Treasures of the Tang Dynasty

That day was a cool and sunny winter’s day and after lunch I caught the train into town to see the much hyped Frida Kahlo/Rivera Diego exhibition that had just opened at the NSW Art Gallery. But when I got there the queue was horrendous: such a long, snaking line of mainly middle-aged culture-vultures (like myself I suppose) that the opening times to the exhibition had been staggered. I couldn’t face an afternoon trapped behind a wall of heaving, heavily breathing bodies all clothed in slate and black winter over-garments and thick scarves and shawls. It would have been heavy enough just looking at the gut-wrenching paintings.


The last weeks of the Tang: Treasures of the Silk Road Capital exhibition beckoned. I hated to think that such an interesting show was second best, but I had seen it before and after some thought, considered it was worth another look.


The Tang Dynasty in China was a great age for poets and artists. 1300 years ago its capital Chang’an was the final destination of the fabled Silk Road, where merchants took their wares on camels and caravans on a journey stretching from the outposts of the West all the way to China. Such a city therefore was a melting pot of diverse cultures, beliefs and ethnicities, fanning a burst of creative and artistic activity. It was an age when an Empress (Wu Zetian) dared to rule for 20 years, where wanderers could travel in the mountainous wilderness and encounter demons, men and monks bearing fabulously canopied receptacles, Buddha himself kindly removing a large rock some men were struggling with, delegations reaching far-flung cities and holy ceremonies of international significance.


I saw a small, gilded silver plate in the shape of a six-petal flower like a camellia with its wide, gentle, symmetrical curve. And within the shallow bowl curls a vine of large leaves and two unknown flower-heads. And in the centre a five-petal flower, triumphantly in full bloom.


A sculpture of a kowtowing figure of a Tang civil official greeting an invisible superior, nearly prostrate to the floor on knees and elbows, hands raised as if to hold a tablet that was no longer there. There were lots of civil officials in those days, the highly civilised dynasty having a predilection for a lettered bureaucracy. He is apparently performing one of about eight different obeisances. The statue is of an attractive, pale, biscuit-brown earthenware washed with a creamy-white pigment that seemed common material for Tang statues. The official’s robes are gently stylised in fanned-out shapes along the floor behind him and like wings on his arms marked with flowing, parallel lines.


I have unfortunately forgotten to take notes of the excellent and very beautiful calligraphy of the times, written by masters with such outré names as something like ‘Drunk Wu’ and ‘Crazy Wen’. It was a highly sophisticated and literate society, at least in the upper echelons and many wonderful poets abounded.


The Tang Dynasty period appeared to be a good age for women, especially during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. These Tang women liked to dress glamorously, putting their hair up into high chignons embellished with eye-catching ornaments. I saw a mural of three Tang women (circa 710), two in long, flowing robes with long sleeves, their narrow waists obscured by shawls that draped becomingly at the front. They had reddened their lips with rouge. The other woman was at the back, her slim form clothed in a masculine outfit of striped pants and a long-sleeved, long length waisted robe. She had styled her hair more naturally, leaving it falling freely to the back of her shoulders.


Then there were a line of five Tang women, sculptures of the biscuit-brown earthenware washed with creamy-white pigment. Each hairstyle was different, although all with some kind of chignon up-do topped with one or two buns with ornaments, one even looking like an 18th century English admiral’s hat. All of these women had puffy moon-faces, with small eyes, mouths and noses, plump chins disappearing into their necks and plump waists, giving them a pigeon-like shape. I wondered, was it the artists’ ideal of feminine beauty? Or was it a realistic portrayal of women at the time?


These five women all dressed in long robes, made elegant by delicately etched, flowing lines. They stood in an enigmatic attitude of clasped hands, arms held flat across the waist and stomach, with wide sleeves. I saw a collection of long, silver hairpins, bursting at the tips with stylized flowers and arabesques. There were also little, round mirrors embossed at the back with sinuous dragons, mythic beasts and grapevines and geese and other birds. I saw another exquisite little palm-size mirror, inlaid with a pattern of moony mother-of-pearl and turquoise.


‘Under the slanting light, the bosoms bright as snow –

Half drunken I gaze at this beautiful girl’ – Li Qunyu (c813-60)


The downstairs part of the exhibition was devoted to religious art. Chang’an had a rich diversity of many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and even Nestorianism (a kind of eastern Christianity). But from all, Buddha seems to reign calmly supreme, probably the religion that most complemented the philosophically based native Chinese beliefs of Daoism and Confucianism.


I saw a large Buddha head, carved in stone from the Xingqing Palace emanating geometrically serene features and orderly lips couched in a small and graceful smile. There is a fondness for the depiction of multiple Buddhas, all sitting in simultaneous meditation and wearing flowing robes. This was carved on an octagonal pillar with four recesses on each side, each containing seated Buddhas. This pillar was apparently part of a ‘jingchuang’ monument and usually fronted a temple.


There were a lot of wares of beautiful gilded silver, my favourite being a large, four-lobed ceremonial basin decorated with Mandarin ducks and pomegranate fruit. On the base of the bowl, two ducks were gracefully entwined amid joyful clouds of leaves, flowers and fruits. Around the inner sides of each lobe, were dancing duck couples facing each other wreathed in arabesque clouds and lavish leaves. At each side of the basin, ornate handles hung. As these kind of motifs traditionally signify blessings for happy marriage and fertility, maybe the bowl formed part of the rites involved in marriage ceremonies.


Moving on, I saw a row of 12 Zodiac animal sculptures – animal headed in human form, their hands invisible under long, flowing sleeves, clasped formally over their stomachs. Again these sculptures were of the typical Tang biscuit coloured earthenware washed with cream-white pigment. They were: monkey, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, rooster, dog and pig.

The origin of the enduring and popular Zodiac superstition in China seems to have arisen in the 3rd Century BCE where ‘the 12 animals were first used to describe the appearance of thieves, as it was believed that their features would resemble one of these animals according to the time they committed their crime’. During the Tang Dynasty, the Zodiac system of celestial mapping established was often found depicted in niches in tombs.


There was a Stupa Jar of painted earthenware in red, cream-white and terracotta often found in burial sites dating from the Tang Dynasty. Of Buddhist tradition, they apparently contained goods for the departed soul’s sustenance in accord with ancient Chinese belief.


Nearing the end of the exhibition was a large earthenware/cream-white pigment sculpture of a horse, with its strong, agile legs, magnificent curve of back and massive, muscular nape of neck. Its facial features were delicately modeled, with a strong, noble jaw-bone, fine nostrils, little pointed, alert ears and mild, intelligent eyes. The horse was highly revered in those times, as it was an essential part of transport and communication and is a fitting symbol of the Tang Dynasty, with its art of strong, simple, honest lines so richly conveying both grace and grounded-ness.


I came out of the exhibition feeling happy, that there had been a time of such simple and beautiful art in the world and that it was a time of peace and prosperity, an eternal inspiration to this perhaps more complex, uncertain and more fragmented clime.