Saturday, January 29, 2011

Liberty Visits the Middle East

Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that expectation is the spark of revolution. And nothing whips that spark into a raging fire like deep and abiding frustration.

We are watching a revolution explode with amazing swiftness throughout the Arab World right in front of our eyes. We Americans gaze with astonishment and bewilderment at the spectacle unfolding on our TV screens. The once solid Tunisian dictatorship is gone. The 30 year old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt may well be about to topple. There are protests in Yemen, in Algeria, and in Jordan. Regimes throughout the Middle East are nervously watching events unfold on the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks.

Our network commentariat babbles on about Twitter and Facebook, and the role of Wikileaks in all of this, and pointlessly. The real cause of the turmoil was best expressed in the actions of Mohammed Bouazizi who set himself on fire after his wares were confiscated and he was humiliated by the authorities. His story and his fiery death struck a deep nerve among thousands of people who've endured similar experiences. He was a man who had had enough. People in the Arab World are just tired of being treated like crap. They see a whole new world of possibilities created by technology and increasing global contact opening up before them, and their rulers lower a big iron gate and tell them to put up and shut up, to continue to pray, pay, and obey, and don't ever complain. People see their rulers living high off the hog at their expense while their lives get worse.

This may well be the beginning of a new chapter in Middle East history, but what kind of chapter? Who knows? It's events like this that make all the determinist models of history and all the ideological pronouncements about the inevitable path of history into a clanging cymbal signifying nothing. Did anyone living though the events of 1789 in France really see what was coming next? The Terror? Napoleon? Certainly not. We forget that the founding generations of this country were not exactly certain about the direction or the durability of their revolution. No one had any idea what the USA would eventually become. Did the soldiers who stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1917 imagine the rise of Stalin and his genocidal regime? Did those angry frustrated people who lined up to vote for the Nazis in 1932 foresee the ruin that was coming their way? Not likely. I remember how anxious our rulers were when the events of 1989 unfolded in Europe; it was something that they could not control, influence, or predict.
A friend of mine who is a historian once said that you can make all the structural analyses you want of historical events, but in the end, someone had to make a policy decision.

History is always a gamble and a crap-shoot. The future is always a big blank Not Yet that anyone can write anything upon. The most absurd events, a missed appointment, a lost letter, a sudden illness have dramatically altered the course of history. The people in Tunisia and Egypt are rolling the dice and making history. Those angry young people (and not so young people) are now in the driver's seat, and there's nothing the Very Important People can do about it except to watch what happens. Who knows how it will all turn out? Will it be a rerun of Iran? Will we see the emergence of the first genuine Arab democracies? Or will we see something else entirely? We'll know eventually. The protesters and rioters on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sana, and elsewhere now understand what Hannah Arendt meant when she said that power is just lying around in the streets.

I wonder if we may be watching the beginning of the end of the American Imperium in the Middle East. For almost a century, The USA and the West treated the Middle East as a big dumb oil pump. We propped up dictators and monarchs to keep the lid on all the aspiring nationalisms and brewing conflicts in order to keep the oil flowing. Perhaps the Arab World is so mysterious to us because we largely ignored it for so many decades. Through two World Wars and the Cold War, the West was in the driver's seat of the Middle East setting up compliant client regimes. One of history's greatest ironies is the United States, history's first constitutional democracy, supported some of the world's last absolute monarchies in the Middle East. The Beacon of Liberty whose "banner makes tyranny tremble" eagerly propped up some real tyrants at war with their own people. The list is long; the Shah of Iran, the Hashemite monarchies in Jordan and Iraq, the Saudi monarchy, all the little princedoms that border the Persian Gulf, the Moroccan monarchy, Anwar Sadat, and yes, Saddam Hussein. It seems to me that the Iraq Invasion of 2003 intended to reassert our dominance in the Middle East only diminished our power, and certainly our credibility. Our military is tied down in two unresolvable wars. Our authority and credibility to make any kind of diplomatic initiatives are thoroughly shot because of war crimes and corruption. And now, we can only watch helplessly as the very people who've paid the most for our convenient arrangements take matters into their own hands.

