Reflections of a Golden Age: Chinese Tang Pottery

China of the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) achieved a brilliant and prosperous culture that was the envy and model of all its neighbors. At its peak, the Tang empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific, from Manchuria and Korea in the north into Vietnam in the south. Within the country, commerce and cultural ideas thrived and spread through trade to Europe and even the court at Byzantium. Tang China was cosmopolitan and tolerant, welcoming new ideas and other religions. Within this environment, literature, painting, and the ceramic arts flourished…

HISTORY

The prosperity and internationalism of the Tang dynasty (AD 618–906) initiated a rich and colorful age that remains a glorious chapter in the history of China. The reunification of China between AD 580 and 589, following years of chaos after the fall of the powerful Han dynasty in AD 220, marked the beginning of this new era.

In the short reign of the Sui dynasty (AD 581–618), great improvements were made in China, including the establishment of an internal communications system and the construction of canals and roads, which directly contributed to China’s wealth. With the establishment of the new Tang dynastic ruling house in AD 618, an efficient central government administration based upon scholar bureaucrats chosen by an examination system was introduced by emperor Taizong (reigned AD 627–649). Also at that time a vigorous foreign policy focusing on massive westward expansion was initiated, extending control as far as the Tarim River Basin and present-day eastern Tajikistan in central Asia. Interestingly, it was contact with the skilled horsemen of this region that stimulated in the Tang elite the love of horses that is featured prominently in their art.

This stable period of international prestige continued from the second quarter of the seventh century until about the middle of the eighth century, with the Tang capital city of Chang’an (Xian) serving as the cultural center of Asia. This city of two million inhabitants was among the largest in the world, rivaling even Constantinople. Within the country, commerce and cultural ideas thrived and spread through trade to Europe, Korea, and Japan. In addition to the instruments of civilization, exports included silk textiles, wine, ceramics, metalwork, tea, and medicines, as well as delicacies such as peaches, honey, and pine nuts. Foreign merchants supplied the Tang elite with horses, leather goods, furs, gems, textiles, ivory, and rare woods. Tang China was cosmopolitan and tolerant, welcoming new ideas and other religions, and, in this environment, literature, painting, and the ceramic arts flourished…

TANG POTTERY

With a history reaching back to before the third century BC, tomb figures and furnishings were an important aspect of the Chinese culture. They also constituted a sizable amount of the ceramics produced during the Tang dynasty. Even in death, members of the wealthy, cosmopolitan Tang society sought to surround themselves with replicas of the splendid riches they had enjoyed during life. These objects were buried in tombs to provide for the needs of the deceased in the afterlife.

Preparations for the tomb, which usually began well in advance of death, included the purchase of literally hundreds of pottery ming qi, or “articles of the spirit,” such as figures of servants, musicians, and professional attendants; models of domestic and foreign animals; guardian spirits; and vessels from everyday life. The tomb furnishings that have survived are important social and cultural documents of the history of life during the Tang period.

Tang artisans drew from all the artistic influences with which they came in contact, adopting and adapting many exotic styles. Native styles were combined with imported western elements; shapes and decorative motifs from Persia, India, Greece, and Syria became part of the Tang potter’s repertoire. In this exhibition, two ewers with phoenix-head spouts, based on Persian metalwork forms but decorated with typical Chinese motifs, demonstrate this combination of shapes and decorations.

Relatively low-fired and light bodied, Tang pottery is typically composed of earthenware, a porous and permeable common clay. Ranging in color from nearly white to buff, red, or brown, depending on the mineral content, this earthenware was fired in kilns at a temperature between 600 and 1100 degrees Celsius.

Figures and vessels were produced in three basic ways:

Molded
Hand-built with individually made parts combined
Thrown on the potter’s wheel
The hallmark of Tang tomb wares is the sancai, or three-color, lead-silicate glazes. These glazes were produced by melting lead with clay and then finely grinding the resulting glassy material before mixing it with water for application to the already fired earthenware. Using a transparent glaze as a base:

Iron oxide was added to produce tones ranging from straw to amber to dark brown
Copper oxide was added to impart rich greens
Cobalt oxide was added for dark, vibrant blues
Tang ceramics generally have an unglazed area above the bases of figures or the footrings of vessels, because the potters were not able to control the flow of the lead glazes during firings.

During the seventh century, many figures were fired with a clear glaze or left unglazed with features painted on them.

Excerpted from REFLECTIONS OF A GOLDEN AGE: CHINESE TANG POTTERY December 13, 1997–March 29, 1998, curated by David T. Johnson. From the collection of Alan and Simone Hartman.

The exhibition of the McClung Museum featured examples of Tang sancai, lead-glazed pottery that reflect much of the culture and prosperity of the Golden Age of Tang China. Included are figurines, headrests, and different vessel forms whose brilliant execution and colors are a delight to behold.

See also Tang Dynasty Art

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