and horses are examples of the sculptural art of the Qin dynasty, which also marked the beginning of Chinese sculptural art, and its independent development toward maturity. It was the first peak in the history of Chinese sculpture.
Elaborate funerals were prevalent in the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and the subject matter of funerary objects became rich and varied. Funerary figurines of male and female servants, warriors, dancers, entertainers, acrobats, storytellers, and singers were all commonly used and buried with the dead. Generally speaking, in addition to funerary figurines, objects used in everyday life were also replicated in Han dynasty burials. On account of the frequent wars among ethnic groups during the Wei-Jin era (220–420), and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589), there were mass migrations of ethnic groups resulting in the integration and interaction of many cultures in China. Funerary figurines made during this period were often modeled on members of various ethnic groups. During the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, Chinese classical culture was exemplified by various ethnicities, melding Chinese and foreign cultures in one pot. Funerary figurines of the Sui and Tang were far more varied than those of the Qin in terms of number, subject, and technique. In addition, realism was also greatly enhanced: the hairstyle, clothing, posture, expression, and movement were remarkably true to life. The emergence of painted, glazed, and multicolored (sancai “three-colored”) pottery of the Tang, added brilliant colors to the funerary figurines. The number of funerary figurines buried with the dead dwindled after the Song (960–1279). New burial practices came into being during this time, especially the practice of burning paper funerary objects.
The production of funerary figurines started quite early, and lasted until nearly the end of ancient China. The subject matter covered various aspects of daily life: from government activities, culture, and the military, to manufacturing . In a certain sense, funerary figurines form a historical book of images which helps people now to understand ancient life in China. The development of funerary figurines reached its pinnacle during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The three-color glazed figurine of a camel carrying musicians is an embodiment of the cultural exchange between China and Central Asia through the Silk Road. These figurines are an imagery presentation of foreign music, riders, and attire. From an artistic perspective, they are sculptural portraits of ancient people from different eras, social classes, and social standing. These figurines were created by ancient artisans based on the requirements and beliefs of the people, but they were also based on the actual people who existed at that time. Funerary figurines were buried with the dead in ancient times. Today, thousands of years have passed and they have become the carriers of history with extremely important research value.