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China, Eastern Han Dynasty (24-220 AD)
H: 43 cm
Private Collection, UK
This large pottery figure of a Mastiff, with a separate head, stands four-square and looks straight ahead. It has a square snout, pointed ears, and deep set round eyes, giving it an alert and friendly expression. The upturned tail, curls over onto its hindquarters. It is wearing a harness, around its chest and neck, which indicates it was a domesticated dog. There are traces of white slip and some encrustation.
Dogs (gou), were greatly prized for their hunting abilities, as watchdogs and family companions. In the Han period a variety of dog-breeds are known, including Chow and Mastiffs. Throughout Southern China, Chow dogs were generally reared for food. The Mastiffs, were a suitable breed for guard dogs and hunting - which was one of the favourite Han pastimes. In the latter part of the Han Dynasty, dogs started appearing in tombs with greater frequency, which is evidence for their popularity and necessity at the time. This could be due to the fact that in this period, the landed gentry often lived on large farming estates. This required more security, making guard dogs an essential part of country life. It is possible that dogs may have also been associated with high rank and status during the Han dynasty, as there are elegant jade carvings in form of hounds dating from this period.
Evidence of the dogs’ role as a sacrificial animal, as well a guide to the deceased and tomb guardian, dates from as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC). Dogs appear to have been buried with their masters in holes underneath coffins, to continue to protect them in the afterlife. They also feature manifold in Han period texts, where dogs are praised for their qualities as protectors and ability to keep away thieves and evil spirits.
A similar unglazed dog is in The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong (nr HA25). More common green glazed pottery dogs from the same period, are often in a more abstract style. Such dogs are included in the Meiyintang Collection, Geneva; the collection of Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Acc.nr.C.167-1914) and the Shandong Provincial Museum.