TANG HORSES AND TANG ERA SCULPTURE AND CERAMICS

TANG CERAMICS AND SCULPTURE

right Ideas and art flowed into China on the Silk Road along with commercial goods during the Tang period (A.D. 607-960). Art produced in China at this time reveals influences from Persia, India, Mongolia, Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. Tang sculptures combined the sensuality of Indian and Persian art and the strength of the Tang empire itself. Art critic Julie Salamon wrote in the New York Times, that artists in the Tang dynasty “absorbed influences from all over the world, synthesized them and a created a new multiethnic Chinese culture."

Proto-porcelain evolved during the Tang dynasty. It was made by mixing clay with quartz and the mineral feldspar to make a hard, smooth-surfaced vessel. Feldspar was mixed with small amounts of iron to produce an olive-green glaze. Tang funerary vessels often contained figures of merchants. warriors, grooms, musicians and dancers. There are some works that have Hellenistic influences that came via Bactria in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Some Buddhas of immense size were produced.

Buddhist art in China matured during the Tang Dynasty. The periods of Chinese Buddhist art closely parallel the phases the Buddhist religion went through in China. Works that appeared in the 5th and 6th centuries were very free and individualistic. In the Tang period the art became more mature and robust, with Buddhist figures featuring graceful lines and curves. In the 10th to 13th century Buddhist art became more refined. After that it was rooted in tradition and lacked innovation.

According to the Shanghai Museum: “The Tang dynasty was one of the most brilliant epochs in Chinese ancient civilization. Sculptures of this period emphasized realism. Thus, various human figurines showed well- proportioned build and accurate appearance. Buddhist sculptures were given more perfect images in order to express the spirit of rescuing all living creatures.[Source: Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum-net /+\ ]

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Tang Horses persiancarpetguide.com ; China Vista chinavista.com ; “The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry,” edited and translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); Website: www.chinese-poems.com.

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Books: 1) Benn, Charles, “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002; 2) Schafer, Edward H. “The Golden Peaches of Samarkan,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963; 3) Watt, James C. Y., et al. “China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004; 4) Cambridge History of China Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); 5) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Tang Ceramics


According to chinaonlinemuseum.com: “The Tang Dynasty is famous for its energetically modeled and brightly colored tomb figurines. Made from low-fired earthenware and intended exclusively for burial, these charming horses, camels, and civil officials have become immensely popular. In their own day, however, they were neither in the forefront of ceramic technology nor highly regarded by collectors or connoisseurs. [Source: chinaonlinemuseum.com ^|^]

“Three northern kilns were responsible for producing the majority of lead-glazed Sancai, or "three-color" ware that furnished the tombs of the aristocracy for more than one hundred and fifty years of the Tang Dynasty. Developed during the seventh century, the new colors were achieved simply by mixing metal oxides to a lead fluxed glaze. The oxides included copper for green and iron for amber or brownish yellow. Together with a clear, cream glaze, they provided the three basic colors but, on rare occasion, expensive cobalt oxide for blue was added to the mix. The tendency of the glaze to run slightly accounts for the splashed effects and mingling of the colors that give Sancai their exuberant effect. It is assumed that three-color ware was reserved for burial ware and was seldom, if ever, used in daily life. Sancai traveled along the Silk Road, and was later extensively used in Syrian, Cypriot, and then Italian pottery from the 13th to the middle of the 15th century. Sancai also became a popular style in Japanese and other East Asian ceramic arts.” ^|^

“However, it was in the making of functional ceramics for daily use and export that Tang potters achieved their greatest technical innovations and artistic refinements. They invented porcelain, underglaze painted décor, phosphatic glazes, perfected high-fired celadon, and experimented with cobalt blue glazes. Their interest in single color wares, especially white ware, brown ware, celadon, and cobalt blue laid the groundwork for Song (960-1279) taste in monochrome glazes, refined ceramic shapes, and splashed brown and black wares.” ^|^

Tang Pottery Production


ceramic pillow

According to the McClung Museum: “Relatively low-fired and light bodied, Tang pottery is typically composed of earthenware, a porous and permeable common clay. Ranging in color from nearly white to buff, red, or brown, depending on the mineral content, this earthenware was fired in kilns at a temperature between 600 and 1100 degrees Celsius.[Source: “Reflections of a Golden Age: Chinese Tang Pottery,” McClung Museum, December 13, 1997 |::|]

“Figures and vessels were produced in three basic ways: 1) Molded, 2) Hand-built with individually made parts combined, 3) Thrown on the potter’s wheel, The hallmark of Tang tomb wares is the sancai, or three-color, lead-silicate glazes. These glazes were produced by melting lead with clay and then finely grinding the resulting glassy material before mixing it with water for application to the already fired earthenware.

