The Opulent Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty


The efflorescence of early Chinese civilization can be attributed to two long periods of political, economic and social stability in Chinese history. The first period was the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-22 ACE) which defined Chinese nationality and ethnicity by indelibly stamping upon the Chinese identity, the designation "people of Han" or ban ren 1.  The second period would unquestionably belong to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 ACE) when an internally unified China started to look extensively beyond its borders, exerting a powerful on the international mercantile and political scene. This willingness to look the insular confines of the "Central Plains" would give rise to major changes in trade society, culture, religion and art.

The grandeur of the Tang Dynasty has its roots in the accomplishments of previous dynasties. With the fall of the Han Dynasty, the unified "Central Plains" disintegrated and for the next 350 years, China would be wrecked by constant warfare with the occasional period of relative stability, such as the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 ACE). China was under incredible duress and finally in 581, Wendi, the first emperor of the Sui Dynasty (581-618 ACE) brought China under the control of a single government again.

The shape of Tang history was determined by China's relationship with her neighbors. The first diplomatic exchanges with the western nations in Central Asia were established as early as the Han Dynasty, in 138 BCE, under Emperor Wudi 2, and a fragile pax sinica continued throughout the second century ACE. Chinese suzerainty over the region was however limited due to her own internal upheavals. The disunity of the Turks, which occurred in the first year of the Sui Dynasty, briefly marked the beginning of China's ascendancy in Central Asia 3.

However, in 615, following civil wars and continued threats from the Turks, the Sui Dynasty collapsed and the Tang Dynasty was established by the machinations of Li Shimin, thought to be of Toba ancestry, with the help of Turkish troops storming the capital, Changan, in 617. The establishment of the Tang Dynasty would consolidate China's presence in Central Asia even more assertively than its predecessors. From its inception it was clear that, with foreign complicity, China was going to be prominent in international affairs. By 640, Chinese control was installed over the entire Xinjiang basin. For the first time in centuries, China did not face a credible threat on her western border and was able to secure the trade routes to and from the West.

With this newfound political stability, China was experiencing profound economic growth and social change. By the end of Gaozong's reign in 683, the mention of China conjured images of splendor, luxury, brilliance, wealth, entertainment and excess. Through foreign trade, China became increasingly cosmopolitan, and foreigners started to settle in the capital, Changan, as well as in prominent trading towns such as Luoyang and Guangzhou 4, where they had complete freedom of movement, religion and dress. They interacted freely with native Chinese people, and introduced new religions, as well as artistic styles, some of which were integrated into the native traditions.

During this period, the population rose to more than forty million, with at least two million people living in Changan 5. The Tang economy was extremely robust and the annual state budget during its peak was much higher than in Han time'. Its power and prosperity are reflected in its art, which was often flamboyant, extremely colorful, made out of precious materials, and coveted not just by the Chinese, but also by nations as far-off as Rome, Persia, India and Indonesia. Representations of foreigners are typically portrayed in subordinate positions, as lowly servants, or as tribute bearers from countries paying obeisance to China, such as the jade foreign tribute bearer [cat. no. 121] who, with his slight bow and proffered box, exemplifies submission to the Chinese court.

Figurines such as the straw-glazed foreign dancer [cat. no. 401] and the seated female musician [cat. no. 291] gives some sense of the leisure and gaiety of the Tang court. such foreign entertainers, including acrobats and dwarfs, were included in informal palace entertainment during the Tang Dynasty. For example, the foreign dancer is possibly of Kunlun ancestor, from an area south of the Chinese border defined by the Kunlun Mountains 7. Foreign forms of entertainment were so well received it was said that even emperors and courtiers learnt foreign dances and played foreign musical instruments. The female musician plays an instrument called the pipa, a five-stringed lute that originated in Mesopotamia and came to China by way of Central Asia.

The one artistic development which characterizes the Tang Dynasty in all its glory is the mastering of lead glazing and the creation of sancai (three-color) glazes. The Tang potter perfected the technique of lead-glazing, and created many objects that had colorful, glassy, shiny surfaces that vividly portray the glitzy, gaudy and ostentatious character of the period. The sancai three-color glaze, in particular, was especially favored by Tang potters, accurately reflecting the flamboyance of the Tang court, and considered the hallmark of the period.

Sancai Demons, Tang Dynasty

Sancai glaze was used primarily on tomb furnishings (mingqi) including ceramic vessels, but more importantly tomb figures. A large number of these tomb objects survive from the Tang Dynasty and have proven to be invaluable visual documents of social history. The tomb figures can be divided into two categories — The first comprises representations of supernatural and otherworldly figures; the second consists of realistic representations of people and animals based on everyday events.

