Figurine of Malay-Negrito youth. Tang Dynasty (618–907), 7th or 8th century. Green, brown glazed earthenware. Height: 30.50 centimetres. Width: 12 centimetres. This image CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Here is a rare sculptural depiction of a foreign slave in Tang China. By the period of the Tang Dynasty, the presence of slaves in communities on the Southern Chinese coast was not uncommon. This sculpture depicts an enslaved youth originally from the Malay Peninsula or the Indonesian archipelago a region inhabited by darker skinned peoples who sent tribute, including slaves, to Chinese rulers. These peoples, discussed in the scholarship as Malay-Negrito, were known to Tang Chinese under the umbrella of Kunlun, a term that referred to all persons of dark skin color. Those who were called Kunlun were not always enslaved—free dark skinned peoples who were indigenous to China were called Kunlun—yet foreign Kunlun people who made their way to China through tribute and trade were nearly always enslaved individuals. East Asian specialist Don Wyatt argues that this figurine most likely depicted an enslaved person because the individual’s dress—the billowing pants, the diagonal sash—marks him as Malay-Negrito, and nearly all Malay-Negrito individuals present in China by the period of the Tang dynasty were persons enslaved by the Chinese rather than ambassadors or tribute bearers.

The Tang Dynasty (617-908) marked a period of Chinese dynastic history that was arguably among the most internationally focused and outward looking in trade, diplomacy, military incursion, and religious pilgrimage. The art of this period benefited from these global links, with new ceramic techniques, including thick glazes like the sancai yellow and green glaze used in this figurine, developing in part thanks to exchange with ceramic artistic traditions from India and Central Asia. Guangzhou, the major center of commerce in the region where many of the Malay-Negrito were enslaved, was the primary port city of these Indian Ocean trading routes. Ceramic production has a lengthy history in China preceding the Tang period, yet it was in the seventh century that the relatively cheap technique of firing earthenware pottery at low temperatures (1,000 degrees C) was perfected, leading to an explosion of figurative pottery depicting both people and animals in the Tang. Only the production of ceramic tilework outpaced the production of figurative earthenware pottery. These figures were often made as grave goods designed to replicate scenes of daily life because the lead required to produce the glaze was unsafe for daily use. Accordingly, examples of extant intact Chinese figurative pottery from the Tang Dynasty are most often excavated from burial sites. Despite the vast prevalence of earthenware Tang grave goods, surviving depictions of enslaved peoples or dark-skinned peoples like this Malay-Negrito youth are uncommon.

Contributed by Frances Hisgen. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why might this sculpture depict this figure shirtless?
  2. What might the rendering of the figure’s skin and eyes reveal about the Chinese observations of foreigners in this period?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Colburn Clydesdale, Heather. “Internationalism in the Tang Dynasty (618–907).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
  • Colburn Clydesdale, Heather. “The Vibrant Role of Mingqi in Early Chinese Burials.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
  • Krahl, Regina. “Chinese Ceramics in the Late Tang Dynasty.” In Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, edited by Regina Krahl, John Guy, J. Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, 45–53. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2010.
  • Wyatt, Don J. “The Image of the Black in Chinese Art.” In The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art, edited by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Suzanne Preston Blier. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.
  • Wyatt, Don J. The Blacks of Premodern China. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.


Captives, Children, Images, Men, Race, Trade