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Figures celebrate Chinese zodiac

THE Chinese Zodiac, known as shengxiao, consists of a group of animal signs related to each year according to a 12-year cycle, a popular system widely used in China.

The twelve animals are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

The group of animals is also related to each day's time according to ancient Chinese hours measured in the form of double-hours, known as dizhi, or "Earthly Branches."

As shengxiao is so familiar to every Chinese person, the animals frequently appear in Chinese arts and crafts, including terra-cotta figurines placed in tombs for guarding and protecting the dead.

A group of shengxiao pottery figures made in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) is displayed in the Shanghai Museum.

There are seven figurines in the group, sculpted as seven humans with animal heads from the rat, ox, tiger, dragon, snake, monkey and rooster. In Chinese culture, these sculptures of people with zodiac animal heads are called "dizhi shen," which means "Saints of Earthly Branches."

The figurines are no taller than 30 centimeters but their expressions are lively imitations of each animal, with different facial characteristics.

The figures are clad in the traditional loose-sleeved robes of chancellors from the Tang Dynasty. Each folds their arms in front of their chests, showing respect for the dead in the tomb they guard.

Each figure's facial expression and pose is slightly different to distinguish them from each other. But there is a consistent, reverential style about the group.

Terra-cotta figurines with animal heads on human bodies are typical of shengxiao figurines from the Tang Dynasty and offer important contexts for studies of Chinese traditions and customs.


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