Camel with musicians

This figurine depicts five musicians sitting on a tall camel, fitted with a saddle and large pieces of cloth hanging from either side. Their Sogdian origin is indicated by the camel, indigenous to Central Asia, and the pointy, so-called ‘Phrygian caps’ worn by the musicians. The physiognomy of the entertainers, with their deep-set eyes and prominent noses and beards, also denotes their western origin in a way that would have been recognizable to the Tang Chinese. The central figure is standing with his mouth open and his long left sleeve swinging – seemingly singing or conducting the band. Central Asian rulers sometimes sent entertainers as tribute to the Sui and Tang courts, but a large number of them were independent performers (Juliano et al. 2001, 254). The most valued dancers were from Tashkent, Kesh and Samarkand, and frequently travelled alongside the caravans, offering their services to the local people.

This impressive figurine was placed in the tomb of Xianyu Tinghui 鮮于庭誨 (660-723), a military officer who rose quickly in rank during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (712-56). Not a Sogdian himself, his family was instead from China’s northeast, and his ancestors served as military officers for the border regions.  At the time of his death in 723, the arts of the Tang dynasty had reached a high point, and his tomb was furnished with a set of large ceramics (Watt 2004, 41, 309-11). These included musicians, a pair of actors, court jesters, attendants, and an impressive figure of a caparisoned horse led by its Central Asian groom (Fig.2). These pottery figures are vibrant illustrations of the entertainments and fashions of the time.

Both the construction and glazing of these figures attest to the tomb occupant’s high status. Large figures such as this one were usually constructed in several pieces, leaving the body hollow so that the legs of the animal would not collapse under its weight. This shows a considerably advanced level of craftsmanship, and suggests that patronage for complex figurines was relatively stable. Typical of Tang-dynasty burial ceramics, the earthenware body is covered with so-called “three-color” (sancai 三彩) lead glazes, although here we find four colors: green, amber, cream, and blue. The blue glaze was colored with cobalt, a mineral mined in Iran. As a foreign import, cobalt was not only presumably traded by the Sogdians themselves, but its rarity also rendered it more expensive than other colored glazes, and it was therefore reserved for more affluent patrons. Its addition here denotes the elite status and wealth of the tomb occupant.


Juliano, Annette L, Judith A Lerner, Michael Alram, Asia Society, Asia Society, Museum, and Norton Museum of Art. 2001. Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China Gansu and Ningxia 4th-7th Century. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams with the Asia Society.

Watt, James C. Y, et al. 2004. China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD. New York; New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Yale University Press.



723 AD


H 58.4cm


Glazed earthenware


National Museum of China, Beijing

Additional Research Metadata


Excavated from tomb of Xianyu Tinghui, General of Yunhui, buried in western suburbs of Chang'an (Xi'an) d. 723


Tomb excavated 1957


Hayashi. 1975


“Camel with musicians,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed July 2, 2020,