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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

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No series about the cities of the dead would be complete without a visit to the world’s most populous country, China.   Because of China’s 5000 year+ uninterrupted cultural history, there are some extraordinary examples to choose from, like the Western Xian tombs, or the world famous Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a circular tomb with a circumference of 6.3 km (3.9 miles) and an army of more than 7000 life-sized earthenware soldiers (they don’t build ’em like that anymore, thank goodness).  However for artistic reasons, Ferrebeekeeper is going to highlight the most well-known tomb complex in China–the Ming tombs which is a compound of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty from 1424 to 1644 on the outskirts of Beijing.  Indeed today the tombs are now in a suburb of Beijing, surrounded by banks, residential housing parks, and golf courses.

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The First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, whose rags-to-riches story has no obvious equivalent in history, is NOT buried in the Ming tombs (although don’t forget to follow this spooky link to read about his horrifying excesses), nor is his successor, the Jianwen Emperor, who was usurped and vanished from history.  However the third and greatest Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the mighty Yongle Emperor is buried there.  The Yongle Emperor chose the spot according to principles of Feng Shui (and political calculus) and he and 12 other Ming dynasty emperors were interred there along with a dynasty worth of empresses, concubines, favorite princes, et cetera etc.  Each of the 13 mausoleums has its own name like the Chang Ling Mausolem, which is tomb to the Yongle Emperor, or the Qing Ling Mausoleum which is the final resting place of the Tai Chang Emperor.

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Some of the subjects of past Ferrebeekeeper posts can be found buried in the Ming Tombs–like the Jiajing Emperor (who is in the Yong Ling Mausoleum, if you are keeping track of this at home).  Considering how much mercury that guy drank, he is probably perfectly preserved somewhere in there glistening like the silver surfer even after all of these years.

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I say probably, because we don’t know.  Only three of the 13 tombs have been properly excavated and explored by archaeologists (these known tombs are the tombs of the Yongle Emperor, Longqing Emperor, and the Wanli Emperor).  In 1644, the whole necropolis was looted and burned by Li Zicheng, the first (and last) Emperor of the ill-fated Shun Dynasty, but, fortunately, he seems to have burned and looted tombs the way he set up kingdoms–very badly and incompletely.  This means there are ten whole tomb complexes of China’s richest greatest emperors which are awaiting the archaeologists of the future (probably…it is always possible that one of China’s more recent autocrats secretly looted everything and sold it to dodgy collectors or hid it under his bed). Imagine the unknown treasures awaiting discovery!

The first paragraph alluded to the artistic merit of this graveyard, and I really meant that.  Just look at the beauty of the Sacred Way in the top photo (this is the main entrance to the tombs which Emperors would traverse when visiting the spot to pay homage to their predecessors) or the ceremonial chamber form the Ding Ling Tomb (which is the third image down).  Best of all, we have an amazing painting (below)! Look at the this beautiful watercolor map/landscape painting from the late nineteenth century which shows the entire tomb complex (the painting itself belongs the Library of Congress).  Naturally, if you click the painting it will not blow up to full size here (thanks to the hateful anti-aesthetic nature of WordPress).  However here is a link to the original image at Wikipedia, you can expand it to immense size on your computer and take a personal tour of one of the world’s most lovely and historically significant tomb complexes.

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Well, this week has been a good week for me socially (since I have had multiple fun events) and a bad one for me physically (since I have had a cold all week). The upshot is that I have not gotten as much blogging done as I would like. Fortunately, there will be plenty of time to relax and enjoy things in the afterlife…or at least we can enjoy anything that was buried in ceremonial symbolic form with us in our lavish tombs. Well, anyway, that is what the people of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) believed [it was a big improvement from certain early kingdoms where they dispensed with the “symbolic” part and just buried aristocrats with all of their favorite concubines and servants]. These spirit objects/grave goods are known as “Mingqi” and they make up a plurality of Han objects in museums and cultural collections. Of course, the afterlife would be empty without the most reliably delicious of all animals—so here, partway through the year of the chicken, is a Han dynasty symbolic ceremonial burial chicken which some well-heeled chicken lover took with them when they went away forever.