David Kato Kisuule 1969 - 2011

Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy Martyr David triumphed over sufferings and was faithful even to death: Grant us, who now remember him in thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witnes to you in this world that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

Almighty God, who created us in your own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Uganda's Righteous Rogues

Here's the now infamous headline that may well have led to David Kato's death.

If, God forbid, Uganda becomes the gay Rwanda, these people should be put on a plane to The Hague. As far as I'm concerned, all of these people are already complicit in David Kato's murder.

Scott Lively photographed in Uganda. His antigay rhetoric is only slightly less unhinged than Fred Phelps, but just as violent.

Martin Ssempa, Uganda's most famous Christian pastor and the leader of the whole anti-gay movement.

MP David Bahati who introduced the notorious "Kill the Gays" bill into Uganda's parliament, and appears to be the Christianist point man in the Ugandan government.

Pastor Rick Warren who is trying very hard to distance himself from Uganda these days, but it's a spot that won't wash out, especially since Warren has only "softened" but not rejected his homophobia.

The C Street house in Washington DC of the secretive far-right group known as The Family, originally founded in the 1930s to back Francisco Franco's Fascist takeover of Spain, this group of very wealthy and powerful people may well be writing most of the checks for this whole neo-colonial experiment in Christianist theocracy.

Anglican Archbishop Henry Orombi, among the most extremely anti-American and anti-gay of the African Anglican bishops, but comes across as the voice of reason compared to some of the more bloodthirsty and hysterical rantings that prevail these days in Uganda.

Uganda's history is already full of violence and bloodshed. I can't imagine that the Ugandan people really would be enthusiastic for more.
There may be some small cause to hope that the better angels might prevail. There was a strikingly reasonable and generous (by Ugandan Standards) editorial in the Kampala based Daily Monitor. There may well be more Ugandans than we think who realize that they are being played by powerful foreigners who certainly do not have their best interests at heart.

Further Updates on the Murder of David Kato

Violence broke out at his funeral when a person who claimed to be a pastor disrupted the service with an anti-gay tirade. The villagers in Mukono, Uganda then refused to bury his body. He was finally buried by friends and family. What the hell? Is he radioactive?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, issued this statement yesterday (courtesy of Thinking Anglicans):

Friday 28 January 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who is currently in Dublin for the Primates’ meeting, has made the following statement regarding the murder of the gay human rights activist David Kato Kisulle in Uganda:

“The brutal murder of David Kato Kisule, a gay human rights activist, is profoundly shocking. Our prayers and deep sympathy go out for his family and friends - and for all who live in fear for their lives. Whatever the precise circumstances of his death, which have yet to be determined, we know that David Kato Kisule lived under the threat of violence and death. No one should have to live in such fear because of the bigotry of others. Such violence has been consistently condemned by the Anglican Communion worldwide. This event also makes it all the more urgent for the British Government to secure the safety of LGBT asylum seekers in the UK. This is a moment to take very serious stock and to address those attitudes of mind which endanger the lives of men and women belonging to sexual minorities.”

It is a strong and unequivocal statement, a long time coming, but still welcome.

I wish I could vouch for the accuracy of this line:
"Such violence has been consistently condemned by the Anglican Communion worldwide."

... but I can't. I'm afraid a lot of Anglicans, including some bishops, are instigators and perpetrators.

If I had my way, some influential evangelicals, together with their financial backers and some bishops, would be sitting in The Hague right now awaiting trial.

Moral relativism anybody?


Here is the statement of Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori from the Primates Conference in Dublin:

At this morning’s Eucharist at the Primates Meeting, I offered prayers for the repose of the soul of David Kato. His murder deprives his people of a significant and effective voice, and we pray that the world may learn from his gentle and quiet witness, and begin to receive a heart of flesh in place of a heart of stone. May he rest in peace, and may his work continue to bring justice and dignity for all God’s children.

That's what I always find so amazing about Bishop Schori, she sounds so gracious, generous, and reasonable when everyone else is getting ugly. What's more, she makes it seem so natural, whereas Archbishop Williams comes across as so labored and anxious.

Hat tip to Mimi and to all the other people who posted this.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

David Kato Is Murdered

Thugs broke into the home of prominent Ugandan gay activist David Kato yesterday afternoon and beat him to death with hammers. The Ugandan police say the crime was motivated by robbery, but no one is buying that explanation. Kato was a target of death threats for months. When the local Ugandan paper Rolling Stone published its list of gays under the headline "Hang Them!" Kato's picture was on the front. Gay activists in Uganda are already laying the blame for Kato's death on American Evangelicals who've driven and financed Uganda's anti-gay pogrom.

God's own holy homophobes are "washed in the blood," but it's not of the Lamb.

Do people really imagine that they can demonize a group of people from pulpits and in parliament, publish a list of names and photos in a local paper under the headline "Hang Them!" and that there would be no consequences?

Moral relativism anybody?

I suppose the rights and dignity of some people are relative to doctrinal purity and sectarian identity.

Anglican and other Christian bishops who value institutional unity and integrity over human dignity also bear their share of responsibility for his death. As far as I am concerned, they are in no position to be preaching anything to anyone.

JoeMyGod profiles a major American player in the Ugandan pogrom, and other African anti-gay pogroms, an extreme hater named Scott Lively. Lively is now furiously trying to distance himself and other American Evangelicals involved in Uganda away from Kato's murder.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement condemning Kato's murder.

This crime is a reminder of the heroic generosity of the people who advocate for and defend human rights on behalf of the rest of us -- and the sacrifices they make. And as we reflect on his life, it is also an occasion to reaffirm that human rights apply to everyone, no exceptions, and that the human rights of LGBT individuals cannot be separated from the human rights of all persons. Our ambassadors and diplomats around the world will continue to advance a comprehensive human rights policy, and to stand with those who, with their courage, make the world a more just place where every person can live up to his or her God-given potential. We honor David’s legacy by continuing the important work to which he devoted his life.

You can read her statement in full on the Advocate website.

Hat tip to JoeMyGod.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Moral Relativists

From a call to action by people concerned about the moral slide of the Episcopal Church and the nation (from a post by Anglicans United, hat tip to Mimi):

The conference brought together evangelicals, charismatics and broad-church traditional Episcopalians who shared a growing sense of alarm at the continuing moral and doctrinal slide of their Church.

Opposed to moral and doctrinal relativism, the conference highlighted the Revelation of God in the Scriptures, and called for the Renewal of God’s people. Alarmed by trends within the denomination, everyone saw the need for Reformation.

Below are some moral relativists:

Fanny Ann Eddy

Harvey Milk

Fr. Mychal Judge

David Wojnarowicz

The morals crowd talks a good game about heroic suffering and martyrdom, but these folks really lived it, and paid for their vision of a just world for their own kind with their lives.

Moral relativists don't charge police barricades and spend nights in jail. Apparently, aspiring morals police don't either.

If Moral Virtue was Christianity
Christs Pretensions were all Vanity
And Caiphas & Pilate Men
[Of Moral] & the Lions Den
And not the Sheepfold Allegories
Of God & Heaven & their Glories
The Moral Christian is the Cause
Of the Unbeliever & his Laws

--William Blake, from "The Everlasting Gospel"

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why I Do This

Guercino, Saint Luke, 1653

Why do I do this blog?

Well, partly it's to scratch an itch. It gives me a chance to vent and rant that I don't normally get in the rest of my life. Also, I can indulge my curiosity from time to time. The best way to learn about something is to explain it to someone else. Art has always been my passion, and how it intersects with history and with larger matters of human life interests me especially. I use this blog to get to know better things that I've always known about, and to get to know things that I don't really know all that well, but intrigue me.
I also use it to promote my own artwork, something that I'd always like to do more often, but my work tends to be labor intensive and my studio time is frequently limited. I'm far from being the only artist to deal with those issues. That's probably life for almost all artists these days.

Like other bloggers, I've noticed my comment traffic is much lighter than it used to be, but then I never expected a blog that has long posts on art history to be much of a crowd draw.

