Female Figure

The Female Figure is associated with the burial of Lady Qu. The head of the figure is modeled in clay and painted white, with makeup in the latest fashion of the time. The sleeveless jacket is of silk woven to scale with two medallions composed of confronted birds within a pearl roundel (detail seen in second picture). Similar animal and roundel designs can be seen in this textile with confronted deer and textile with ducks in Sasanian pearl roundels. Through studying the decoration of her outfit we see a combination of Chinese and Sogdian elements. The Western influence can be seen in the roundels on the figure’s blouse, classified as Sasanian pearl roundels.

The silk shawl was made using resist-dyed patterns of circles. The resist-dyeing technique became very popular during the Tang period. First, sticky materials like wax, mud, or starch were used to create patterns on the fabric. Then the fabric is dipped in dye, but does not penetrate the areas where wax or paste was applied. Hence, the dye “resists” the pattern. (Sheng) With technological advances, this method evolved into using chemicals instead of wax or paste.

The belt is silk tapestry, woven to scale. The skirt is made of alternating strips of patterned silks of two different colors sewn together and there are remains of a sheer silk covering the skirt. The jin silk of the jacket, with westernized motifs, was certainly woven locally. This is significant for the history of Chinese silk weaving, as the jacket is datable to before 688. The belt is the earliest known example of silk tapestry in China. Fine gauze weaving has a long history in China going back to at least the 3rd century BC.

The body has a wooden frame with paper padding used to twist the arms into shape. The figure's costume was steamed apart to reveal various documents, including pawn tickets. The pawn tickets mention place names in Chang'an (Xi’an), far from Turfan where it was excavated crucial clue to identifying the place of manufacture. This figure is perhaps the most well preserved and beautifully made object that uses recycled paper.

The immense amount of care and labor that went into making just one of the numerous figures associated with the burial of Lady Qu is indicative of the prosperity of Turfan after its incorporation into the Tang Empire in 640. It is also indicative of the status of Lady Qu and her husband. This beautiful silk figurine was not a trade product, but a female attendant intended to guide the deceased into the next life. The Chinese believed the goods that you were buried with would help you in your next life and help you in various ways. Also among Lady Qu’s tomb goods were Guardian Warrior figurines. One wooden Warrior is dramatically sculpted as stomping on a grimacing demon. Figures like this were buried as protectors and warded off evil spirits.

This female figure was first excavated by Aurel Stein in 1928 during his expedition of the extensive cemetery in Astana in Turfan, Xinjiang. Cemeteries in Turfan cemeteries were a major center for study and excavation in the 20th century. The many expeditions yielded a large amount of astonishing well-preserved tomb goods.

An inscription indicates the tomb was that of Zhang Xiong (584-633) and his wife Qu (607-688). The inscription of Zhang Xiong is how we can date this tomb to 584-688. The Zhang family had longstanding political and marital ties to the Qu family, who ruled the Gaochang kingdom (500-640) in the Tarim basin. Zhang was buried in the tomb in 633 and his wife was interred in 688.



Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. (SF)

Mirsky, Jeannette. Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.  (SF)

Sheng, Angela. “Innovations in Textile Techniques on China's Northwest Frontier, 500—700 AD.” Asia Major Vol 11 No. 2 (1998): 117–60. http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2105/stable/41645543. (SF)

Wyatt, James C. Y., An Jiayao, Angela F. Howard, Boris I. Marshak, Su Bai, and Zhao Feng. China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D. New York: Yale University Press, 2004.  (SF)

Xiaonan, Deng. “Women in Turfan During the Sixth to Eighth Centuries: A Look at Their Activities Outside the Home.” The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 58 No. 1 (1999): 85–103. doi:10.2307/2658390. (SF)



Tang Dynasty (618-907)


Astana, Tufan




Height 11 5/8 in. (29.5 cm)


wood with pigments, silk, paper


Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum

Additional Research Metadata


Excavated from the tomb (dated 688) of Zhang Xiong and Lady Qu


Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) Chapter 5
Wyatt, James C. Y., An Jiayao, Angela F. Howard, Boris I. Marshak, Su Bai, and Zhao Feng. China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D. (New York: Yale University Press, 2004) page 315


“Female Figure,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed June 20, 2019, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/items/show/404.