The chicken was made of simple baked earthenware and 2000 years of grave conditions have not altered its delicate facial features for the better, but the elegant winsome lines and perfect bold form leave no question about who the masters of ceramics have been from the time of Rome to the present. There is no news about whether the original owner is now stuck in a poultry-free afterlife since his chicken Mingqi was carried off by some ancient robber or modern archaeologist.

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Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists).  Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history.  One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty.  The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red).  These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago:  laying out fine clothes and setting the table.  One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch.  The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.

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The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries.  Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”).  Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires.  The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea.  To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument.  But look at these amazing paintings!  Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.

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The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right.  The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life.  Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines.  If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.

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These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.

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Today is International Women’s Day, although, to my mind, one unofficial holiday in the doldrums of March doesn’t really capture the contributions of, oh, let’s see, more than half of humankind (and the good half, by-in-large).  Anyway, Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the event with “Princess Week”, a week of musing on gender, politics, power, and roles.   Instead of featuring some made-up princesses invented to sell toys or strange movies, today’s post tells the story of a particularly magnificent real princess, Princess Zhao of Pingyang.

Zhao was the daughter of Li Yuan the hereditary Duke of Tang during the Sui Dynasty–a politically weak and troubled dynasty which lasted from 581 to 618, when it was supplanted by the glorious, uh, Tang dynasty (I am maybe giving some things away).  Zhao was was Li’s third daughter, but, his other daughters were the children of concubines, whereas she was the only daughter of his wife Duchess Dou (who gave birth to Li’s heirs, Li Jiancheng, Li Shimin, Li Xuanba, and Li Yuanji whose fratricidal conflict is one of the great stories of Chinese history).  Zhao was fully as cunning and martial as her brothers, which is saying something since one of her brothers was Li Shimin (one of the preeminent figures of world history–arguably the most capable Chinese Emperor).

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Zhao and her husband were living in the capital Chang’an when the Duke (who had been at loggerheads with the Sui Emperor) sent secret word that he planned to rebel. Zhao’s husband slipped out of the city, but Zhao stayed behind long enough to sell her estate.  She used the money to enlist an army of rebels.  She then persuaded the famous rebel farmer He Panren to join her.  As she conquered cities adjacent to Chang-an, other great bandits and rebel leaders bent their knee to her and became captains in “The Army of the Lady” which swelled up to a force of 70,000 soldiers as the civil war entered its definitive phase.  Peasants rushed out to offer food and supplies to Zhao’s army which was famous for its discipline (and for the fact that its soldiers did not pillage the lands they took or rape their captives).

She defeated an army of the Emperor’s men and finally joined Li Shimin’s army as one of his co-generals. When li Shimin’s stratagems won the war, Zhao’s father became the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty and she was elevated to the rank of Princess.

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Unfortunately Zhao died only two years after the dynasty was founded at the age of 23.  She did not see the Tang Dynasty grow to become the most powerful empire on Earth during the 7th century (although she also missed seeing her brothers kill each other).  When she died she was given a great general’s honors, and over the centuries her legend has taken on a life of its own in China and beyond.

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Let’s extend chicken week for one more glorious day with this exquisite ewer from Ancient China.  This stoneware chicken vessel was made in the 4th or 5th century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty—the the most empire-like entity to emerge from the chaos and wars of the Three Kingdoms period (some might note that the hideous Three Kingdom Phase of Chinese history contains many valuable lesson about what happens when great nations start to bicker internally and form strongly antagonistic regional factions).  The Jin dynasty was a pathetic broken shard of the glory that was the Han dynasty however they made fine chicken shaped ewers and this is one.  I particularly like the chicken’s little tube-shaped beak/spout, anxious eyes, and abstruse comb.  The piece is a sort or subtle celadon green with dark spots where dabs of iron oxide were deliberately sprinkled over the green glaze.

