Period of Disunity—Tang dynasty 220–907

Selections from the Collection

Period of Disunity 220–589

After the collapse of the Han dynasty, China splintered into a series of small kingdoms, beginning centuries of political disunity. These political divisions are often differently grouped and their periodization is confusing. The era immediately following the Han is known as the Three Kingdoms (220–265), during which the Wei (220–265), Wu (222–280), and Shu Han (220–265) kingdoms contended for power. After the Wei briefly reunited China under the Western Jin dynasty (265–317), the Xiongnu people succeeded in occupying northern China, including the old areas of Chang'an and Luoyang. The Western Jin was forced to relocate their capital to Jiankang (present-day Nanjing) in the south, becoming known as the Eastern Jin (317–420) and initiating an era known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (317–589) or as the Six Dynasties period (222–589).

In the south, six successive dynasties had their capital at Jiankang and are known as the Six Dynasties. Saved from the devastation of fighting in the north, the south flourished and became a center for Chinese art, literature, and intellectual thought. It was during the Eastern Jin period that Wang Xizhi (303–361) is credited with raising calligraphy to an art form. The handscroll Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest in the Princeton University Art Museum is an early Tang dynasty tracing copy that preserves Wang Xizhi's calligraphy. This tracing copy remains one step removed from an original work, but because no authentic work by Wang survives, its value to the study of Chinese calligraphy is invaluable. The Eastern Jin was also the age when the famed painter Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345–406) and poet Tao Yuanming (365–427) both lived.

The north was dominated by the Sixteen Kingdoms (304–438) ruled by five non-Chinese peoples: the Xiongnu, Jie, Qianbei, Qiang, and Di. Next, a branch of the Xianbei people succeeded in unifying the north under the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535). With their capital at Pingcheng (near present-day Datong, Shanxi province), the Northern Wei ruling house were ardent Buddhists who sponsored the remarkable Buddhist cliff carvings in the cave temples at Yungang. The Buddhist sculpture from this period reveals stylistic borrowings from the western regions including Bactria, Gandhara, and India, and large sets of ceramic burial sculpture have been recovered with figures of foreigners, ox carts, camels, musicians, horses, and tomb guardians. Frontier rebellions in 534 resulted in the separation of the north into the Eastern Wei (534–550) and Western Wei (535–557). These shortlived dynasties were succeeded by the Northern Qi (550–577) and Northern Zhou (557–581). With its capital at Chang'an, the Northern Zhou succeeded in reunifying China.

Sui Dynasty 589–618

After centuries of division, the Northern Zhou general Yang Jian (541–604) reunified China in 589 to establish the Sui dynasty, and became known as Emperor Wendi. Southwest of the Han dynasty city of Chang'an, Wendi built the new capital of Daxing, which later became the Tang dynasty capital. The Grand Canal system was also constructed to link the north and south, facilitating grain transport and communications. The two emperors of Sui were devoted Buddhists and promoted the creation numerous Buddhist temples, images, and sculpture. The second emperor, Yangdi (569–618) rebuilt the eastern capital of Luoyang and established relations with Taiwan and Japan. Military expansion into Gansu province and eastern Turkestan to establish colonies along the overland trade routes was followed by failed campaigns against Korea and against the Turks. This led to political disarray, rebellions, and dynastic downfall. Although shortlived, the Sui dynasty set the political, institutional, and economic foundations for the following Tang dynasty.

Tang Dynasty 618–907

The Tang dynasty enjoyed a long period of stable government and political rule bolstered by its strong military and centralized civil service examination system. It was also an era of great territorial expansion and prosperity. The capital city of Chang’an (present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi province), became a great cosmopolitan center situated at the terminus of the Central Asian silk route, attracting foreign visitors and goods from various oasis towns located along the Taklimakan Desert. The cultural achievements of the Tang were no less impressive; the arts and poetry of this period represent a pinnacle of Chinese civilization.

The Tang dynasty was founded by the Sui dynasty general, Li Yuan (566–635), who was posthumously known as Emperor Gaozu. Retaining many Sui administrative institutions and policies, the early Tang government was highly centralized and depended on a complex system of administrative law. Over time, the authority of the ruling aristocracy gave way to professional bureaucrats who were recruited through the civil examination system. The reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756) is considered one of the most brilliant cultural periods of the Tang. Xuanzong was himself a scholar and patron of the arts, and his court became a center of cultural activity.

The Tang was also an active period of cultural interaction between China and her neighbors. Buddhism flourished as foreign missionaries, monks and teachers passed through Chang’an, bringing with them new ideas and religious texts that were initially welcomed by the Tang rulers. The monk Xuanzang (602–664) visited India and Nepal, returning with Buddhist texts, many of which were then translated into Chinese under government sponsorship. By the mid-ninth century, however, as China turned inward and government finances grew strained, Buddhism suffered significant persecution. Under the great proscription of 842–845, millions of Buddhist monks and nuns were forcibly secularized and placed back in the tax rolls, while Buddhist land and temples were reclaimed by the state.

