Terracotta moulded figures of people and animals were meant to be grave goods placed in tombs. It was believed that these figures would serve and assist the deceased in the afterlife. Figures of this type are called mingqi (冥器) in Chinese and usually depict servants and court attendants, soldiers, musicians and dancers, and different animals. As in life, attendant figures were supposed to stay nearby their master, waiting to fulfil the desires and needs of the deceased. They were lined outside the tomb before the coffin was taken inside and then placed and arranged inside the tomb. The size and number of the figures in a grave depended on the rank of the deceased. Funerary figures from the Zhou Dynasty are extremely rare, and so there are few comparable examples. The uncovering of the tomb of the Northern Zhou general Li Xian (c. AD 569) allowed us a few examples of terracotta tomb attendants, the majority of which are conserved at the Guyan Museum in China.
The period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (AD 386-581) was a period of great turmoil in Chinese history which signed the end of the Six Dynasties and 16 Kingdoms (AD 220-589). The Northern Zhou (北周, Bĕi Zhōu) ruled northern China from 557 to 581 AD, when Yang Jian, father of the Xuandi’s empress of the Northern Zhou, defeated local usurpers in the north and south and seized the throne, establishing a system of central government which gave rise to the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618).