I hope you enjoyed the thrilling rise of the Hongwu Emperor as related in yesterday’s post.  In accordance with the wishes of the editors who commissioned it, I left out the truly important parts—namely, how the Hongwu Emperor organized the Ming dynasty around Confucianist precepts, cunning agrarian reform, and above all—naked absolutism.  I also left out the terrible end of Zhu Yuanzhe’s story arc: for the skills and guile which allowed the Hongwu Emperor to seize absolute power had a terrible shadow side. As an old man, he was seized by dreadful paranoia and employed vast armies of secret police, informers, and torturers to root out the imaginary plots which flowered on all sides of him.  Hongwu killed hundreds of thousands of people by means of the most inventive and horrible tortures.  Despite his astonishing feats, and despite the prosperity he brought to China, his name is permanently blackened by the depths of his cruelty (although Mao admired him).

It almost makes you wonder if leaders aren’t inherently flawed somehow: as though there is some fundamental problem with putting self-interested individuals in charge of our collective destiny.

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But today’s post is not about leadership; it is about beautiful & delicate Chinese porcelain! It would be unthinkable to have a Ming Week which didn’t feature a fine Ming vase.  Here is a Ming dynasty vessel from the Jiajing reign (1522-1566).  The Jiajing emperor was a weakling and a fool who devoutly believed in all sorts of portent, rituals, astrology, and mystical claptrap.  His courtiers and eunuchs used this to control him while they robbed the Empire to the brink of disaster.  Infrastructure was neglected.  Crooked courtiers ground the peasants down into crippling destitution. The social fabric unwound.

But what did the rich and powerful care when they lived in an era of such luxury? Porcelain of the Jiajing reign is particularly whimsical and otherworldly.  This vase shows the “three friends” pine, bamboo, and plum growing together as emblems of wealth, happiness, and longevity.  Each plant is twisted into an otherworldly logogram–a “shou” symbol.  Here the plum blossoms forth out of a splendid stylized rock covered in lichen.

Look at the decorative elements! The waves, the scrolls, and the mystical vegetation which surround the three central plants all began as naturalistic forms—but by the time of the Jiajing era they have been transmuted into ethereal blue beauty.  And yet the original forms are still there as well.  It is hard to describe what gives this little ovoid vase its winsome charm, but the aesthetic effect is undeniable.

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In 1344, disaster struck the populous agricultural lands between the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in China. Crops not withered by drought were devoured by locust swarms.  Plague stalked the starving masses.  Among the many victims of the catastrophe were the Zhu family, destitute peasant farmers who had already given away the majority of their children to adoption or concubinage. Father, mother, and eldest son died of plague, leaving their teenage son Zhu Yuanzhang penniless, starving, and surrounded by the decaying bodies of his family.  He begged the landlord for a small burial plot but was angrily rebuffed; only with help from a kindly neighbor was he able to dress his dead kin in rags and inter them in a shallow grave.  It was a miserable start to what was arguably the most meteoric social climb in history.

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With a long chin and pocked face, Zhu Yuanzhang was regarded as exceptionally ugly.  As a newborn he was unable to eat and nearly died. His father had promised Zhu to the Buddhist monastery at Huangjue should the baby somehow survive.  When his family perished, sixteen year old Zhu remembered this promise (and possible source of livelihood) and set out to take up a monk’s life.  Yet drought meant that there were not enough rations for new novices: the monks gave Zhu a bamboo hat and an earthenware bowl and sent him off to wander China as a beggar.