Painting and Calligraphy

Tang painting is represented in surviving wall paintings found in the tombs of high-ranking individuals. While few original mural paintings are still in situ, many examples can be found in museum collections. Generally, mural paintings tend to depict scenes from court life, including images of officials, court ladies, and their attendants; imperial processions with carriages, horses, and banners; funerary processions; and gaming and banqueting scenes. Tomb painting also featured activities such as netting butterflies and watching bees, as well as images of birds and flowers. In figural delineation, artists succeeded in reconciling the articulation of volume with a two-dimensional surface. Various techniques contributed to a sense of modeling, including the use of thickening and thinning brush lines.

Small format paintings may also be an important source for studying Tang painting styles. Among the few surviving paintings attributed to Tang masters is Yan Liben’s (d. 673) Portraits of Thirteen Emperors (Boston Museum of Fine Arts). The large scale of the figures, linear delineation of the robes, and use of shading in the facial features may all reflect a Tang style.


Tang dynasty calligraphy underwent significant stylistic innovation and was deeply linked to ethical and political concerns embodying moral virtue and upright government. An important figure was Emperor Taizong (r. 626–649), who excelled at calligraphy and amassed a palace collection that included all known pieces by the revered fourth-century Southern calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (303–361). In ordering court calligraphers to study the Wang Xizhi tradition, Taizong may have recognized the value of its association with the political reunification of North and South China.

Court calligraphers of the Tang court—including Yu Shinan (558–638), Ouyang Xun (557–641) and Zhu Suiliang (596–658)—also developed a new standard-script (kaishu) style that combined the Southern calligraphic tradition of fluid, free strokes with blocky, angular forms associated with Northern monumental stone engraving style. The new standard-script style combined the fluid brushwork (taken from Wang Xizhi) with upright and balanced positioning within a rectilinear frame of supports and walls. Each character stroke, hook, and dot is fully articulated, and each of these elements interacts in a tightly knit construction. The resulting standard-script style was adopted nationwide, appearing in monuments and steles erected at palaces, temples, and tombs.

One of the leading calligraphers of this new monumental standard script was Yan Zhenqing (709–785), who died a loyalist martyr and became an enduring figure of heroic virtue. Rejecting the Tang court manner of refined fluid brushstrokes, in his calligraphy Yan created a bold style. The structural cohesiveness of his calligraphy quickly came to symbolize upright principles and moral rectitude, as well as strength and harmony. Another leading calligrapher at the other end of the spectrum was Huai Su (ca. 736–ca.799). His innovations in untrammeled wild cursive (kuang cao) script had enduring effects on the history of calligraphy. Huai once remarked, "When I see extraordinary mountains in summer clouds, I try to imitate them. Good calligraphy resembles a flock of birds darting out from the trees, or startled snakes scurrying into the grass, or cracks bursting in a shattered wall."


Sculpture during the Tang dynasty can be found in the context of burial sites and religious temples and caves. The placement of stone sculptures aboveground, along the spirit path (shendao) near tombs was a practice dating as far back as the Western Han dynasty. Wood and ceramic tomb sculpture were also buried in tombs, and many fine figures have been found in burials in the areas of the main capital, Chang'an, and the secondary capital, Luoyang. The multitude of Buddhist sculpture produced for temples also demonstrates significant artistic innovations in representing spatial volume and physical form.


Tang funerary ceramics are best known for figures of horses and camels, tomb guardians, court ladies, and decorated vessels. Figures and vessels were embellished using various techniques including brightly colored glazes and painted pigments. A distinctive decoration known as "three-colors" (sancai) glaze combined lead glazes of different colors; predominantly green, amber, and cream, but also cobalt blue, yellow, brown, and black. Stoneware vessels produced at regional kilns exhibit different characteristics. Gray-green wares were produced at the Yaozhou kilns in the north, olive-green or gray glazed Yue wares were made in the east, and vessels with dark brown and transparent glazes were made in Hunan province near Changsha. White-bodied porcelain wares also began to be produced in the late Sui dynasty, and the best Tang examples are the Xing ware vessels from kilns in Hebei province.

Further readings

Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China (New York: Harry N. Abrams, with The Asia Society, 2001).

Shane McCausland, ed., Gu Kaizhi and the Admonitions Scroll (London: The British Museum Press in association with Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 2003).

Alexander C. Soper, "South Chinese Influence on the Buddhist Art of the Six Dynasties Period," Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 32 (1960), pp. 47–112.

Eugene Y. Wang, Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture In Medieval China (Seattle: University of Washington, 2005).

Wu Hung, ed., Between Han and Tang, 3 vols. (Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 2000–2002.

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Anonymous, Chinese
Pair of painted tomb guardians
China, Tang dynasty, ca. mid-8th century
Earthenware with silver, gold, and painted decoration
h. human-face figure 60.7 cm.; h. animal-face figure 60.0 cm. (without bases)
Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund