The Magnificent Days of Tang
The traditional Chinese histories recall the long reign of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) with great pride and fond nostalgia. They remember the Tang Dynasty as a period of great accomplishment with an enduring legacy in Chinese culture. They see it as a golden age of just and effective government, cultural sophistication, and imperial greatness. And there is a lot of truth in that traditional view of the Dynasty’s history. China under the Tang was the most powerful and advanced nation on earth. The imperial capital, Chang An, was a city of over a million people, the largest in the world at the time, larger than Constantinople or Baghdad, and larger than the modern city of Xian that sits on top of its remains. The imperial tombs that survive from that dynasty reflect that greatness in their size and scope.
China today appears to be on the brink of another era of national greatness. It has the world’s second largest economy, and has made astonishing economic and technological progress in a relatively short time span. It is likely that the memories of Tang take on a new meaning for the modern Chinese. Their greatness today has some parallels with Tang. Like the Tang Dynasty, China’s current greatness emerges in the wake of a century of humiliation and division at the hands of foreign powers. Like Tang Dynasty China, contemporary China is a global, if not quite a globally dominant, power.
The actual history of the Tang Dynasty is a little more complicated. Its beginnings were very inauspicious. The Dynasty began in usurpation and intrigue. The short-lived Sui Dynasty that immediately preceded Tang, united the country again after a long period when China was divided between a number of competing dynasties, some of them created by invading Turkish nomads occupying the northern part of the country (The eras of “The Three Kingdoms” and “The Six Dynasties”). The Sui accomplished reunification brutally by destroying their rivals utterly. A general by the name of Gaozu betrayed the Sui Emperor in 618 and seized power becoming the first Tang Emperor. He was succeeded in a brutal act of fratricide. His second son murdered all of his brothers including the crown prince to become the second Tang Emperor, Taizong.
To everyone’s great surprise, the second Tang Emperor who came to power through murder and crime, turned out to be a remarkably effective and capable ruler. His conscientious rule began an era of good government held up by historians as a model for later generations to emulate. He instituted effective land reform and initiated great public works. Though personally inclined toward Taoism, he supported the Confucian establishment and actively promoted religious diversity. Taizong personally welcomed back the famous traveling monk Xuanzang upon his return to Chang An after a 17 year journey to India in search of Buddhist texts. Xuanzang departed on that journey in defiance of the Emperor’s prohibition on foreign travel during a period of military threat from Turkish nomads. Taizong welcomed his return with a public triumph and supported Xuanzang’s religious scholarship. The traditional Chinese historians regarded Taizong as a second founder. Taizong's successor, Emperor Gaozong, was a benevolent but weak ruler. His concubine, Wu Zhao, seized the throne through murder and intrigue and became the much-vilified Empress Wu Zetian, China’s only female ruler. She was a cruel, but pious woman who funded Buddhist charities and religious establishments. Her generals forced her to abdicate in 705 at the age of 82. She died soon after. The Tang Dynasty reached its zenith of accomplishment under the reign of Emperor Xuanzong beginning in 713. He was probably the first ruler of a major power to abolish the death penalty. Like the Emperor Taizong, he governed by consensus with his ministers. Art, science, and literature flourished under his reign.
The Empero Xuanzong is the subject of one of the most popular and enduring romances in Chinese literature. His favorite consort Yang Guifei was the sister of a rebellious general who forced the Emperor to flee. Though she accompanied him, the Emperor’s loyal generals prevailed upon him to give her up. They immediately murdered her.
Tang ended in rebellions by foreign generals employed by the Dynasty, by intrigues for the throne, and by foreign invasions. Xenophobia, poverty, and corruption dominated the last decades of the Tang Dynasty.
The Tang returned to the Wei river valley to build their capital city. This area was the site of many prior dynastic capitals beginning with the Qin Emperor, and then later most of the Han emperors. The Tang Emperors built an enormous carefully planned capital city, Chang An. They built huge 39 feet thick city walls enclosing a roughly square area of 6 miles by 5.3 miles. The Imperial palaces housing the Son of Heaven, and the Imperial city housing the nobility and the ruling elites, occupied the northern part, just inside the northern wall. Three immense gates opened in three of the four city walls onto very broad main avenues. The city was laid out in a strict grid plan of 110 walled precincts that could each be gated and locked. Large precincts housed the large homes of the powerful. Smaller precincts housed commoners. Both classes shared two markets, one on the east side, and the other on the west
At its height, Chang An housed more than a million people, the largest city in the world. It was also the most cosmopolitan with diplomatic and trading colonies from all over Asia. Ethnic Han Chinese mixed freely with Arabs, Koreans, Persians, Indians, Turkish nomads, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mongols, and Tibetans. The city had Confucian and Taoist temples, Buddhist temples, Zoroastrian and Manichean temples, mosques, a Jewish population, and a sizable population of Nestorian Christians.
There is very little left to see of Tang Dynasty Chang An except a few surviving Buddhist pagodas built of masonry and some fragments of the city wall.
The Wild Goose Pagoda built by the Empress Wu Zetian,
the largest survivor from Tang Dynasty Chang An
the largest survivor from Tang Dynasty Chang An
Some of Chang An’s original streets survive in the street grid of the Ming Dynasty city center of modern Xian.
Over the last thirty years archaeology laid bare the remains of some of Chang An’s greatest monuments, the Mingde Men, the city’s main southern gate,
Computer reconstruction from the University of Singapore of the Mingde Men, the major southern gate to Chang An based on recent archaeological excavations.
... and the Daming Palace, especially the enormous Hanyuan Hall, larger than any similar structures in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The foundations remain, though the wooden frame structures with their large heavy ceramic roofs disappeared centuries ago.
Early 20th century photograph of the remains of the Hanyuan Hall of the Daming Palace just north of modern Xian
Tang Dynasty paintings like this one from the Tomb of Prince Yide inform
reconstructions of Tang monuments
reconstructions of Tang monuments
So far as I know, the only surviving wooden frame structures left from Tang are some Buddhist temples on Mount Wutai. The great Japanese temples at Nara may be modeled on prototypes from Chang An.
The Zhaoling Tomb
The great tomb of the Emperor Taizong lies to the northwest of modern Xian in the mountains surrounding the Wei valley. Taizong’s tomb, the Zhaoling tomb, was the largest of all the Tang imperial tomb complexes and one of the largest ever built. The tomb complex enclosed 87.5 square miles, and has 190 satellite tombs of members of the imperial family and court. Tang Dynasty emperors, following a precedent from the Han Dynasty, were buried under natural mountains, with the mountain serving as the traditional tumulus at the center of the complex.
The Zhaoling Tomb today. The mountain in the background serves as the Emperor Taizong's tumulus. All the structures in the foreground are modern and recent.
The natural mountain that serves as the Emperor's tumulus. Only emperors could be buried in mountains like this one in the Tang Dynasty.
Before the sealed entrance of the tomb under the mountain was a large sacrificial hall for annual rites of homage. A large plaza opened before the hall with a large gate that led to a long “spirit path” lined with stone statues. The tomb complex, like the capital city itself, was divided by class; class being determined by proximity to the Emperor in death as in life. Taizong’s great tomb complex once covered more territory than Chang An.
There is little of Taizong’s tomb left to see. The sacrificial hall, the ceremonial gates, and even much of the spirit path are long vanished. The Emperor’s tomb under the odd shaped mountain remains unexcavated, though it was probably looted centuries ago. According to one website, 37 of the 190 satellite tombs have been excavated.
The Tang imperial tombs give us tantalizing glimpses of the lost painting of that dynasty. Chinese literature is full of accounts of great painters from the Tang dynasty who adorned palaces and temple halls with great mural paintings, and who created once prized paintings on silk and paper, now all lost. Artists such as Wang Wei, Han Kan, Yan Liben, Zhoufang, and Zhang Xuan are today only names from the historical literature. None of their works survives in the original, but only in much later copies, which, like the Roman copies of lost Greek masterpieces, may be interpretations as much as copies (there is one controversial scroll painting in Boston that some scholars argue is an original by Yan Liben; others say it is a later copy of a lost palace mural painting by Yan Liben; A scroll painting by Han Kan in New York may be an original).
There are 6 surviving relief sculptures of the Emperor Taizong’s favorite horses designed by the great painter Yan Liben. They were once set up outside the Emperor’s tomb, and are now in Philadelphia (of all places). They anticipate by several centuries the work of great Chinese horse painters like Zhao Meng Fu and Ren Renfa.
One of the 6 reliefs designed by Yan Liben showing Taizong's favorite horses. Apparently these were battle chargers whom the Emperor valued for their courage. Many of these reliefs, like this one, show the horses injured by arrows and attended by grooms.
The Qianling Tomb
Taizong’s successor, Gaozhong, together with the Empress Wu Zetian, rest under a small peak at the Qianling tomb north of Xian on the upper terrace of the Wei valley above the broad flood plain. Though not as large as Taizong’s Zhaoling tomb, it is much better preserved and gives us a glimpse of some of the original size and splendor of Tang monuments. The imperial tomb under the peak remains unopened and undisturbed. I’ve heard stories that the tomb was sealed with boulders mortared together with molten iron. There are numerous satellite tombs, many are excavated and open to tourists.
The tumulus mountain of the Qianling Tomb containing the undisturbed tombs of the Emperor Gaozhong and Empress Wu Zetian. Like Taizong's tomb, this is also a natural mountain peak.
Even with its great halls missing, the Qianling Tomb is a stupendous monument in size and effect. The small peak that serves as the tumulus sits at the end of a long broad avenue that climbs straight out of the flood plain. When the avenue enters the upper terrace to approach the tumulus, it passes between two almost identical natural hills incorporated into the plan as a great gate, a brilliant use of existing natural features. Large gate towers were added to the hills earning them the name of “Nipple Hills.”
The "Nipple Hills" at the entrance to the upper terrace with the meridian avenue of the tomb complex extending out into the lower Wei River valley.
The meridian avenue of the Qianling Tomb complex headed down into the lower Wei valley and toward the satellite tombs.