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It was a time of tumult. A century earlier the Mongols had conquered all of China and installed themselves as a supreme caste atop the ancient culture, however, by the mid 14th century, Mongol hegemony was coming undone due to factional political quarrels. As the last Mongol emperor fretted in his palace in Dadu (Beijing), rebels and bandits sprang up everywhere.  Through this broken land, Zhu wandered as a mendicant. He slept in outbuildings and ate scraps or lived rough and hungry in the wilderness. However during these ragged years he also began to make friends among the “Red Turbans,” a diverse network of rebels who identified themselves with red banners and headwear.

These Red Turbans had started out as a network of secret societies based on religious concepts imported along the Silk Road from Western Asia. They were incorporated into a larger messianic anti-Mongol movement by Monk Peng, a firebrand rebel who won many ordinary farmers and workmen to his cause before being captured and killed.  Ostensibly the Red Turbans sought to reestablish the Song dynasty (which had ruled before the Mongols) and they hung their hopes on the putative last heir to the Song, Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance”.  In reality, the movement’s identity and aims were a front for several different factions vying for power not just with the Mongols and grasping warlords, but with each other.

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Red Turban warrior fighting a Mongol.

Zhu made friends with some northern Red Turban sympathizers before he returned to the monastery to become literate, but the government (perhaps not unreasonably) feared that the monks were consorting with rebels and burned the temple.  At the age of 24, Zhu Yuanzhang left monastic life and joined the Red Turbans with the not-very-exalted rank of corporal, yet the rebel army offered unparalleled opportunity for advancement.

One of the leaders of the Red Turbans was a grandee named Guo Zixing. Guo’s father had been a fortune-teller (i.e. a con-artist) who had married the blind and not-very-marriageable daughter of a landlord and then shrewdly used the resultant dowry to build a fortune. Guo recognized similar potential in Zhu—the ugly ex-monk was not only relentless and brave in battle, but also had a knack for judging men and convincing them to follow him.  Guo acted as Zhu’s patron and helped the young man take command of larger and larger groups of rebels.  While Guo’s actual sons died of war and ill fortune,  Zhu wisely married Guo’s adopted daughter and became the second in command of their faction. When Guo himself perished, Zhu, the former peasant, became general.  Zhu’s ever expanding army twice assaulted Nanjing, cultural and economic center of southern China, and the second time they successfully took the city.

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Once Zhu captured Nanjing, victory followed victory thanks to his political wiles and administrative prowess. He forbade his men from taking plunder and sternly enforced standards of good conduct. This adherence to Confucian principles made him more popular than other upstart warlords, whom he and his generals defeated one by one. Zhu’s greatest problem during this period of ascendency was how to leave behind the Red Turban movement without losing his own followers.  Although it had provided him with a ladder to national power, his affiliation with the red Turbans was preventing China’s elite literati and aristocrats from supporting him.

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Additionally, Zhu’s most powerful military competitor was Chen Youliang, leader of the multitudinous Red Turban faction in the west.  Their conflict came to a climax in 1363 with a thrilling battle on Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake.  Zhu Yuangzhang’s smaller fleet utilized fireships, gunpowder explosives, trebuchets, and boarding tactics against Chen Youliang’s fort-like tower ships. The battle was the largest navy battle in history and lasted for over a month but ended with Chen’s death and a resounding victory for Zhu, who thereafter ceased to participate directly in fighting. The only figure left who could pit the Red Turbans against Zhu Yuangzhang was Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance,” pretender to the Song throne who drowned in highly suspicious circumstances when he was under Zhu’s care in 1366 (which allowed Zhu to officially denounce the violence and mayhem of the Red Turbans).

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By 1367, through force of arms, Zhu Yuangzhang had defeated all other likely contenders for the throne. The last Yuan emperor fled north and Badu fell in 1368.  Zhu Yuanzhang, son of the lowest peasants, assumed the mandate of heaven and proclaimed himself the Hongwu Emperor—first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the longest lasting and most stable dynasty in Chinese history.  The Ming dynasty was one of the high-water marks of Chinese society. Not only was the dynasty known for military conquest, agricultural innovation, and artistic greatness, but in the early 15th century it was at the forefront of science and exploration. Vast Ming fleets comprised of 400-foot long sailing junks explored as far as India, and Africa. Had Zhu Yuangzhang’s empire kept its initial impetus, who can say what would have happened?  As it is, the spirit of his reforms long outlived the Ming dynasty and remains an integral part of Chinese statecraft.

