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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.

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.

Sancai And Blue-Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel

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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Happy Chinese New Year! Last year was the reptilian year of the snake, but this year things get all mammalian again—and what a magnificent mammal! Lunar Year 4711 is the year of the horse!

Tang Dynasty Horses at the British Museum

Tang Dynasty Horses at the British Museum

Ferrebeekeeper has shied away from writing about horses because the majestic animals have played such an important role in military and economic history (also I don’t want a bunch of patricians shouting at me about the finer details of fetlocks and snaffle bits), but, since it is now the year of the horse, I would be remiss not to post some equine highlights from those 4711 years of Chinese culture. Horses were (probably) domesticated in next door Kazakhstan about five thousand years ago, and they have had an unparalleled position in Chinese culture.  Not only is Chinese mythology replete with horses, throughout the entire history of the Han people, the great perissodactyls have been pivotal as labor, military mounts, transportation, pets, status symbols, and food.

A Cermaic Horse from the Tang dynasty (618 AD-907 AD)

A Cermaic Horse from the Tang dynasty (618 AD-907 AD)

There are numerous artistic masterpieces which celebrate this long alliance of man and mount. From ancient Zhou bronzeware vessels, to terracotta tombware from the Han dynasty, to deft Sung dynasty brush paintings, to elaborate Quing jade carvings. However I have chosen to celebrate the year of the horse with a gallery of earthenware porcelain statues from the far-flung Tang Empire (which stretched farthest towards what is now Kazakhstan, the original home of domesticated horses).  The Tang was an overland dynasty which looked west along the Silk Road for trade ties, artistic inspiration, and conquest.  It was an era of cavalry patrols, mounted merchants, and riders of all sorts.

Tang dynasty Ceramic Horse

Tang dynasty Ceramic Horse

Tang Horse

Tang Horse

The Tang dynasty was also an era when porcelain glazes grew in color, depth, and complexity—yet the calligraphic exactitude of Ming glazes was still unknown.  These sculptures each seem like a perfect depiction of a proud horse simultaneously coupled with an abstract painting of brown, yellow, orange, and green.  What could be a better metaphor for a new year?

A contemporary knock-off of a Tang Horse

A contemporary knock-off of a Tang Horse

Hopefully you will enjoy these images as you go about your New Year’s celebrations! Start a cultural dialogue with the local constabulary by lighting off some red fireworks! Enjoy “Buddha’s Delight” (a traditional New Year’s Dish made of black algae). Pack some decorative red envelopes full of cash and give them to your loved ones (or your favorite eclectic blogger!).  But as you go about your new year celebrations keep the horse in mind (and spare a few moments of thought for the matchless artisans of the Tang Dynasty as well).

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Meng Haoran was born in Xiangyang in 689 or 691 BCE.  He passed the all-important civil service test at the age of 39, but his brief political career was an abject failure.  He spent the rest of his life socializing with his friends and writing poetry about the winsome landscapes of his native Hubei.  Today, he is fondly remembered as one of the luminaries of Tang dynasty poetry and his works went on to have a big impact on subsequent poets and landscape painters in China and in Japan.

The Landscape of Hubei

The Landscape of Hubei

In his poems, Meng Haoran usually concentrates on the people who inhabit the mountains and rivers rather than describing the landscape itself.  His poems are filled with longing for the summits of the mountains—the haunt of unseen sages—however the poet never quite seems to ascend the peaks but rather ends up writing about rice wine and poetry.   Below is a characteristic poem addressed to his friend Zhang which veers from the soaring heights of aspiration to the day-to-day beauty of life and finally ends with the comforts of friendship:

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To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day
Meng Haoran

The northern mountain is hidden in white cloud,
A happy place for hermits to retire.
So we can meet, I try to climb the heights,
My heart is fading like a goose in flight.
My sorrow’s prompted by the creeping dusk,
But then clear autumn spurs on my desires.
At length we see the villagers return,
They walk the sand and rest at the river crossing.
The trees against the sky are like shepherd’s purse,
An islet by the shore just like the moon.
I hope you have some wine to celebrate,
We’ll spend the autumn festival drunk together.

An artist's interpretation of what Du Fu might have looked like (there are no original portraits)

An artist’s interpretation of what Du Fu might have looked like (there are no original portraits)

April is poetry month and, to celebrate, here is a poem by the great Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu (712–770).  Du Fu was the son of a minor scholar-official and he dedicated his youth to the rigorous study of Confucian philosophy, history and poetry.  However, when the moment of truth came, Du Fu failed the civil service examination despite his tremendous erudition.  This failure stunned Du Fu (and every subsequent generation of Chinese scholars) to such an extent that many suggest the Tang-era test was crooked.  The rest of Du Fu’s life he moved from place to place trying to find a place to fit in after failing the one thing that mattered.  His final years were spent struggling to survive the cataclysmic events of the An Lushan Rebellion (which devastated China and left huge swaths of the population dead).

Du Fu’s life does not sound like the model of happy success, but history judged him very differently.  Although his work was initially dismissed and garnered little attention even in the era immediately after his death, in remained in circulation and then suddenly began to grow in popularity.  Each generation regarded it more highly than the previous and it became worked into the aesthetic and philosophical framework of Chinese society. Today Du Fu’s works of poetry (from across all classical Chinese genres) are among the most famous works of Chinese literature.  His poetry has had a unique seminal influence on almost all subsequent poetry and he has been canonized as one of the greatest Chinese writers.
Here is a short poem which demonstrates the austere vigor of his pen.  Notice how much longer the English version is than the Chinese original! 
Du Fu

遲日江山麗
春風花草香
泥融飛燕子
沙暖睡鴛鴦

In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.

(translated by Mark Alexander)

A Painted Pottery Figure of a Camel (Chinese, Tang Dynasty, from a Christies’ Auction)

Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain.  Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties.  At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia.  Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).

Camel of Earthenware with sancai glaze (Late 7th-early 8th century, The Avery Brundage Collection at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time.  During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace.  The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.

Tang Camel with Turkic Groom/Rider

During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins).  The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.

Gray terracotta camel in a walking stance (from Little River Asian Arts)

Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art.  Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism.  Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on.  A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand.  Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats).   Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.

Another Tang Camel with Triple glaze (and human figure)

East Asia in 400 AD (Author: Thomas Lessman, Source Website: http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

The Korean kingdom of Baekje was founded in 18 BC by King Onjo, a third son from the royal dynasty of the neighboring Goguryeo kingdom.  At the height of its power around 375 AD, Baekje was a powerful force in eastern Asia with colonies in parts of China, substantial sea power, and a strong alliance with Japanese rulers of the Kofun period.  The Baekje kingdom’s territory stretched from the southern tip of Korea as far north as Pyongyang and included most of western Korea (ironically Korea was once divided along east/west lines).  The state flourished until 660 AD when it fell to an alliance between the Tang Dynasty Chinese and the Korean Kindom of Silla (a conquest orchestrated by Emperor Gaozong, the son of our old friend Lǐ Shìmín).

The Geumjegwansik, Diadems of the Monarchs of Baekje

I mention all of this, to explain the Geumjegwansik, a pair of two gold ornaments that were worn as a crown by King Muryeong, ruler of Baekje from AD 501 to AD 523. They were recovered in 1971 where they were discovered neatly stacked beside the dead king’s head inside his coffin. Today the two diadems are housed in Gongju National Museum (along with an identical pair found in the Queen’s coffin during the same excavation). They are cut out of plate gold a mere two millimeters in thickness and were attached to either side of a black silk cap like the one shown in the picture below. Resembling a mass of honeysuckle vines shaped into wings of flame, it is believed the diadems possessed a shamanistic magical significance.  It is also possible they were influenced by Buddhist visual tradition which portrayed bodhisattvas with golden halos.

The pieces were probably worn this way as a royal cap.

The crown is a pure example of Baekje craft, however the kingdom was famous for adopting many Chinese literary and artisitic influences which became melded into a unique creative tradition.  The extremely close ties which the Kingdom of Baekje also maintained with Kofun Japan (during the era when the Japanese Imperial bloodlines and tradition were coming into being) has provided a continuing source of controversy.  Baekje royalty resided in the Japanese royal court and, after the final collapse, emigrated to Japan.  Speculation is rampant that a few Baekje bloodlines slipped into the composition of the Chrisanthemum throne.

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