Book: Ceramics - Art or Science? Author: Dr. Stan Jones

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.20 Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD)

Li Yuan, having defeated other rebellious groups, set up the Tang Dynasty in 618 AD. The first 140 years of the Tang Dynasty was one of the most prosperous and brilliant periods in the history of Chinese Civilisation. The second Emperor, Tai-tsung, expanded the Empire so far that Samarkand and Bukhara, in present Usbekistan, were included for a while. These Central Asian Kingdoms paid tribute to China with the inducement of profitable trade. Chinese cultural influence reached Korea and Japan. In fact Tang Dynasty institutions, principles and methods of government were imitated in many parts of Asia. Underpinning Tang rule was the Imperial Examination System, which was designed to recruit well-educated citizens to serve the Empire. Stability and economic security was now a reality in China and its neighbours.

Map of Tang Dynasty 800 AD - courtesy Thomas Lessman,

Map of Tang Dynasty 800 AD - courtesy
Thomas Lessman,

Trade grew rapidly and merchants flooded into China together with craftsmen and entertainers. In previous centuries the merchant class had grown considerably when Government could not keep it under control, but now they achieved respectability especially in Chang-an and Lo-yang. Luxuries such as textiles, metalwork, glass and precious stones were imported from the Near East and their designs had a great impact on most aspects of Chinese art. In ceramics many forms were new to Chinese tradition. Some did not last but others were adapted to the Chinese taste and persisted, for example, designs for the splendid lead-glazed pottery figures and vessels used in tombs. The public was bent on keeping up with the latest fashion and delighting in extravagant, ostentatious display.

Various cultural activities developed, including opera and poetry. A legacy of some 50,000 Tang poems has survived to this day. The Capital Chang-an became the greatest cosmopolitan city in the world, with streets filled with foreigners and freedom for foreign religions including Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The Imperial City or Capital was further developed after 618 AD to become six times the size of the present Xian, with a population of over a million people, and another million close by outside, making it also the largest city in the world at the time. It was well planned on a grid system, which was the precursor to the subsequent layout of Peking (Beijing). A second very grand palace was built just outside the city in 634 AD, which was the centre for the Emperor’s Court from 649 to 756 AD. Some very garish coloured ceramic tiles were used in the architecture of the palace buildings. During this period China’s only reigning Empress, Wu-hou, took over from her husband the Emperor Kao-tsung (649-683). She reigned from 690 to 705 AD.

The Tang period saw some of China’s most lavish Royal Tombs, before the onset of the more modest Sung Dynasty. Again artificial mounds were not considered large enough, so tombs were carved beneath large mountains. The tomb of the Emperor and Empress Wu-hou at Chang-Ling is the only joint burial of rulers. It has yet to be excavated and appears to be intact.

The early Tang Emperors were as supportive as the Sui in the building of temples. Masonry pagodas having seven storeys, 58m high still survive in Chang-an, but very few wooden temples survive. The largest extant wooden building in the world is at Nara in Japan, which is 88m long and 52m wide. It is built in the Tang style but is small compared with the ones that have disappeared from Luoyang and Chang-an.

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