In the time of the Tang emperors, Buddhism became widespread and representations of Buddha experienced another change due to the contributions from the Hindu style of the Gupta probably as a consequence of the famous journey of the Chinese monk Hiang-tson, who returned from India in the year 644. The entirely dressed silhouettes of the previous era were replaced by figures with naked torsos and twisting bodies. The great figures of the lokapala* and dvarapala, guardian geniuses of the temples, appeared showing great variety and were portrayed in energetic or violent attitudes, while the iconography of the bodhisattvas continued to evolve, especially of Maitreya* and Guanyin*, buddhic figures representing Sapience and Mercy.
The typical pagoda evolved from the basic type of the bulb-shaped Hindu stupa which was transformed and adopted cubic or polyhedral forms or even took the form of a high tower of stone or brick with numerous levels and overlapping roofs which is the type most commonly used. This overlapping of the roofs is the evolution, by multiplication and growth, of the three small parasols (triple umbrella or Chattra*) or superimposed sunshades that we can still see in the stupa number 1 of Sanchi from the India of the Mauryan period from around the 2nd century BC. The tower architecture of the Han dynasty period has also been proposed as influential in the development of the full-fledged Chinese pagoda. The earthenware models of Chinese towers from the Han period predate both Buddhist influences and the fully developed pagoda-style.
The terracotta figures that have been found in the luxurious tombs of this period formed numerous entourages which included the deceased’s animals (horses, camels, yaks) and a great variety of characters and even unreal beings. Typical of all this funerary culture is an intense naturalism of classical taste and wonderful colors that sometimes didn’t cover the figures in their entirety, especially when the terracotta figures were of big dimensions. The glaze of the T’ang period continued using the pearly and iridescent shades of the plumbiferous varnish that were used since the Han dynasty and added some simple colors: green (by the addition of copper), yellow and brown (by adding iron), and blue (by adding cobalt). With these few elements Chinese potters performed wonders. They masterfully placed these three colors in powerful spots and even allowed the glaze to flow over the surface of the piece forming drips.
The low reliefs in stone, like those of the tomb of Tai Tsung (died in 648), the second emperor T’ang, also reflect the classic solemnity of the period.
The T’ang era was brilliant in other ways: it was the time of the invention and first development of the printing press that contributed to the application of the preliminary examinations for the exercise of public office which acquired all their complexity and importance. During this period, ceramics also flourished with great brilliance and in doing so a very important event took place: the discovery of porcelain*, a media that will be brought to its greatest perfection during the following era, that of the Song Dynasty, but that in the times of the T’ang stood out for its elegant shapes and incised decoration under white varnish. The art of calligraphy, estimated since the times of the Han as the mean par excellence to express the moral and intellectual virtues that should represent the literate man, came to greatly encourage the development of painting on silk or paper. Nothing is preserved of what was done by the painter Wu-Tao-tseu, renowned in the writings of the time, nor of Li Seu-hsun who was honored by the emperor with an appointment as general; but there are works by his son, the landscape painter Li Zhaodao, and the paintings of characters made by Yeu-Li-pan (Yan Liben, died in 673), whose style was based on a delicate use of shading and tonal gradation as means for enhancing the fineness of his drawings.
Some sheets of paper and scrolls of silk found in the funeral grottoes of Tuen Huang allow us to imagine the splendor of these paintings that have disappeared almost completely: characters of high rank were represented with horses luxuriously harnessed, the lines were clear and the free and safe application of the simple red and green colors gave a lively and funny air to the compositions.
When the T’ang dynasty fell in 906 another period of political division took place and for more than fifty years five dynasties reigned amidst disturbances in the great plain of the North, while the South disintegrated into ten kingdoms. Finally, in 960 the Song dynasty was established in Kaifong (Honan) which reunified the country and would reign for a long period, although not without serious difficulties such as those that represented the occupation of part of North China during the first half of the twelfth century by Tatars and Turks, which forced the Song emperors to move the capital to Hang-tcheu.
