Tombs from the Han era (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) have revealed a large number of maid figurines (nüshi), in charge of serving the deceased person’s sensitive soul (po) in its underground palace (dixia gongdian).
This type of statuette, called mingqi, is often described as a funerary substitute. The invention of mingqi under the Eastern Zhou (770 – 256 B.C.) and their growing presence in tombs could have actually been an economic way to replace human sacrifice, which accompanied distinguished persons to the afterlife during the Bronze Age.
These furnishings, which also include miniature architecture and animals, reproduce the environment in which the dead lived and therefore constitutes a precious source of information on everyday life during the Han Era. Multiple statuettes are dressed in clothes consisting of superimposed, intertwining gowns, with plaits particularly visible through what’s left of the polychromy. Most of these representations are formulaic and have lost their polychromy. The Cernuschi Museum’s maid, thanks to the finesse of her features and face, the delicate pink carnation and black hair, braided down the back, and exceptional state of preservation, is considered one of the masterpieces of this genre.
This work also provides clues as to the place of women in Han society. Women often appear somewhat muted among mingqi, their bodies constrained in clothing that only reveals the head, their arms close against their bodies, their hands hidden in their sleeves. Here, this concept is accentuated by the woman’s lightly flexed knees. However, the attention paid to the creation of facial features, though by no means portrait-like, and the sensitivity of the interpretation indicate care was taken to express inwardness, despite the figure’s withdrawn position. Inwardness is often linked to the development of Han humanism, linked to the resurgence of Confucianism.
This sculpture also invokes certain artistic trends that will be used prominently in later forms of Chinese statuary. For example, the graphic style is prioritised over the volume, here sensitive in this woman’s silhouette. The bust and the arms, in their wide sleeves, hang over a close-fitting dress which is flared at the bottom, thus ensuring better stability for the statuette.