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date: 26 February 2021

Tang dynastyfree

  • Carol Michaelson

Updated in this version

bibliography updated by Yun-chen Lu

Chinese dynasty dating to 618–907 ce. During the Tang period, one of the most brilliant periods in Chinese history, China flourished as a single, unified empire. Cultural prosperity and patronage of the arts created a Golden Age for poetry, painting, and ceramics.

Less than ten years after succeeding the Sui dynasty (581–618), in 626–683 ce the Tang emperors undertook the greatest military expansion in Chinese history, westwards well into Central Asia and eastwards as far as Korea. Multifarious contacts with foreign peoples influenced every aspect of the arts and culture. Many Tang statues and paintings portray non-Chinese figures. Ceramic shapes and the design of high-quality silver and gold wares were subject to influence from the West particularly after Persian craftsmen became refugees in China when the Sasanian empire fell. In textiles, Persian weft patterning was introduced. In return, China exported her printing and paper technology, pottery, and silk. Early in the Tang, the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (c. 600–664) made a sixteen-year pilgrimage to India, bringing back Buddhist texts to China. Chang’an, the principal Tang capital (modern Xi’an), was the largest city in the world and a masterpiece of city planning (see also China, People’s Republic of §II 3., (ii)). Taizong (reg 626–649) continued the Sui dynasty building program; his palace, the Daming gong, was a cultural center into the time of Xuanzong (Minghuang; reg 712–56). Luoyang, the second capital, though smaller than Chang’an, was similarly arranged on a grid system with separate areas for palaces and markets.

Taizong and Xuanzong were both imperial patrons of the arts. Emperor Taizong was passionately interested in calligraphy, particularly in the style of Wang Xizhi of the Jin dynasty (265–420 ce). Xuanzong was a poet, musician, actor, and scholar of Daoism and esoteric Buddhism, as well as a patron. His reign was the highpoint of the period. Painting flourished in the Tang, and Xuanzong attracted to his court landscape painters such as Li Sixun, his son Li Zhaodao, and Wang Wei, with the result that landscape became an increasingly important genre in its own right, rather than merely a narrative setting (see also China, People’s Republic of §V 3., (iv), (a)). Other notable painters included the portrait painter Wu Daozi and the Chan (Jap. Zen) Buddhist painter Wang Mo (d 803/804), who used splashed ink effects. The height of Chinese figure painting was achieved during the Tang period (see China, People’s Republic of §V 3., (vii), (b)). Tang painting was also practiced in caves, and in tombs such as that of Prince Yide at Qian xian, Shaanxi Province, and it is discussed in books such as Zhang Yanyuan’s Lidai minghua ji (“Record of famous painters of all periods”; 847).

Tang ceramics include the well-known sancai (“three-color”) earthenware figurines and vessels, frequently tomb objects, with green, yellow, brown, and occasionally blue lead glazes. Marbled ware and stonewares with a black glaze were produced in Henan Province. Many white porcelanous wares were also made, including the famous Xing ware of Hebei Province. In Hunan and Sichuan provinces, the use of metal oxides in underglaze decoration was developed. Tang Yue celadons made in Zhejiang Province were renowned for their jadelike quality (see China, People’s Republic of §VIII 3., (iii), (a)). Chinese potters were inspired by shapes and motifs from Greece, Syria, India, and Persia, particularly by Sasanian metalwork. The still famous kilns of Jingdezhen, Jiangsi Province, began operation in this period.

Early Tang emperors were responsible for many Buddhist foundations, including the Great Wild Goose Pagoda (c. 652; see China, People’s Republic of §II 4., (i), (c)) and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda (c. 707–10), both in Chang’an (modern Xi’an), Shaanxi Province, and among the earliest extant buildings in China. Buddhist figures in rock-cut temples reached their artistic height in the 8th century and then became more stereotyped (see China, People’s Republic of §III 1., (ii), (d)). The caves at Mt. Tianlong under the patronage of Empress Wu Zetian (reg 690–705) illustrate the merging of the Chinese and Indian styles into a mature, native style, lavish but with a developed naturalism. The Longmen caves near Luoyang contain many Tang period works, particularly early ones, as do the Mt. Maiji caves in Gansu Province. The Dunhuang cave temples, a thriving Buddhist center also in Gansu Province, are particularly strong in Tang art, including clay images, wall paintings and a hoard of silk paintings, scriptures, and other texts retrieved early in the 20th century from a sealed cave.

Towards the end of his reign Xuanzong became infatuated with a concubine and lost interest in government affairs. China suffered a series of defeats and had to retreat from its expanded borders. Court factionalism increased and eventually An Lushan, an adventurer of Sogdian and Turkish parentage, marched on Luoyang and Chang’an in 755, and both fell without a struggle. He plunged the empire into civil war, and Xuanzong abdicated. Xenophobia set in as foreigners were blamed for China’s troubles. Buddhism suffered the great proscription of 844–846 ce (see Buddhism §III 8.), as did other non-Chinese religions. Since routes to the West and India were blocked by Chinese defeats, Indian Buddhist sources became unavailable and Chan Buddhism became the most popular form of Chinese Buddhism. The rivalry of influential eunuchs with courtiers, peasant rebellions, and the growth in power of military commanders at the edges of the empire all combined to hasten the end of the Tang. Finally, an army commander deposed the last Tang emperor to become the first emperor of the Later Liang dynasty (907–923). There followed a period of fragmentation known as the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms (907–979); it was not until 960 that the empire was reunited under the Song.


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