Period of Disunity—Tang dynasty 220–907
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.
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.