Why do I do those posts? The last thing I want to do with this blog is turn it into an Art 101 class. These posts aren't really serious academic scholarship (my language skills are too limited for professional academia in art history, nor do I want to be a full time art historian). I write for a broad audience who I assume are not experts, though I assume they have a little more educational background and maturity than the average college freshman. I am doing something like being a tour guide, but I want to do something much more. I don't want my Florence posts to be some kind of Merchant-Ivory-presents-Florence-how-exquisite! type thing. I do have a serious purpose in those posts beyond recounting history. They are about the question of civilized life. Not just the life of polished speech and fine manners, but life in cities (the word "civilization" shares the same root as "city," and for a reason, that's where civilization happens). Cities are more than just concentrations of people and buildings, they are places where people come together to build a life for themselves and together. All of those basic issues of life such as the rule of law, how to make a living, what kind of society do we want, what is right, just, and fair, how are we to be governed, what do we believe about the meaning of life and death as individuals and collectively, how do we express it, what does it mean to live a good and happy life, and who gets to try to live one, what is our relationship to our past and to our posterity as individuals and as a society, all of those questions were lived out in very dramatic and strikingly productive ways in that little city on the Arno river. We are all still living out those issues, only today under different historical circumstances (especially in technology and the scope of the global economy).

I did that whole series a long time ago on the origins of Christian art, not just to be professorial, but to address the very issue of the role of imagery in the Christian religion, a question that has been around for 2000 years and is no more settled now than it was at the beginnings of Christian history.

We in the English speaking world tend to privilege the word over the image as a bearer of meaning. Perhaps that is the legacy of Protestantism and its deep suspicion of images and symbolism. In my own small way, I try to show audiences outside the charmed circle of the art profession (both fine and commercial) that images are filled with many dimensions of meaning and can be every bit as rich and complex as literature. Ours is a commercial culture saturated with images competing for our attention. I tell my students, and I'm telling you, it is better to understand how they work and what's at stake and to take control of them rather than have them work their spells and control you.

Finally, a big reason for these art history posts is my inner Socialist demands it as a kind of moral imperative. I do not think that art and commerce can be reconciled. They are two sharply different and even opposed enterprises. The artist, no matter what she does, tries to find meaning, or even to create it and expand the whole dimension of what is meaningful. Commerce must necessarily reduce meaning to what is marketable. One enterprise always seeks to expand meaning, and another must reduce or eliminate meaning in order to function. The artist must make meaning in a totally commercialized world that denies even the possibility of meaning. The previous sentences are probably the most truly heretical thing I've ever said on this blog.

Art in this day and age is two contradictory things at the same time. It is a very high-priced luxury item, a very demanding kind of entertainment, that adorns the homes of the rich and powerful, and the public halls of power, as status trophies and as tokens of legitimacy. Art is also the incarnation of thoughts, experiences, dreams, hopes. and fears that we all share, and as such, is the common property of all humankind.
Like the reformers of the 19th century, I teach these things to the broad public so that they may rightfully claim them, and claim their share in the enterprise of civilization.

The Gods

Andy Warhol, One Hundred One Dollar Bills, 1965

We make our gods in our own image.
The Egyptians made their gods into absentee landlords, after the land owning nobility who ruled over them.
The Greeks imagined their gods to be like their own over-class, charismatic, amoral, fickle, and cruel.
The ancient Israelites (and other peoples like them) imagined their God to be like the tribal patriarchs who had the power of life and death over every man, woman, child, and goat in the clan.

Do we have gods? Of course we do, only they are not transcendent, but gods none the less.

There's no more powerful demonstration of the fact of a post-Christian, or even post-religious world, than to look at the center of any city anywhere around the world. The largest and most ambitious buildings of any city in any age proclaim what its citizens truly believe in. The towers and domes of churches and cathedrals long dominated the cities in the West. Shikara towers of Hindu temples once dominated cities in India. Domes and minarets formed the unmistakable skylines of cities under Islam. The spires of stupas and the towers of pagodas dominated the cities of the East.
Now, every city center looks like a variation on Manhattan. Our largest monuments are by far for banks and corporations. They are our most costly and ambitious buildings, and of course they express our deepest and most sincere convictions just a certainly as any cathedral did in a medieval French city.