Using a transparent glaze as a base: 1) Iron oxide was added to produce tones ranging from straw to amber to dark brown, 2) Copper oxide was added to impart rich greens, 3) Cobalt oxide was added for dark, vibrant blues, Tang ceramics generally have an unglazed area above the bases of figures or the footrings of vessels, because the potters were not able to control the flow of the lead glazes during firings. During the seventh century, many figures were fired with a clear glaze or left unglazed with features painted on them.

Tang Tomb Figures


Tang funerary vessels often contained figures of merchants. warriors, grooms, musicians and dancers. There are some works that have Hellenistic influences that came via Bactria in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Some Buddhas of immense size were produced. Tang dynasty figures are known for their provocative poses. Those that were painted are known for their soft colors and patterns.

According to the McClung Museum: “With a history reaching back to before the third century B.C., tomb figures and furnishings were an important aspect of the Chinese culture. They also constituted a sizable amount of the ceramics produced during the Tang dynasty. Even in death, members of the wealthy, cosmopolitan Tang society sought to surround themselves with replicas of the splendid riches they had enjoyed during life. These objects were buried in tombs to provide for the needs of the deceased in the afterlife. [Source: “Reflections of a Golden Age: Chinese Tang Pottery,” McClung Museum, December 13, 1997 |::|]

“Preparations for the tomb, which usually began well in advance of death, included the purchase of literally hundreds of pottery ming qi, or “articles of the spirit,” such as figures of servants, musicians, and professional attendants; models of domestic and foreign animals; guardian spirits; and vessels from everyday life. The tomb furnishings that have survived are important social and cultural documents of the history of life during the Tang period. |::|

“Tang artisans drew from all the artistic influences with which they came in contact, adopting and adapting many exotic styles. Native styles were combined with imported western elements; shapes and decorative motifs from Persia, India, Greece, and Syria became part of the Tang potter’s repertoire...Two ewers with phoenix-head spouts, based on Persian metalwork forms but decorated with typical Chinese motifs, demonstrate this combination of shapes and decorations.” |::|

Tang Horses

rightTang horses are among the most famous works of Chinese art. Made from ceramic, some are glazed in blue, green amber and have elaborate saddle blankets and tasseled bridles. Other are made of unglazed ceramic and thereby look more modern like a Rodin statute. The horses are often in frantic positions: with their heads raises and nostrils flared, or twisting around to get at something on their backs. Many had a grooved channel running the length of the arched neck, where a real horsehair mane was placed, and had a hole in their rear for a horsehair tail. Most are only around 40 centimeters tall.

Chinese art specialist J.J. Lally told the New York Times, "Tang horses are the most widely popular image of Chinese art because they are immediately accessible to everyone. You don't have to read the Tang dynasty was a moment in Chinese art when there was a strong move toward realism and strong decorative impulse. Horses imported from the Near East were precious. In Tang China, the horse was the emblem of wealth and power. They are meant to embody rank and speed."

The Chinese used horses as far back as the Shang dynasty (1600 to 1100 B.C.) but these were mainly strong, draft animals. Later they began importing horses from Central Asia and Middle East. By the Tang dynasty horses were favorite subjects of not only artists but also poets and composers. The inspiration for the many of Tang horses were Tall horses, the heavenly horses from Central Asia introduced to China in the first century B.C. Some were figures were discovered in Astana tombs by Sir Aurel Stein during his third exploration of Central Asia in 1913-16. Astana is near the site of the Tang-era city Gaochang, an administrative center controlling the empire's western-most territories.

According to the British Museum: As in every dynasty since the Han, horses remained an obsession of the Tang court. Horses served as symbols of power, prestige, and in particular, wealth - at one point the Tang court's annual requirement for horses from Fergana and from the Western Türks exceeded a cost of fifty million feet of silk. A love of horses also spurred the adoption of the Iranian sport of polo by the Tang elite. Central Asians and Türkic nomads were often employed as horse grooms, and many mingqi (tomb figures) featuring particularly fine specimens of horses attended by their foreign handlers (such as we see in the upper example) have been uncovered in Tang-era tombs.[Source: British Museum]

Varieties of Tang Horses


Some of the most treasured Tang horses were glazed in cobalt blue. Gallery owner Khalil Rizk told the New York Times, "Only 5 percent of Tang horses have blue glaze. Cobalt was put on during the last firing. Cobalt was a treasured commodity imported from the Middle East; it was more valuable than gold. Its use means the horse was for someone of the highest rank."

Describing a relatively ordinary Tang horse that sold for $266,500 at a Christie's auction, Wendy Moonan wrote in the New York Times, "Unglazed, it had its head lowered toward its left foreleg, which was slightly raised."

One extraordinary glazed Tang pieces depicts a kneeling man with a horse's head. The expression on the horse's head is sensitive. Tang artist also made some extraordinarily beautiful ceramic animals, including a glazed earthenware camel carrying a troupe of musicians. Another fine piece, a yellow-glazed pottery horse, includes a carefully sculpted saddle, which is decorated with leather straps and ornamental fastenings featuring eight-petalled flowers and apricot leaves.

The British Museum described one horse as follows: This horse figurine was modeled on sancai ("three-color") glaze examples common in urban aristocratic tombs. But rather than being glazed and fired, this figure is made from unfired clay and wood, and decorated with paint, with a saddle-blanket, stirrups and other equestrian equipment created from embroidered silk. If local craftsmen were unable to reproduce the sort of glazed ceramic mingqi used in the eastern urban centers, they were able to improvise their own regional versions, using the same sculptural methods responsible for distinctive painted clay icons found in Buddhist sites through Central Asia.” [Source: British Museum]

For a long time the highest price ever paid for ceramics and/or a Chinese work of art was $6.1 million for a Tang dynasty horse sold by the British Rail Pension Fund to a Japanese dealer at Sotheby's in London in December 1989. Collectors like Tang horses because they can be dated with some certainty using thermoluminescnece testing.

Tang Buddhist Sculpture


The periods of Chinese Buddhist art closely parallel the phases the Buddhist religion went through in China. Works that appeared in the 5th and 6th centuries were very free and individualistic. In the Tang period the art became more mature and robust, with Buddhist figures featuring graceful lines and curves. In the 10th to 13th century Buddhist art became more refined. After that it was rooted in tradition and lacked innovation.

According to the Shanghai Museum: “The Tang dynasty was one of the most brilliant epochs in Chinese ancient civilization. Sculptures of this period emphasized realism. Thus, various human figurines showed well- proportioned build and accurate appearance. Buddhist sculptures were given more perfect images in order to express the spirit of rescuing all living creatures.[Source: Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum-net /+\ ]

Hui-hsia Chen of the National Palace Museum, Taipei wrote: “ During the T'ang Dynasty, an indigenous religious tradition developed while Buddhism continued to flourish; hence, these pieces manifest characteristics of the T'ang style. This exhibition features a seated Buddha with representative voluptuous features dating to the High T'ang. Despite its small size, the figure conveys strength and vigor. [Source: Chen, Hui-hsia, National Palace Museum, Taipei npm-gov-tw \=/ ]

Wonderful 6th and 7th century Buddhist sculptures have been unearthed in northern China along the Silk Road in Gansu and Ningxia. This include a big-nosed clay representation of a Buddha disciple; a granite carving of Avalokitesvara, a popular Buddhist deity; and a bronze figure of a dancing Sogidian. Many of the work bears influences from Persia and Central Asia. The Sogdians were a Persian culture centered around Samarkand

A relief a Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas and a life-size bodhisattva feature extraordinary detail and expression. Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “A seated Buddha that was once enthroned represents a classical moment of its art. The perfect proportions project a sense of harmony and the expression of imperious illumination speaks of a powerful, self confident art. A figure in motion is unique in the art of China, with its knees very slightly flexed lifting the light drape adhering to the body."

Tang-Era Buddha


Amitabha at the Met

Among the works of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York collection is a Tang-era Buddha, probably Amitabha (Amituofo), dated to the early 7th century. It is made of hollow dry lacquer and contains traces of gilt and polychrome pigment and gilding. The image is 96.5 centimeters (38 inches) tall; 68.6 centimeters (27 inches) wide and 57.1 centimeters (22.5 inches) deep. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Buddhist images executed in dry lacquer were highly valued by the Chinese because of their costly and time-consuming process of production. There are so few surviving examples that this seated Buddha is especially precious. To fashion the body of the image, the craftsman made a rough form of the sculpture in clay and then applied at least three layers of hemp cloth, each secured with a paste made of raw lacquer (the sap from the lac tree, Rhus verniciflua) and a fine powder of bone, horn, shell, ceramic, stone, or carbon. Each layer had to dry thoroughly before the next could be added. The clay core was then removed from the lacquered image. The head and hands were likely modeled separately, using the same technique as that used for the body, and then attached to the sculpture. The surface was finished with several coatings of pure lacquer and then painted. \^/

“Portrayed as a youthful figure, the Buddha sits in the full lotus position, with his legs tightly interlocked, though the lower part of the sculpture is missing. The position of the damaged arms suggests that the hands performed the gesture of contemplation. The columnar form and lean gracefulness of the figure recall the style of Buddhist sculpture of the late Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386–589), but the attempt to render anatomical differentiation and, in particular, the emotional impact of the Buddha's expression are distinguishing features of early Tang style. The traces of brilliant red and blue, vividly combined to form a stylized floral pattern in the hem of the undergarment crossing the chest, and the remains of shimmering gilt on the surface are evidence of the sumptuous effect of this once colorful figure.” \^/

Image Sources: Tang Buddhist sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Tang horses, Antiques and Art Online; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.