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Chinese Tang Dynasty Art

Dates: September 11, 2004–January 3, 2005

In December 2003, Simone and Alan Hartman of New York made a gift to the McClung Museum of seventy-two objects of Chinese Tang-dynasty art. Their generosity creates a new dimension to the Museum’s permanent collections, and these objects are the focus of this exhibition.

The Tang dynasty (AD 618–907)

The establishment of the Tang dynasty in 618 by Emperor Gaozu (r. 618–626), a general under the preceding Sui dynasty, inaugurated what is regarded as one of the most glorious eras in the history of China. The ensuing three hundred years provided a long period of relative stability during which the country flourished economically and culturally. Perhaps even more important, it consolidated the belief that a united nation under Han (ethnic-Chinese) rule, achieved only once before under the Qin (221–206 BC) and Han (206 BC–AD 220) dynasties, was the norm. The continuity of the Tang was broken only by a brief disruption to the imperial line (AD 755–763), the result of a coup by An Lushan, a general of non-Chinese origin, after which the imperial court never regained its full power.

The Tang dynasty was a great military power, expanding the nation’s borders farther than ever before, into the oasis-ringed deserts of the northwest and the tropics of the south, even incorporating parts of modern-day Vietnam. The country was also exceptionally expansive in spirit for the time, welcoming envoys, merchants and missionaries from South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Mediterranean area, as well as other regions of East Asia. These people came to China by sea, overland through Southeast Asia, or by way of the long-established Silk Route, which led from the Roman empire and the Middle East through Central Asia and eventually to the Tang capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an). Tang-dynasty China was the predominant cultural force in East Asia, but at the same time was profoundly influenced by the art, music, fashion and customs of the many peoples who traveled there.

Death and the Afterlife

During the Tang dynasty, there was a fervent interest in the extension of life and the nature of the hereafter. The predominant religious system of the period was Buddhism, which centuries earlier had introduced to China the concepts of samsara, that all living things are destined to die and be born again, and karma, that one’s deeds determine the form of one’s future lives. The deceased could be punished for immoral deeds in various hells, or be rewarded by rebirth into a Buddhist paradise, an increasingly popular goal in the Tang dynasty when many Buddhists believed that the world had entered a stage when nirvana, the state of enlightenment, was no longer possible.

Second only to Buddhism in importance was the native religion of Daoism, which included both a philosophical component, concerned with the harmonious relationship of humankind and nature, and many cults devoted to various deities that could aid the devotee in obtaining wealth, health, progeny, and long life or even immortality. Many Daoist practitioners consumed funguses and magical elixirs, concocted from gold, mercury, arsenic compounds and cinnabar, hoping to be transformed into immortals; several Tang emperors may have died from these potions.

The practice of richly furnishing the tombs of the deceased, exemplified by most of the objects in this exhibition, predates the introduction of Buddhism and the formalization of Daoism. It is based in ancient traditions, which held that the living must provide all the necessities of life for the dead, whose souls survive their bodies. Foodstuffs and articles used in life might be interred with the body, along with symbolic renderings of goods and people, either depicted in wall paintings or sculpted in clay, wood, or metal. These were called mingqi, “objects for the afterlife.”

Funerary Arts of the Tang

Few authentic works of painting and calligraphy on silk or paper survive from the Tang dynasty, so it is tombs and Buddhist cave temples, which can be reliably dated, that supply the most dependable evidence of painting and sculpture styles of the period. Tombs may also yield other types of objects-ceramics, jades, metalwork-when they have not been looted. Some of these items were favorite possessions of the deceased, but a large percentage of Tang ceramics that have survived until today were made specifically for burial and recovered from burial sites. Many are lead-glazed wares of the type known as sancai, or “three color,” although the actual number of glaze colors used on any one piece varies. These works were thrown on the wheel, cast using molds, or sculpted by hand. Three-color wares are earthenwares, low-fired ceramics that are porous; the clay bodies were fired at about 1000º C, sometimes covered with a white slip (a dilute mixture of clay and water), and then embellished with one or more glazes before a second firing at about 900º C. The lead-based glazes were colored with iron oxide to produce a range of colors from straw to dark brown, copper oxide for rich greens, and cobalt oxide for deep blues. These brilliant glazes were applied to vessels and to sculptures alike, sometimes in a controlled manner, and sometimes splashed on rather randomly. Unglazed, painted and gilded figures were also produced for the tomb.

Tang-dynasty vessels made in the Chinese tradition frequently have rounded bodies and curving silhouettes, which seem to reflect a concern for volume also seen in sculpture and painting of the period. However, the Tang interest in things foreign is also reflected in ceramic shapes. Greek amphora, leather flasks used by nomadic peoples, Near Eastern metalware, all provided inspiration to Chinese potters. Of particular interest to the modern-day viewer are the numerous sculptures of figures and animals that were placed in tombs to provide protection, entertainment, companionship and sustenance in the afterlife. Civil and military officials, musicians and dancers, servants and beautiful ladies-in-waiting are all represented. Here too, we see evidence of the Tang taste for the exotic. Grooms and wine merchants typically are represented as South Asian or Middle Eastern types, with curly hair, large hooked noses, and round sunken eyes. Even figures of the native, Han ethnic type reflect the enthusiasm for Turkish and Persian fashions. The women are often dressed in Persian-style fitted bodices and long pleated skirts, their faces painted with beauty marks in the shape of flowers or geometric forms and their hair dressed in the top-heavy, asymmetrical chignons popular in parts of Central Asia. These sculptures provide a fascinating glimpse into the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural society of Tang-dynasty China, apparently so beloved that the Chinese hoped to recreate it in the afterlife.

A Chronology of China

Exhibition curated by Dr. Suzanne Wright

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