Week XI: Part 1

TRADITIONAL CHINA: The Imperial City of the Tang Dynasty

Key Works:

  • The Imperial City of Chang'an (7-8th.c.)
  • Pagoda
  • Clay Horse, Tri-color Pottery
  • Zhang Xuan, "Women Preparing Newly Woven Silk"

    READING: La Plante, Asian Art, pp. 136-145.


    PAINTING: 8th century court painters



    FURTHER READING:Bush, S. and C. Murch, Theories of the Arts in China, Princeton, l983.

    NOTES: What kinds of art are important to the Tang rulers?


    Chang'an was an ancient city in the Wei River Valley that served as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road (which joined China with the markets of western Asia) and as capital of China's most powerful dynasties, especially the Han (B.C. 206-220 A.D.) and Tang (618-907 A.D.). During the Tang, Chang'an was the cultural capital of all of East Asia, by far the largest city in the world, and it was held is such high esteem that it was used as a model for capitals of other contemporary East Asian capitals, notably Parhae and Japan. The present city on the site, Xi'an, occupies only about one-seventh the area of the Tang capital.

    In the year 581, there rose to power in northwest China a man who reunified the traditional Chinese lands after nearly four centuries of political instability and inv asions from outside. This was the first emperor of the Sui Dynasty, a man called Emperor Wen. He and his advisors, all of northern and mixed descent, were determined to build a capital on a new and unprecedented scale. This project, the "City of the Gr eat Ascendancy", covered thirty-one square miles, but was merely a skeleton when the Sui founder took up residence in 583. It was renamed Chang'an (City of Enduring Peace) and expanded upon the founding of the Tang Dynasty in 618. At the height of the T ang in the late seventh and eighth centuries, the population reached more than one million inside the walls and probably another million in the nearby satellite towns. Although benefitting from recent innovations in city building in northern China, Chang 'an was the first totally planned Chinese city and was based on the principles of symmetry and axiality. As builders of a planned city, the Tang leaders intended to do more than simply meet their practical needs. Such a city dramatized their social orde r, their view of the cosmos and their place in it, and their hierarchy of values.

    First, the choice of the site had to be auspicious. This particular place was recommended by two millenia of history of its use. Already in the first century A.D. , a poet named Pan Gu summed up the advantages of the area ("Rhapsody on the Western Capital", Wen Xuan):

    Surely these features commended the site to the Sui an d Tang leaders as a perennial fulcrum of power--strong, fertile, well populated--the site was practical as well as symbolic. (A. Wright) The commencement of construction, however, had to be properly timed. The most auspicious time and place to build ane w was determined by centuries old oracle-divination procedures, similar to divinatory and ritual-symbolic rites carried out by Greek and Roman builders before embarking on construction of new cities.

    Great importance was attached to the orientati on of the city so that it would be fully consonant with the natural order. Early descriptions of city planning (from the Zhou li, first millenium B.C.) report that special officers took the shadow of the sun at noon on successive days and made obs ervations of the North Star by night until they came to an accurate calculation of the four directions which then determined the orientation of the city. Astronomers were no doubt also employed to assure that the orientation was attuned to the cosmic ord er.

    Once properly sited and oriented, the city was surrounded by a rectangular wall, made of pounded earth, which measured 36.7 kilometers in total length (9.7 kilometers east to west and 8.65 kilometers north to south) and enclosed an area of almost 84 square kilometers. There were three gates in three of its outer walls (north was the exception) and there were broad north/south avenues leading to each of the three gates on the south wall. The city was subdivided into major zones. To the ex treme north was the Inner City, where the Emperor resided with his harem, performed rituals of office and held court. To the east and west of the avenue leading to the central southern gate were located the imperial ancestral hall and the altar of earth. During the late seventh century, the emperor moved his residence to the Daming Palace (Daming gong), northeast of the Inner City beyond the city walls.

    Into this northern park area, the second Tang emperor, Taizong (r. 627-649 A.D.), expanded t he city in 634. There he built a complex of palaces and other buildings which were used as the imperial residence and came to be known as the Daming Palace. Huayuan is one of two halls and two gates of the more than thirty original structures of the Da ming gong that have been excavated. Tang texts record that Huayuan Hall was the site of ceremonies of the New Year and the winter solstice, the investiture of the new emperor, changing of reign titles, the inspection of troops and presentation of captive s. Nearby was the Linde Hall, the other excavated Tang period building at the Daming Palace. It and the Huayuan have similar architectural components including covered arcades (or "flying galleries") which enclosed each building complex, side pavilions, and platforms which raised the entire building above ground level. The Linde was a triple hall complex, in contrast to the main hall plan of the Hanyuan, with a two storied roof over the central building. The three halls lead directly from one to the n ext, without connecting arcades.

    Beginning in the Han, ritual halls had pillars to support the main beams at the center and weight bearing walls at the sides. Fitted into the wall were reinforcing vertical struts which rested on floorbeams. Hor izontal wooden pieces connected the struts, and additional wooden members were driven through the wall. A wall beam was placed on top of the walls for added support. According to building regulations of the Tang, roofs reserved for the most important ha lls were hipped, that is, they had four ridges in addition to the main ridge. The roof was made of ceramic tiles and those on the ridges and eave ends were glazed. Both green and black unglazed tiles were excavated at the site. Based on textual evidenc e, we assume that the exterior colors of the hall were primarily red and white with gold details.