Under the Song dynasty, even in spite of the political difficulties in the country, Chinese culture experienced great progress. Buddhism was subjected to severe repression and its monks took refuge in the monasteries, mainly those of the Ch’an sect, better known in the West under the Japanese pronunciation Zen (introduced in China during the 6th century by the Hindu monk Bodhidharma), while the aristocrats and cultured men were interested again in the doctrine of Confucius which prepared the triumph of the Neo-Confucianism during the thirteenth century.
The ceramics reached great excellence, especially the porcelains with elegant shapes and an inspired incised or painted ornamentation usually with floral themes. The green-gray colored vessels were very common and later became famous in Europe (the vases céladon* highly celebrated in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). The architecture was renewed: from this time date many of the pailous* or monumental portals of the urban enclosures with their overlapping roofs, in the buildings the roof angles curved upward and in general the constructions grew in verticality while its decoration increased.
The Song emperors protected the paintings made in traditional styles and at the end of the 11th century Emperor Huizong personally distinguished himself as the author of compositions with birds and flowering branches. But apart from this academic art, there was a progressive painting which cultivated a form of panoramic landscape conceived vertically and painted on either silk or paper with Chinese ink, sometimes with slight polychrome touches. The masters of this type of painting were: Jing Hao, Dong Yuan, Yu-Kien and especially Li Tang. Another interesting group included Mu-hi or Leang-kai, followers of the Ch’an sect and as monks cloistered in their monasteries. Their paintings made in the technique of ink wash paper or sumi-e*, denoted acute sensitivity with some flashes of modernity that surprises us even to this day.
Celadon: A term for pottery denoting both wares glazed in the jade green celadon color, also known as greenware and a type of transparent glaze, often with small cracks, that was first used on greenware, but later used on other porcelains. Celadon originated in China, though the term is purely European, and notable kilns such as the Longquan kiln in Zhejiang province are renowned for their celadon glazes. Celadon production later spread to other parts of East Asia, such as Japan and Korea as well as Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand. Finer pieces are in porcelain, but both the color and the glaze can be produced in stoneware and earthenware. For many centuries, celadon wares were highly regarded by the Chinese Imperial court, before being replaced in fashion by painted wares, especially the new blue and white porcelain under the Yuan dynasty. The similarity of the color to jade, traditionally the most highly valued material in China, was a large part of its attraction.
Chattra: (From Sanskrit meaning “umbrella”). An auspicious symbol in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism culture and traditions.
Dry-lacquer: (In Japanese “Kanshitsu”). A technique of Chinese and Japanese sculpture and decorative arts in which a figure or vessel is made using many layers of hemp cloth soaked with lacquer, the surface details being subsequently modeled with a mixture of lacquer, sawdust, powdered clay stone, and other materials.
Gilt-bronze: (Also known as “Ormolu”,from French for ground or pounded gold). The gilding technique of applying finely ground, high-carat gold–mercury amalgam to an object of bronze. The term also refers to objects finished in this way. The French refer to this technique as “bronze doré“; in English, it is known as “gilt bronze”.
Guanyin: Or Guan Yin is the most commonly used Chinese translation of the bodhisattva known as Avalokiteśvara. Guanyin is the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion. The Chinese name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin, which means “[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World.”
Hanfu: Terms that collectively refers to the ancient Chinese clothing or the historical clothing styles of China, particularly those before the Qing dynasty. The Han Chinese historically wore a robe or a shirt for the upper garment, while the lower garment was commonly a pleated skirt. Since the Han dynasty, Chinese clothing had developed varied styles and exquisite textile techniques, particularly on silk, and absorbed favorable elements in foreign cultures.
Kerchief: (From the French couvre-chef, “head cover”). Also known as a bandana or bandanna, is a triangular or square piece of cloth tied around the head or neck for protective or decorative purposes.
Lokapāla: (From the Sanskrit and Pāli meaning “guardian of the world”). Term that has different uses depending on whether it is found in a Hindu or Buddhist context. In Hinduism, lokapāla refers to the Guardians of the Directions associated with the eight, nine and ten cardinal directions. In Buddhism, lokapāla refers to the Four Heavenly Kings, and to other protector spirits, whereas the Guardians of the Directions are referred to as the “dikpālas”.
