In ancient China, funerary objects (ming qi) were placed in the tomb to accompany the deceased in the afterlife. During the Tang period, official laws also prescribed that the tomb of a person above a certain rank could be furnished with terracotta figures, representing military and civil officials.
Together with these military and civil officials, the tombs of the royalty and nobility were furnished with fierceful figures. These fierceful figures were placed near the entrance of the chamber to protect the deceased and his treasures from evil spirits. Under the influence of Buddhism, the features of these figures would transformed into human figures dressed in full body armour and elaborately decorated with dragon-mouth sleeves. They resemble the Buddhist Lokapāla or ‘Guardians of the World’.
Lokapāla found their way into China through Buddhism, which was the most important ‘religion’ during the Tang Dynasty. In the Buddhist faith, Lokapāla are also known as the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’. They are guardian gods, each of whom watches over one cardinal direction of the world. They reside in the ‘Heaven of the Four Great Kings’ on the lower slopes of the Buddhist mount Sumeru and are the protectors of the world and fighters of evil. Each Lokapāla is able to command a legion of supernatural creatures to protect the Dharma.
Because the Buddhist faith is accepted widely in Asia, the Heavenly Kings also have a wide variety of names. Lokapāla, meaning ‘Guardian of the World’ is their Sanskrit name. In China they are also called Tiānwáng (天王), meaning ‘Heavenly King’.
As the Lokapāla are depicted with typical Persian facial features like a moustache and round eyes (the perfect combination of elements to frighten off evil spirits), they would have made a huge impression to the Chinese. It is therefore no surprise that these figures eventually found their place among ming qi, next to their role of protectors of the Buddhist faith.