    The remaining part of the city, more than four-fifths of the total area was known as the Outer City. It included 110 wards; two were market places and the rest were predominantly residential. The ancient system of walled blocks was used for the who le Outer City, including markets, which were built and controlled by the government. The ward gates were opened at sunup and closed at dusk and it was a crime to be found on the streets after curfew. The walled marketplaces included the East Market whic h connected with the roads leading to the second Tang capital of Louyang, and the West Market which was the center of foreign trade and foreign residence. The residential wards surrounding them were laid out on a grid pattern formed by the crossing of fo urteen north-south and eleven east-west avenues. Both sides of these streets were lined with drainage ditches and planted with shade trees. The mansions of the aristocrats and officials were concentrated in wards near the Daming Palace and the East Mark et, while those of commoners were likely to be found in the more densely populated area around the West Market.

    There were a number of entertainment districts in Chang'an; the gay quarter and government-controlled pleasure area were in the southeast where city parks were located at the extreme southeast corner of the Outer City. There was even an elevated, co vered roadway which connected the parks so that the emperor could enjoy his outings completely unseen by his subjects.

    Chang'an was an international capital and people from all over the world congregated there, including diplomatic envoys, religious missionaries, merchants and students. With them came foreign religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, Judiasm, Islam and Nestorian Christianity and associated places of worship. The most numerous and grand of religious edifices in Chang'an, belonged to Buddhism and Daoism. Some of them even occupied entire wards. Foreign goods were much sought after by the mid dle class.

    The building of this fine city was accomplished by able leadership in an era of peace and prosperity at home and enormous prestige abroad. In the early eighth century one of the most brilliant leaders of all Chinese history took the throne--Ming Hua ng (r. 713-756 A.D.). He cherished and upheld Confucian order and in 745 he founded the Imperial Academy of Letters (Han-lin Academy). Great talent and wealth was concentrated in his court. His favorite scholars, poets, painters, his schools of drama a nd music, his orchestras (two of whom came from Central Asia) and his famous mistress, the beautiful Yang Guifei, were in attendance. Court painters were kept busy by the emperor, as were poets, by recording memorable cultural and social events of court life and portraits in ink on silk.

    Zhang Xuan, at court during the reign of Ming Huang, was chiefly celebrated for his paintings of "young nobles, saddle horses, and women of rank." None of his work survives in the original, but one very careful copy, "Ladies of the Court Preparing N ewly Woven Silk," is generally thought to illustrate well the eighth century Tang court tradition of scroll painting. In the section reproduced here we see four court women of different ages stretching and ironing a piece of newly woven silk. The colors used to describe the scene are rich and glowing and a detailed precision embellishes the treatment of the fabric of the dresses worn by the women. The presentation is dignified, realistic and vigorous--surely comparable to court life itself at that mome nt. But only the barest essentials of the scene are recorded: the figures and the silk. The location of the women in space is very carefully organized, but we are not told where they are, only what their relationship is to each other. Each figure refer s to and is intimately connected to another through participation in the task itself, by gesture and location in space, as well as by gender. This section of the scroll subtly records an actual activity, but also perhaps a broader theme--that of the matu ration of (court) women from childhood (the small figure playing under the stretched silk), to adolescence, to the coming of age, to adulthood. Each step is distinguished by position, dress style, coiffure, size and shape of figure.

    The same frank realism that marks high court painting also characterizes the most humble tomb figurines made during the Tang. Ming Huang was known to have been passionately fond of horses and was thought to have had over forty thousand in his royal stables. The dynamic energy of movement and solidity of modelling such as is found in the tri-color glazed ceramic horse illustrate d here are typical of the best of this type of sculpture made for use in burials of the aristocracy as well as the gentry.

    The Tang Dynasty is notable in the history of Chinese ceramics for the dynamic beauty of its shapes, for the development of colored glazes and for the perfection of porcelain. Fine white earthenware is often clothed in a polychrome glaze as it is here, made by mixing copper, iron, or cobalt with a colorless lead silicate to produce a rich range of colors, from blue and gre en to yellow and brown. These glazes are thinly applied and stop short of the base in uneven lines. Both the presentation of the image as well as the glaze itself are full of vigor true to most historians' view of life at court in the eighth century.

    Late in the ninth century, Chang'an fell victim to the ravages of a rebellion and in 904 many of its buildings were razed and the royal court activities were transported to the second capital at Louyang. Afterwards, while remaining a bustling trading center, the political importance of the once glorious Chang'an declined.

    FROM: Linduff, K.M., "The Chinese Imperial City of Chang'an ," in Art Past/Art Present, by D. Wilkins, B. Schultz and K. Linduff, New York, 2000, 4th ed.


    The most important medium for the development of Chinese artistic expression was painting, including calligraphy. From the Six Dynasties period (220-589 A.D.) come the first treatises on painting and calligraphy. Xie He 's work, Six Canons of Painting, is the earliest of these and is of fundamental importance in any study of the theory of Chinese painting.

    The six canons are:
    In Gu Hua Pin Lu, (Classified Record of Ancient Painters), by Xie He

    FROM: Acker, W., Some T'ang and pre-T'ang Texts in the Study of Chinese Painting, Leiden, 1954.