An Archaeological Divine Animal of Chinese Buddhist: A Qingbai-glazed One-Horned ‘Pixiu’ Censer and Cover of Yuan Period


Modelled after an earlier archaic metalwork prototype in the form of a one-horned mythical beast ‘Pixiu’ standing with four feet, portrayed with ferocious expression, the mane framing its horse face, round opened eyes, bump eyebrow, dragon nose and the mouth open in a roar revealing its canine teeth and outstretched tongue, its body relieved with flora-like wings and attached with a ring in the neck, surmounted by a hollowed zun vessel with a flared mouthrim accompanied by its removable cover surmounted with a qilin loop handle turning its head to the right side spelling out a flame in front of pearl, all over covered with thin crackly bluish-white tint glaze on a white ceramic body stopping the above foot revealing sandy flecks in brownish color in the kiln.

Research & Essay

An Archaeological Divine Animal of Chinese Buddhist: A Qingbai-glazed One-Horned ‘Pixiu’ Censer and Cover of Yuan Period
An Archaeological Divine Animal of Chinese Buddhist: A Qingbai-glazed One-Horned ‘Pixiu’ Censer and Cover of Yuan Period

One of the most successful ports in the early centuries for international trading communities in Asia was Batang Hari river in Sumatra. The illustrious port of Batang Hari was witnessed not only by Chinese scholars, Arabs writers and European adventures, but also by a variety of other valuable sources. Established around the Sumatra Sea in the vicinity of Sumatra, Java, Bali, Borneo and Celebes islands, Srivijaya Kingdom had been the most powerful maritime kingdom of Southeast Asia since 7th century AD. The Buddhist art of this period flourished from the beginning of the 7th century, specifically by borrowing the style of art from India and China. I’tsing calls this kingdom as Che-li-che, while Arab writer and merchant, Sulaiman al-Tajir al-Sirafi, on his “Rihlah As-Sirafiy” (The Journey of As-Sirafiy), called it الزابج in Arabic or “The kingdom of Zabaj).”1) The author suggests that the name of Zabaj was a Muara Sabak kingdom, a vasal of early Srivijaya Kingdom, located at estuary of Batang Hari river (present-today the Eastern Tanjung Jabung regency in Jambi province). Sabak Kingdom was a central of Buddhist monastic university and had become the most influential region for community of intellectuals and egregious commercial port in Srivijaya Kingdom since the 7th century.

In the later periods, the alliances of commercial and religious relation between Srivijaya kingdom and Yuan dynasty in China that was established during 13th and 14th centuries facilitated both a dynamic trade in Chinese ceramics and a new awareness within Southeast Asia of Buddhist and Muslim cultures. The influence of Chinese culture and religion to ceramic art for Srivijaya are the key to our current research as an entrée to understanding the nature of cultural reciprocity between Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom and Chinese Buddhist and beliefs from 13th to 14th centuries. Though relatively short-lived Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1362 AD), the palace of Yuan dynasty established an official bureau influence on the ceramic industry at Jingdezhen that produced Qingbai ware. Qingbai ware that can also be referred to as Yingqing had achieved it accomplishment in the province of southeast Jianxi in the Jingdezhen town during Northern Song dynasty. Characterized by a bluish-white tint glaze on a white ceramic body, Qingbai ware was first introduced to China after Mongol conquered China in 1279 AD. As its technological advancements at Jingdezhen, Yuan dynasty was capable of developing techniques and models of Qingbai wares, like the present incense burner, that was simulated from the earlier prototypes.

The present incense burner is one of amongst the Chinese heritages of Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1362 AD) that showcases the dramatic artifact found by the author in  in 15t November 1997. This piece is so-called a gingbai-glazed mythical beast ‘Pixiu’ incense burner that was found in shrubs near the estuary of the Musi River, a main trading river stream in Palembang, south Sumatra that witnesses a Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom history in its golden eras. The author believes that the artifact was usually used in Buddhist shrine or pagoda as a religious ceremony support for Chinese Buddhist adherents during Srivijaya kingdom in 13th – 14th century. In its technical execution, this one-horned powerful Pixiu shows a remarkable chiseling and molding technique, especially in open-work skills that creates live and impressive pose. Modelled after prominent archaistic vessels, the present sculpture is coated with deliberate thin and translucent crackly shadow blue tint glaze on its white ceramic body. Its glaze shows melting and stopping the above foot that reveal its sandy flecks in brownish color. These characteristics summarize those of Qingbai ware that was produced in the Yuan period.

The current incense burner sculpture shows a Pixiu imaginary animal roaring out its mouth. In Chinese Buddhist teaching, it represents a Buddhas’ voice that is often called the “Lion’s Roar” roaring out the Dharma for all to hear. One-horned Pi Xiu (Chinese: 貔貅), like the present piece, can be regarded as a male mythical beast or called as ‘Pie’, while the female has two or called as ‘Xiu’. Pixiu is characterized with its protruding eyes and canine teeth, and its body resembles a Chinese lion (Fu dog) with wings along with paw and claws feet. It is slightly different with Qilin animal, and this mythological creature can be traced back to the legend in China prior to dynasty. Pixiu is referred to in the West by the Greek word “chimera”, and it is often confused by people with the ‘Fu dog’ and sometimes with the ‘Qilin’ as well. Xinping Zhuo discusses that Pixiu (also called Tian Lu, Bixie and Baijie) is a blissful animal. As an imaginary divine animal, it has the head of dragon, the body of horse, the feet of qilin, shaped like a lion, or a tiger or a bear, and even believed to the son of the dragon. Pixiu was regarded as a fiercely brave beast that existed in the past, legendarily employed as warriors in the Wars of Emperors Yan and Huang (descendants of the emperors of China).2)

Besides of being known as Tianlu (heavenly deer), Pixiu is also known as Ijilin (unicorns). During Warring States (476 – 221 BC) to Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the Pixiu sculptures appeared as a zoomorphic imagery of sculpture and were used for funerary purposes at tombs and later they were as religious vessels for ceremonial events. For example, Ornament in the Shape of a Fantastic Winged Feline metalwork, dated Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475–221 B.C.), from Metropolitan Museum of Art (see fig. 1).3) Another, the gilt bronze of Pixiu prototype of Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220 AD) is from Hong Kong Museum of Art,4) and it was then sold at Christie’s New York, 15th September 2011, lot. 1150.. The other prototype of incense burner example in the shape of Pixiu of Han dynasty is from Eskenazi Ltd,5) and the piece was then sold at Christie’s New York, 22 – 23 March 2018, lot. 921 (see fig. 2)

Qingbai-glazed or Yingqing one-horned Pixiu censer and its cover is exceptional and only Qingbai-glazed mythical beasts in different shapes appear to have been published in the market. For example, see a Qingbai Buddhist one-horned lion-shaped pillow, dated Northern Song dynasty, sold at Sotheby’s London, 12th May 2010, lot. 150, for GBP 277,250, initially estimated between GBP 120,000 – GBP 150,000 (see fig. 3). A qingbai-glazed mythical creature figure with one horn is also modeled in the shape of water dropper vessel in Yuan dynasty. See a Qingbai figural water dropper, dated to Yuan dynasty, sold at Christie’s New York, 19th September 2006, lot. 218, for US$ 9,600, initially estimated between US$ 2,000 – US$ 3,000 (see fig. 4).

Besides of its rarity, the present one-horned Pixiu (Tianlu) incense burner does not only represent a mythical god beast in Chinese mythology, but in Fengshui application, it is well known for attracting wealth luck and protection. It is properly displayed at the affected area of the house or office in order to avoid misfortune and disasters. In fact, in ancient China, the Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty declared that the wonderful, magnificent and devoted Pixiu, who obtained and guarded the Master’s gold, would be forever known the “Treasure of the Emperor”. This is why the sculptures of Pixiu (Tianlu) are commonly found on the four corners of the roofs of Lama Temple architecture, palaces and halls of the most important and royal people such as the Chinese emperors exhibited in various styles (see fig. 5).


  1. Promsak Jermsawatdi, Thai Art with Indian Influences, Abhinav Publications, First Edition, 1979, pp. 64 – 65

  2. Xinping Zhuo, Religious Faith of the Chinese, China Science Press, Springer, Beijing – China, 2018, p. 43.

  3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, Arts of Ancient China, Accession Number: 214.11, The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2005.

  4. Ancient Chinese and Ordos Bronzes, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 1990, no. 116.

  5. Animals and Animals Designs in Chinese Art, Eskenazi Ltd, New York, 1998, No. 13.

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