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The Mausoleum of Zhu Yuanzhang in Contemporary Nanking

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“Jiajing on his State Barge” (Artists Unknown, ca. 1538, ink and watercolor on silk)

The Ming Dynasty was a hereditary dynastic empire which ruled China for 276 years between 1368 AD and 1644 AD.  This regime was lumbered with an exceedingly conservative and cautious weltanschauung, which caused Ming leaders to walk back some of the empire’s greatest accomplishments (like astonishing journeys of discovery and prodigious economic growth—both of which were nipped in the bud).  Arguably this unbending Confucianism ultimately led to the downfall of the Ming as well (although the dynasty was undoubtedly undone by wide a host of factors).  However this same core traditionalism also made the Ming dynasty one of the longest and most stable empires in world history. The Ming dynasty achieved a number of cultural and social high watermarks which were not exceeded anywhere for a very long time.

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I was hired by a national magazine to write a little biography of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, whose meteoric rise from penniless beggar to the most powerful man on Earth is scarcely comprehensible.   Indeed… Zhu’s history apparently really wasn’t comprehensible to the editors of the magazine, who never published my piece (although they certainly delighted in making me rewrite it and then editing it into incoherence). Naturally, I blame this failure almost entirely on the ignorance, cupidity, and general moral failings of these self-same editors.  However, in their defense, Chinese history is a baffling maelstrom of horrifying wars, subtle political machinations, and names which are transliterated differently into English in different sources (not to mention the lives of countless millions and millions and millions of people).  It is difficult to make any sense of any of it without knowing Chinese, an ancient exquisitely beautiful language of perfectly baffling tonal sounds and thousands of impossible-to-memorize logograms.

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Chinese porcelain vase, Zhengde mark but from the Wanli (1573-1619)

All of which is to say, this biography is now mine and I am going to publish it here this week as the centerpiece of Ferrebeekeeper’s “Ming Dynasty Week” a celebration of the art, literature, and history of one of my absolute favorite eras.  This will include a special look at the famous ceramics which are synonymous with the period as well an examination of some of the less-well-known but equally dazzling highlights of this amazing time.  Get ready to learn about all sorts of Ming things.  This week is going to be great!

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Sancai Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel (Tang Dynasty)

Sancai Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel (Tang Dynasty)

Nobody makes more beautiful ceramics and porcelains than the Chinese.  They are the best at it, and they have been practically forever (or at least for the last 3000 years).  The Chinese were also among the first people to domesticate geese, those lovely, useful (and all-too-sadly delicious) fowl with big personalities.  It follows then, that nobody has made a more beautiful ceramic goose vessel than the Chinese…and here is the proof–a magnificent gooseware vessel from the Tang dynasty, a vast empire which from 618 AD to 9017 AD spanned the Chinese coast and stretched deep along the Silk Road into central Asia.  I am just kidding about gooseware…this vessel is properly called a Tang earthenware vessel with Sancai (three-color) glaze, however I am not kidding about the vast scope of the Tang dynasty, nor about the unfading splendor of this artwork.  Look at the expression on the goose—a sanguine curiosity tinged with hunger.  Look too at the beautiful expressionism of the transparent brown blue and yellow glaze, which straddles a fine line between pure abstraction and the natural color of a Medieval Chinese goose popping out of an algae-streaked mudhole.

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Sancai And Blue-Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel

Of course Ferrebeekeeper has a checkered history with ancient goose art.  We have been known to sometimes get suckered by beautiful forgeries and charismatic forgers, so you will have to look at this piece carefully assay its merit on your own!

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