Maitreya: Term that refers to the future Buddha of this world in Buddhist eschatology. In some Buddhist literature, such as the Amitabha Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, he is referred to as Ajita. According to Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth in the future, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach the pure dharma. According to scriptures, Maitreya will be a successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha.
Nestorian church: Also known as the Church of the East or the Persian Church. It was a Christian church of the East Syriac rite established ca. 410. It was one of three major branches of Eastern Christianity that arose from the Christological controversies of the 5th and 6th centuries, alongside the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
Pailou: (Also known as Paifang). A traditional style of Chinese architectural arch or gateway structure. Evolved from Indian-subcontinent’s Torana through the introduction of Buddhism to China, it has developed many styles and has been introduced to other East Asian countries such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Porcelain: (From the old Italian porcellana meaning “cowrie shell” referring to its resemblance to the surface of a shell). A ceramic material made by heating materials, generally including kaolin, in a kiln to temperatures between 1,200 and 1,400 °C (2,200 and 2,600 °F). The toughness, strength, and translucence of porcelain, relative to other types of pottery, arises mainly from vitrification and the formation of the mineral mullite within the body at these high temperatures. Porcelain slowly evolved in China and was finally achieved (depending on the definition used) at some point about 2,000 to 1,200 years ago, then slowly spread to other East Asian countries, and finally Europe and the rest of the world. Its manufacturing process is more demanding than that for earthenware and stoneware, the two other main types of pottery, and it has usually been regarded as the most prestigious type of pottery for its delicacy, strength, and its white color. Porcelain is also referred to as china or fine china in some English-speaking countries, as it was first seen in imports from China.
Sancai: (From Chinese, literally meaning “three colours”). A versatile type of decoration on Chinese pottery using glazes or slip, predominantly in three colors: brown (or amber), green, and a creamy off-white. It is particularly associated with the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and its tomb figures, appearing around 700. Therefore, it is commonly referred in Chinese as Tang Sancai. Tang sancai wares were sometimes referred in China and the West as egg-and-spinach by dealers, for their use of green, yellow, and white. It uses lead-glazed earthenware, and although two firings were needed, it was easier and therefore cheaper to make than Chinese porcelain or celadon, and suitable for making large figures, if necessary made up of several molded sections assembled after a first firing. The white may come from the natural color of the fired clay, sometimes coated with a transparent glaze, or there may be a white slip. The brown and green colors came from adding metal oxides to a lead glaze, and in fact blues and blacks are also found. The blue came from adding imported cobalt, and was therefore more expensive and used sparingly, often on smaller pieces.
Silk road: The Silk Road was a network of trade routes which connected the East and West, and was central to the economic, cultural, political, and religious interactions between these regions from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century. The Silk Road primarily refers to the land routes connecting East Asia and Southeast Asia with South Asia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and Southern Europe. The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk carried out along its length, beginning in the Han dynasty in China (207 BCE–220 CE). The Silk Road trade played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, Korea, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, Iran, Europe, the Horn of Africa and Arabia, opening long-distance political and economic relations between the civilizations. Though silk was the major trade item exported from China, many other goods and ideas were exchanged, including religions (especially Buddhism), syncretic philosophies, sciences, and technologies like paper and gunpowder. So in addition to economic trade, the Silk Road was a route for cultural trade among the civilizations along its network. Diseases, most notably plague, also spread along the Silk Road.
Sumi-e: (Japanese, also known as “Ink wash painting”). A type of East Asian brush painting that uses black ink, as it was used in East Asian calligraphy, in different concentrations. Emerging during the Tang dynasty of China (618–907) its stylistic features include a preference for shades of black over variations in color, and an emphasis on brushwork and the perceived “spirit” or “essence” of a subject over direct imitation. It flourished during the Song dynasty (960–1279), as well as in Japan after it was introduced by Zen Buddhist monks in the 14th century.