T ang – the name of this dynasty (618-907) evokes fashionable ladies alluringly made up and splendidly dressed; dashing polo players showing off their thoroughbred horses; dancers performing to the latest tunes of male or female bands; foreign merchants with rugged features arriving at the capital with laden camels after a gruelling trek across the Central Asian desert; and a bustling metropolis with a skyline dominated by pagodas.
This may be a cliché picture, but it is the one that Tang poetry, prose and paintings on silk and tomb walls present, at least from the first half of the dynasty. China’s elite was certainly affluent and society cosmopolitan; they eagerly embraced anything foreign, be it exotic goods, outlandish styles or even a religion – Buddhism. New impulses were imported via the Silk Route, by Sogdian and other foreign traders, whose cultures had themselves assimilated styles from Bactria further south and from the Sassanian empire further west. Artisans were flooded with a wealth of new visual impressions from a wide range of different cultures that had roots in Hellenistic, Persian and Indian cultural spheres.
The court and the aristocracy enjoyed luxury and were not afraid to display it. The period is unparalleled in the baroque opulence of its works of art, which runs through all media. It was a time when lavish silk brocades and ostentatious items in gold, silver, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl and glass were produced for an eager clientele. While only few of those works are extant, ceramics have survived in greater number and they equally reflect this affluent stratum of society, if in more indirect form. Even items produced largely for burial were conceived to make an impression on the living, since they were on display during the important ceremonies held beforehand. Far from having simply symbolic function, they became ever more sophisticated, luxurious and complex in design. The first half of the Tang was the high time of earthenware pottery, a highly versatile medium, which was never exploited in more ingenious, varied and attractive ways than in this period, when the inventiveness of the potters aimed at taking the medium to its limits.
Since the potters took inspiration wherever they could find it, mostly from other cultures and other media, Tang ceramics do not present a concise, clearly definable picture, but are immensely rich in visual stimuli. Very different – one is tempted to say contradictory – styles could flourish side by side: gold and silver prototypes, for example, inspired ewers with tubular spouts, that were separately formed and attached at a sharp angle to the vessel surface and thus dramatically interrupted its silhouette. Blown glass on the other hand exemplified the possibility of fluid shapes, with spouts squeezed from the soft clay as if naturally growing out of the vessel’s contours. Flasks, amphoras, rhyta and even stem cups are shapes potters adopted from abroad and happily adapted in their own ways, so that today they come across as Tang classics.
Decorative means and motifs equally were sourced from outside the ceramic medium and for this, the potters dramatically expanded their repertoire of techniques. The present group alone includes pieces decorated by impressing, relief-moulding, rouletting, stippling, appliqué, resist and marbling techniques. Effects were borrowed from wax resist, brocade and embroidery on textiles, repoussé, engraving and punching on metal work, interwoven structures perhaps from wickerwork, marbling from the natural veining of stones. Roundels with pearl beading enclosing pairs of birds, and other formal rosettes are typical of Persian textiles which themselves allude to jewel encrustations on metalwork.
Pottery also became richer in colour, mainly through the use of a white slip over the dull beige clay, which not only brightened up the basic green and brown glaze tones, but also – covered with a transparent glaze – added a near-white glaze colour to the repertoire. That the resulting colour scheme is known as sancai (‘three colours’) obscures the fact that it covers a fairly wide range of tones, from near-white over yellow and amber to brown and from a pale pastel-green to a deep leaf green. Sancai proved such a successful colour scheme that it became a staple for Chinese ceramics and remained popular long after many additional glaze colours had become available. Still, in the eighth century, the palette was dramatically enriched by the introduction of a deep cobalt blue, a rare and valuable pigment that itself was apparently imported from Persia.
The easily available clay and the relatively low firing temperatures required would basically have made production of sancai possible wherever glazed roof tiles were produced. Quite a number of kilns seem indeed to have been involved in its production, but the creation of complex shapes and designs and the craftsmanship required for successful firings that yielded bright colours was possible only at a highly specialized workshop. The Gongyi kilns in Gongxian, Henan province, now appear as the foremost manufacturing centre of Tang sancai, as they have yielded evidence for the widest range of shapes, decorative techniques and motifs at reliably high quality.
The pleasurable lifestyle of the Tang aristocracy received a jolt through the rebellion of An Lushan in the mid-eighth century. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it shook the dynasty to its core and had a lasting, sobering effect on Tang society. Pottery of course continued to be made, but quantities were much reduced and the stylistic exuberance displayed in ceramics until then, gave way to much more sedate production lines.