Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty in China was a period of unparalleled cultural achievement in Chinese history. Founded upon economic prosperity, the Tang Empire developed a large, educated upper class (artists, scientists, doctors, government servants). This is known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Chinese art and poetry.

With its capital at Chang’an, the Tang Empire established a sophisticated government by recruiting members of the Confucian literati. They also adopted a liberal attitude toward a number of religions. The prosperity of Buddhism at this time is reflected in examples of Tang Dynasty Buddhist art. The most remarkable examples of grotto art were created during both the Sui and the Tang periods.

Like the Egyptians, ancient Chinese emperors believed in the afterlife as an extension of life on earth. Death was simply a passage from earth to the afterlife, and an emperor’s tomb was his afterlife palace. It was important to make sure that the emperor would enjoy the same quality of life after death that he did during his natural lifetime, and thus no effort was spared to equip his new palace with every luxury. Artists made immaculate and detailed clay figures of horses, chariots, servants, concubines and entire armies. Fortunately, this replaced an earlier practice in which the emperor’s entire staff was killed to accompany him in the afterlife.

The largest of these palatial tombs is the Tang dynasty Quanling tomb, with a circumference of 40 kilometers. Surrounding the central tomb of the emperor Tang Gaozong and the empress Wu are a number of ‘satellite’ tombs belonging to various other princes and princesses. Leading to the central tomb are a number of animal and human statues, notably those which feature winged horses. Inside are 61 stone figures of each king who attended the emperor’s funeral, as well as hundreds of glazed pottery figures, stone statues and other fabulous Tang dynasty works in bronze, jade, gold, and copper. Some of these pieces were seen only once, during the funeral procession into the tomb.  ‘Tomb Figure of a Horse,’ terracotta with bridle and saddle painted in delicate brush strokes (227)

By the middle of the 8th century, the influence of the Tang Empire had diminished dramatically due to a military defeat by the Arabs at Talas that helped seal its fate. It paved the way for the subsequent termination of the Dynasty by northern invaders in 907 AD. In the wake of Tang rule came the fragmentation of China into five Northern dynasties and ten Southern kingdoms.