Tomb furnishing became an expression of status, and families competed with each other to produce ever more magnificent and stunning tomb objects that were on display before burial. It is from objects such as the group of four sancai-glazed pottery figures [cat. no. 431] that we get a vibrant sense of the intense social rivalry that must have been the impetus to create such large, colorful, intricately modeled tomb protectors that were only briefly enjoyed by the living to be interred forever with the dead. The lavishness of tomb furnishings must have escalated beyond control, as new laws proscribing maximum sizes for the different classes of citizens were set in places 8. This particular group are larger than the average lokapalas and civil officials by about ten centimeters 9, and one can only imagine the social status of the deceased, as well as the family's wealth.

The tomb figures portray daily life with representations of different classes of people engaged in various activities. Court ladies on horseback, foreign merchants carrying goods, servants performing their chores, and animals, such as horses and camels, tend to be naturalistically modeled. One gets the sense that the potter keenly observed life around him and tried to replicate his observations in the most realistic manner possible.

This concern for realism is most apparent in the horses. Highly regarded by Tang society, horses in any medium were viewed with a more critical eye than any other figure 10. Frequently, the realism was at such a high level that the ceramic figures would be accurate portrayals of different breeds of horses. As a result, the ceramic horses found are most lifelike, dynamic, and spirited. The sculptor of the painted pottery prancing horse [cat. no. 32], which is in mid-motion with its knee bent and hoof in mid-air, has accurately captured the magnificent physiognomy of the beast to depict the very essence or spirit of the animal.

The brilliant sancai-glazed horse [cat. no. 42] is remarkable for its size and also its dynamism. More subdued than the pottery prancing horse [cat. no. 321] but equally striking for its vigor; the tension in its muscles, the slight strain in its neck and forelegs and flick of its short tail, all capture the vitality of the animal.

The symbiotic relationship between China and her neighbors resulted in the expansion of the Chinese artistic vocabulary. As new icons, shapes, decorations, techniques and materials started entering China, along with artisans from the West, native craftsmen were given additional stimulus to copy, adopt and assimilate the fresh influences.

The introduction of Buddhism to China resulted in the importation of new icons that eventually became an integral part of Chinese art. Buddhism first entered China towards the end of the Han Dynasty but it was only during the Tang Dynasty that the religion enjoyed a prolonged period of glory as a result of state endorsement. This support resulted in artistic innovation, and the addition of Buddhist icons, such as images of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, lokapalas, aspsaras, and lions, to the canon of Chinese art.

The very first images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas in China were valued for their similarity to those at holy sites in India or along the Silk Route, resulting in many stiff and unnatural imitations that showed a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the original intent. By the time the sandstone bodhisattva [cat. no. 21] was carved, a pleasing fusion had been formed between the Indian emphasis on plasticity and the linear style favored by the Chinese. The indianizing style of this sculpture is clearly apparent from its easy, relaxed cléhanche pose, ornate beaded jewelry, and diaphanous, gauzy garments, all convincingly portrayed by the sculptor 11.

Similarly, lions are a later addition to the Chinese repertoire, but eventually equaled in importance to the dragon and tiger, which have been part of Chinese mythology and from early times. Lions were symbols for royalty in India, Persia, Assyria and Babylonia, and en route to China, acquired additional significance as protectors of the Buddhist faith. The large marble lion [cat. no. II] conveys a sense of majestic power associated with a protector of religion; its roar symbolizes the Buddha's teaching which awakens the minds of the uninitiated 12.

The Buddhist guardian figures, lokapalas 13, occupy an important position in the canon of Buddhist imagery. These guardians secure the four entrances of buildings and are involved in all important events in the Buddha's life. By the 7th century ACE, these figures were fused with the Chinese tradition of placing guardian soldiers (zhenmuyong) in tombs.

The foreign influence in Chinese art is especially apparent in Chinese ceramic vessels combining multiple influences from ancient Greece, Persia, India and Central Asia 14. The influence may manifest itself in the vessel's shape, design, or technique for decoration. The potters attempted to recreate in clay the metal objects brought by the foreigners, and they adopted techniques that would allow them to imitate the decorations on metal vessels.

Vessels such as the sancai-glazed amphora [cat. no. 17] and stoneware amphora [cat. no. 13] are clearly by-products of Hellenistic influences. Influenced by the Chinese artistic sensibility, the two handles on either side of the amphora are in the form of dragons that extend high above the mouth, dipping downward dramatically to grip the mouth with their jaws 15, and the amphora's mouth flares outward in the shape of a cup.