After the Nipple Hills, the broad avenue becomes a spirit path lined with stone statues of animals, soldiers, and officials, probably the earliest such ensemble to survive relatively intact.
Stone soldiers and officials on the spirit path of the Qianling Tomb, lining the Emperor's route in the afterlife as the actual soldiers and officials would have in life lined the path to the palace.
Stone lion guarding the entrance to what was once the plaza before the tomb's sacrificial hall.
This leads to the enormous remains of another pair of gate towers before what was once the offering hall. Flanking the broad plaza before the site of the hall are rows of stone statues of foreign representatives there to pay tribute at the tomb as they once did when the Emperor lived and appeared at the Hanyuan Hall of the Daming Palace in Chang An.
End of the spirit path with the remains of the great gate to the ceremonial
center of the tomb complex
center of the tomb complex
Officials and foreign ambassadors in stone waiting to attend upon the Emperor as actual ones once did in life, lining the main plaza of the palace waiting for the Emperor to appear in the great hall.
The headless ambassadors are now popular with the tourists in what was once a remote and inaccessible site.
Satellite tombs occupy the lower terrace of the tomb complex along the avenue to the tumulus.
These are tombs of the Imperial family and high-ranking officials of the court. Some of these were opened in the last 30 years and are open to tourists. While some of these tombs were looted, many remained intact and filled with magnificent items of gold and silver as well as splendid tomb figurines in Tang Three Color glaze ceramic.
Items like these were found in the tombs. Some of these may or may not be from the Qianling tombs. The 1972 Chinese book where I found these photos only says that they are all Tang Dynasty and from the area of Xian (Qianling very likely).
Three glaze ceramic camel with musicians; foreigners, especially from the western frontier regions, appear a lot in early Chinese art, even in grave furnishings like this. They always appear as the butt of caricature, as comic relief. This is a very technically ambitious and difficult ceramic sculpture, an example of the power of belief. A lot of work and skill went into an item that was meant to be seen once on the day of the funeral, and then never seen again. Many items like this were found at Qianling.
A pair of ceramic horses, Tang Dynasty. Some of these tomb models may be images of favorite horses of high ranking deceased. In very ancient China, the actual horses, along with their human grooms and drivers, would have been killed to accompany their lord to the afterlife. The use of tomb models reflects the humanitarian influence of Confucius who condemned the practice of funerary sacrifice of both animals and humans.
The most famous of these satellite tombs at Qianling is that of the Princess Yongtai. She was a victim of the Empress Wu Zetian’s intrigues, murdered by poisoning. She was not properly buried until many years after the Empress Wu Zetian’s death. As in most of the tombs, we descend a long narrow corridor down into a sequence of rooms culminating in the burial chamber. The walls are covered with remarkable paintings, not of religious scenes, but of life at court in the palace. Princess Yongtai’s tomb contains splendid images of court ladies. It is in these tombs that we can see a remainder of the lost glories of Tang painting that once adorned the walls of palaces and temples.
A painted chamber in Princess Yongtai's tomb, painted to look like a room in the Imperial Palace where she lived. Tang dynasty tomb art seems less concerned with the mystical passage of the soul than continuing the life once familiar to the deceased.
Some of the most beautiful paintings from Qianling are found in the Tomb of Prince Zhanghuai. He was the sixth son of the Emperor Gaozhong, and his second by Empress Wu Zetian. He was an accomplished historian completing a commentary on official histories of the Han Dynasty. He kept a low profile after the Empress Wu Zetian murdered his older brother, but found himself a victim of her machinations. He was the object of a trumped up treason charge. He was forced to give up his princely rank for commoner status. He was then sent into exile and forced to commit suicide. Like Princess Yongtai, he was not properly buried until many years after his death, after the death of the Empress Wu Zetian, and after his titles were posthumously restored.
Horsemen playing polo in a landscape. There is a beautiful integration of figures in action with a surrounding landscape that definitely recalls the rocky landscape around the Wei river valley in the paintings in Prince Zhanghuai's tomb. The landscape in this detail indicates what the lost landscape painting of masters like Wang Wei might have looked like, and looks forward to the masterpieces of Song Dynasty landscape painting.
Court officials with a foreign petitioner. This painting is a little masterpiece of subtle drama. Court ministers seriously discuss the request among themselves while the foreigner (who is caricatured compared to the ministers, though all of the figures in the tomb paintings are types and not individuals) anxiously waits for their decision. The compositional grouping of the figures is splendid with one official with his back to us appearing to have just walked up to the other two to join the discussion. The proximity of the figures creates a convincing sense of space without a ground plane or chiaroscuro. This painting is a little clue to the lost magnificence of Tang Dynasty painting.
The paintings and tomb furnishings from the Qianling tombs show us a very worldly and confident culture, less given to anxious speculation about the afterlife, and more interested in the successes and pleasures of this life, despite its risks and perils (as members of the Imperial family and court well knew). These are the self images of a sophisticated imperial culture conscious that it was on top of the world.
Tourists journey into the tomb of Princess Yongtai: