The T’ang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907 A.D., was Ancient China’s greatest period of enlightenment and prosperity, a time when the arts flourished and a brisk trade with the West drew many foreigners. The visitors brought with them strange foods, their own styles of clothing and new forms of entertainment, all of which influenced the emperor’s court in Chang-an, China’s bustling capital. Much of the spirit of those days has been preserved in ceramic figurines made by skilled T’ang artisans. Charming little statuettes representing courtiers and generals, musicians and acrobats, they were buried in the tombs of the well-to-do, serving as companions for the dead and reminders of the good life at Chang-an.
Aristocrats like this well-dressed couple were frequent visitors at court.
A courtly lady’s modish dress
Like women of every era, ladies of the T’ang court were quick to adopt new fashions the more exotic the better. The modish courtesan here, seen in three views, wears a costume and headdress of distinctly eclectic taste. Her gown with its tight bodice, deep neckline, winglike shoulder projections and long, looped sleeves was inspired by styles then popular in Central Asia. Her upsuiept hairdo and winged tiara echo Persian coiffures of the time.
Such stylish ladies figured importantly in court life, and the annals of the day record that they were more frequently sought after for their beauty and intelligence than as concubines. Many of these courtesans became the inseparable companions of the noblemen they served, and sometimes gained enormous political power.
The work and sport of a general
During the T’ang era military victories enabled China to stretch its northern frontiers from the Sea of Japan to Central Asia. These conquests were led by hard-riding generals like the one depicted at left. Wearing armor of tough rhinoceros hide, he and his fellow warriors took lands to the north and west of the Middle Kingdom and held them in the name of the emperor.
From time to time these powerful regional commanders were summoned to the emperor’s court to report on conditions in the provinces. While there they were entertained with magnificent feasts, and often a royal hunt in the Imperial Hunting Park. Such sport called for the skills of a falconer like the one seen in the figurine at right, sitting lightly on his mount, his bird perched on his wrist, ready for the chase.
A peddler of exotic wares
Following the wars of consolidation in the Seventh Century, there was a period of peace in which trade flourished. Eager merchants came by land and sea to sell their goods, which included Persian rugs, ivory from Cambodia and slaves from Java. The peddler below, identified by his facial characteristics as a man of the Middle East, wears high boots with the trousers tucked in the top, a Persian mode of dress common throughout Asia. He carries his goods in a canopied, two-wheeled ox cart. Many such traders risked the perils of overland travel to reach the capital’s markets. Here, they haggled with buyers in a babel of tongues, lending to the city a competitive and cosmopolitan air.
Nimble performers at court
Visitors to the court were treated to a variety of entertainment, which often included a wrestling match. Some of the wrestlers came from Central Asia, like the athlete below, who wears a ‘soft cap and open tunic tied with a sash.
The antics of acrobats and tumblers were a constant source of delight to the Chinese people. Troupes like the one pictured above frequently toured the country, playing to paying audiences. The best of these were also invited to appear at the royal court. Here they would regale the emperor and his guests with various tumbling stunts, including forward rolls and backbends (bottom figures), trapeze acts (top left) and daring aerial somersaults.
Songs for the emperor
Music and dancing were so loved by the T’ang Chinese that a special section of the royal palace in Ch’ang-an was set aside to help train young students in these arts. It was called, simply, chiao-jang (“training center”) and was attended by Indochinese, Koreans and Indians, as well as Chinese girls. The most accomplished of its students played at court, where no entertainment was complete without music and dancing by groups like this one. The four girls seated at left sing, play mouth o.rgans of bamboo pipes and strum a lute. Their songs accompany three graceful dancers who, in the words of a Chinese poet, “turn, whirl and dance like the falling snow.