The rare phoenix-headed ewer [cat. no. 15] reflects on multiple levels its history as a foreign import. Its shape, the nature of the raised decoration, as well as the imagery, are all rooted in foreign traditions. The ewer's prominent flaring foot, flattened ovoid body, slender neck and scrolled handle all carry traces of Sasanian and Central Asian influences. The relief decorations imitate western metal repoussé. The molded cartouche with a motif of a rider on horseback turned backward with his bow and arrow ("Parthian shot" motif 17), is a Persian import with roots dating back to ancient Mediterranean art. The cartouche on the other side of the ewer featuring the phoenix, and phoenix head may also have been native to Central Asia 18.

The superb sancai medallion jar [cat. no. 20], with the sharp incised line around its shoulder, attempts to replicate the contour of metal ware. The jewel-like intricacy and thin hard-edged relief lines of the appliquéd floral design is reminiscent of relief patterns created by the tracing technique in metal work.

The glazing on the very rare earthenware jar and cover with blue sancai stripes [cat. no. 181] clearly reflects the influences from textile dying techniques. The potter was able to create an intricate pattern of florets and stripes due to the newly gained knowledge of resist wax glazing, a technique that has its origins in batik cloth dying, which, in turn has foundations in Central Asia, especially in the Turfan area 19. The widespread adoption of applying white slip onto the clay body before glazing was critical in determining whether or not the wax resist method could be successfully used in ceramics. This particular jar and cover are especially interesting for its blue-glazed stripes, a color that can only be achieved by high-fired cobalt, a material that had to be imported from Persia 20.

Despite the scarcity of precious metals in China 21, silver and gold smithing also gained prominence during Tang times, reaching a level of aesthetic and technical accomplishment unprecedented in Chinese history. This achievement was partly due to China's ability to import these metals through her extensive trade relations, but more importantly, from the Tang court's extensive contact with the Sasanian royal court, which created beautiful and technically advanced silver ware 22.

The Sasanian practice of hammering out a silver sheet and shaping it to the desired form. by "raising" the sheet would have been used to create objects such as the parcel gilt silver [cat. no. 6]. The tracing and gilding techniques on this ladle and the ring matting that forms the decorative ground of the silver cup [cat. no. 51] were methods used extensively by Sasanian metal workers.

The golden period of the Tang Dynasty ended abruptly with the rebellion of An Lushan in 755, plunging the country into confusion. With the help of Uighur Turks, the Tang emperor Daizong was reinstated to his throne in 763, and the dynasty continued for another two centuries, but it was merely a shadow of its former self. In those short but tumultuous eight years, Tang politics, society and art underwent a complete change. The cosmopolitan, adventurous and colorful vitality of the early Tang vanished to be replaced by a more xenophobic and closed society that prohibited all foreign religions in 8/13, and demanded all foreigners to wear Chinese dress 23. By 879 the political instability, caused by peasant uprisings, had escalated to such a point that more than 120,000 foreign merchants lost their lives in a revolt in Canton.

Trade was disrupted as a result of the unrest; silver and gold smithing lost their popularity and the quality of production deteriorated steadily.

Demand for sancai lead glazing, which was used mainly for palace and funerary objects in the metropolitan areas of Changan and Luoyang decreased, although it was still prevalent in the Liao and Song dynasties. Just as the flamboyant colors of sancai, so representative of the spirit of the Tang, were relegated to a secondary position by the end of the ninth century, the strength of the Tang Dynasty was slowly but surely waning, coinciding with the diminishing innovation and excitement associated with earlier periods of Tang art.

Scholarly References

1   Eberhard, A History of China, p. 68

2   Watson, Tang and Liao Ceramics, p. 10

3   Eberhard, A History of China, p. 172

4   Ibid. , p. 13

5   Ibid, p. 13

6   Eberhard, A History of China, p. 179

7   Schloss, Ancient Chinese Ceramic Sculpture-from Han Through Tang

8   Scott, The Golden Age of Chinese Art: The Lively Tang Dynasty, p. 20

9   Liu, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, Vol. I, p. 246-247

10 Watson, The Arts of China to AD 900, p. 234

11 Sullivan, The Arts of China, p. 131

12 Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from the Wei 7brough the Tang Dynasties, p. 176

13 Juliano and Lerner, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, p. 201-202

14 Schloss, Foreigners in Ancient Chinese Am'

15 Medley, Tang Pottery and Porcelain, p. 31

16 Juliano and Lerner, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Nortbuvst China, p. 316

17 Schloss, "Foreign Influences on Chinese Ceramic Vessels" in Foreigners in Ancient Chinese Art

18 Ibid.

19 Medley, Tang Pottery and Porcelain, p. 40

20 Ibid., p. 24

21 Scott, The Golden Age of Chinese Art: The Lively Tang Dynasty, p. 22

22 Gyllensvard, Chinese Gold, Silver and porcelain, p. 11

23 Eberhard, A History of China, p. 192