The god we all really believe in, as opposed to the gods we say we believe in (or don't believe in), is money. Money really does work the miracles and heal the sick. It creates and it destroys even more surely than our old gods did. It is a demanding and jealous god that really does demand absolute loyalty and punishes to the seventh generation. It sends the rain, makes the crops grow, brings prosperity, and heals disease, all of those things for which generations of humanity prayed to their gods. Like those gods, it demands sacrifice in return, and sometimes a sacrifice in blood. Our god is every bit as fickle, cruel, and amoral as the ancient gods, frequently rewarding and punishing for no clear discernible reason.
Money is a cruel god who offers no hope, has no meaning, and creates no meaning. It is an impersonal, vast, and abstract deity. We worship and propitiate because we are all bound to do so. We are bound to do so because we have given money so much power over us and over our children. Since we cannot agree among ourselves about any single set of meanings and values for the world, money sends us all the price tag and reduces the whole idea of value to use and exchange, something that everyone understands.

Santa Muerte, the god of the Mexican drug trade.

David Wojnarowicz, Redesign of the Dollar Bill, 1988

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tang Dynasty Imperial Tombs

I begin this post with a disclaimer. I know enough about Chinese art and history to know that my knowledge of it is spotty and imperfect, but it fascinates me and I enjoy reading about it. China is the world’s oldest continuous culture, and its archaeological wonders rival those of Egypt. What also fascinates me is the complicated and changing relationship the Chinese have with their vast history. Sometimes that history is seen as a glorious inheritance, sometimes as a burdensome responsibility, and other times as a constraint and even a threat to progress. Today, as the current regime trades in brutal ruthless Communism for brutal ruthless capitalism, China’s heritage is an asset to be marketed and exploited for profit. As we shall see, so many historic sites, once ruined and remote, have been made accessible, restored, cleaned up, and even tarted up for the tourist trade.

Marble Lion from the Tang Dynasty

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.

The Emperor Taizong in a much later painting

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.

Chang An

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

Plan of the city of Chang An

Hypothetical bird's eye view of ancient Chang An

Computer reconstruction from the University of Singapore of some of
the walled precincts of Chang An

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

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

The remains of the Hanyuan Hall today

Hypothetical reconstruction of the Hanyuan Hall

Tang Dynasty paintings like this one from the Tomb of Prince Yide inform
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.

Early 20th century photograph of the original ruined state of the Zhaoling Tomb complex.

Modern statue of the Emperor Taizong with the mountain containing his tomb in the background.

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.

Another one of the original reliefs of Taizong's horses, also injured by an arrow.

Replicas of the reliefs set up in the original location.

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.

A view from the tumulus mountain of the Nipple Hills, the upper terrace,
and the broad 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.

The spirit path of the Qianling Tomb on the upper terrace

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 horse and groom on the Qianling spirit path.

Stone lion guarding the entrance to what was once the plaza before the tomb's sacrificial hall.

Stone soldier holding a sword on the spirit path.

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

Remains of the great stone gate with the stone ambassadors just inside

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 stone ambassadors, most missing their heads

The headless ambassadors are now popular with the tourists in what was once a remote and inaccessible site.

Stele commemorating the Empress Wu Zetian who lies buried in the tumulus

Satellite tombs occupy the lower terrace of the tomb complex along the avenue to the tumulus.

Tumulus of one of the many satellite tombs in the Qianling complex

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).

Gold pitcher from the Tang Dynasty, excavated from the region of Xian
(perhaps from Qianling)

Gold and silver bowl from the Tang Dynasty from the vicinity of Xian

Three color glaze ceramic jar from the Tang Dynasty intended for tomb furnishings

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.

Tumulus of Princess Yongtai

The passage down into Princess Yongtai's tomb, glass panels cover paintings on the walls.

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.

Court ladies from Princess Yongtai's tomb

More court ladies adorn Princess Yongtai's stone sarcophagus in the
burial chamber of her tomb.

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 charging through a landscape

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.

Camels and horsemen in the woods

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.

Court ladies listening to song birds and cicadas.

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: