A Mysterious Stranger in China

The first thing you notice is the pose: About 11 inches tall, he sits with his right leg bent inward as though riding sidesaddle, his upper body torqued, his left leg extended. Then you see the face, most of which is hidden by a cloth that drapes across the bridge of a rather prominent nose, revealing only thick, arched eyebrows and eyes that stare down with fierce intensity.
Made in China during the latter part of the eighth century, this unusual Tang dynasty burial figure today sits on a shelf in the Museo di Arte Orientale (MAO) of Turin, Italy, exuding as much mystery as he does energy. To date, nobody can say exactly who or what he is—his clothes, his pose, his expression don't add up. Even his manufacture is atypical: While almost all other known burial statuettes are hollow and cast in molds, this one is solid clay and appears to have been sculpted by hand.
For the moment, MAO has him down as "a Persian riding a camel or a horse," says Marco Guglielminotti Trivel, MAO's curator of East Asian art. And this is plausible enough. Formerly owned by the Agnelli Foundation, the figure's eyes are rounded, his nose aquiline, and though most figurines show a male rider straddling his mount, sidesaddle is not unheard of. The raised fists, Mr. Guglielminotti notes, might have held reins, while the face cover—as well as a flap of cloth over the back of his neck—would have protected against wind, sun and sand.

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