Figurine of a wine seller

During the Tang dynasty, minqi, or “brilliant artifacts”, were placed in Chinese tombs, often depicting Chinese officials, ladies, gentlemen, musicians, guards, and servants (Valenstein 2014). However, figures of non-Chinese peoples were also used to decorate tombs, such as camel drivers, lute players, and merchants (Fitzgerald 2012). Included in these funerary collections would be figurines of Western wine-sellers,such as this particular figurine. Minqi were meant to represent living beings present in or around Chinese daily life. Although not functional, these figurines were supposed to aid the deceased in the afterlife. If one had wine merchant figurines in his or her tomb, then he or she would not be thirsty in the afterlife (Valenstein 2014).

During the Tang dynasty, white-bodied earthenware was often decorated with sancai, or three-color, glazes. By applying iron oxide to uncolored glaze bases, an artist could create yellows, browns, greens, and sometimes blues. This wine seller’s clothing is a rich gold-yellow, the result of this oxidation. His face is white, a result of painting over slip with uncolored glaze (Valenstein 2014). The sancai and slip come together to turn this earthenware piece into a wine seller, which is possibly a Sogdian.

This figurine of a wine seller belongs to a group of similar minqi placed in Chinese tombs during the Tang dynasty. These mortuary sculptures depict kneeling men with exaggerated facial features holding vessels indicative of the wine trade, such as leather wine skins, ewers, or rhytons. These figurines are meant to represent travelling wine merchants or local but non-Chinese hu jiu, or “barbarian wine-seller” (Valenstein 2014). Distinctive dress, accessories, and physical features identify certain subjects of figurines and paintings as Sogdians in Chinese tombs (Lerner 1995).

This figurine holds a wine skin and looks forward. His facial features are large and overstated—his nose predominates his face, his large, dark eyes are situated under a thick brow, and his stereotypically Western moustache and beard are thick and heavy. This exaggerated physiognomy of a non-Chinese man has become understood as the stereotypical features attributed to Sogdians by Chinese artists during the Tang dynasty. Such motifs run not just throughout other wine-seller figurines, but other Chinese funerary art. For instance, two Sogdian Zoroastrian priests on the tomb of Wirkak, a Sogdian sabao in Xi’an, have similar facial features as the wine seller (Valenstein 2014). This consistent depiction points to a certain caricature of Sogdians, and Westerners in general, in a collective Chinese mind.

Wine became popular in China during the Tang dynasty, and that wine often came from the West (Sims-Williams 1996). In addition to being merchants, some Sogdians were viticulturists, and grapes became a symbol of the Sogdian way of life and were pervasive in Sogdian artwork (Valenstein 2014; Grenet 2007). It seems quite likely that this figurine is an artist’s rendering of an idealized Sogdian wine-merchant or hu jiu.


Grenet, Frantz. 2007. “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-Century China: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism.” InComparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 27, No. 2, 463-478. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 

Lerner, Judith. 1995. “Central Asians in Sixth-Century China.” In Iranica Antiqua, Vol. 30, 179-190.

The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. 2012. Ed. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 1996. “The Sogdian Merchants in China and India.” In Cina e Iran Alessandro Magno all dinastia Tang, ed. A. Cadonna and L. Lanciotti, 45-67. Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore.

Valenstein, Suzanne. 2014. Cosmopolitasnism in the Tang Dynasty: A Chinese Ceramic Figure of a Sogdian Wine Merchant. Los Angeles: Bridge21Publications.



8th century


14 5/8 x 10 x 6 1/2in; (37.2 x 25.4 x 16.5cm)


Earthenware with polychrome (sancai) glazes


Seattle Art Museum, 38.6

Additional Research Metadata





“Figurine of a wine seller,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed August 9, 2020,