TangJune 10, 2016
Mention the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and I think of Robert Van Gulik’s character, Judge Dee – the Sherlock Holmes of ancient China. Di Renjie (c.630-c.700) was a real magistrate of the Tang period but became the fictionalised hero of a series of detective stories set in those times. The inspiration came from a story written during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which Van Gulik – a Dutch diplomat and celebrated linguist – translated into English.
The charm of the books lies in the author’s attention to historical detail, which is handled lightly but accurately, according to the scholarship of the 1950s and 60s when the books were written. Van Gulik was aware of the anachronisms in the Ming account and chose to retain them in his own stories.
Van Gulik kept the inaccuracies because he appreciated how the Ming authors had avoided the supernatural element that played such a prominent role in early Chinese fiction. Judge Dee had to be a man of reason, a strict Confucian who often expressed his distaste for the excesses of the Daoists, and the political intrigues of “the Buddhist crowd”.
Van Gulik’s choices show how difficult it was – and is – to imagine the way people thought and acted a thousand years ago, even in a culture that had attained a high level of civilisation. It has only been comparatively recently that French historians of the Annales school made a concerted effort to focus not on the deeds of great men but on the lives of ordinary people in the Middle Ages. The goal was to understand the mentalités of the age – roughly, the attitudes or worldviews.
Faced with an exhibition such as Tang: Treasures from the Silk Road capital at the Art Gallery of NSW, one’s greatest desire, and hardest task, is to try and imagine the way people of that era saw the world. It requires a leap of the imagination not assisted by an advertising campaign that sets new standards for crassness. When bus shelters all over Sydney have pictures of a female figurine, asking us: “Was she the first to wear the pants?” or the ceramic shell of a drum being ascribed to “China’s first boy band”, we have abandoned the delicate business of unearthing Tang mentalités and surrendered to the imbecility of our own pop culture.
One can imagine the in-house discussion about how to sex up a show of artefacts to attract the general public. Instead the gallery has come up with a strategy to alienate its core audience, if the comments I keep hearing are any indication.
Despite the vulgarity of the advertisements Tang is a beautifully designed exhibition that seems to have been too large for a single floor, and not quite big enough for two. As a result the works are allowed a generous amount of space, with small objects that might have been clustered together given their own display cases. Murals have been reproduced on large screens, while the crowning glory is a 3-D simulation of one of the most heavily decorated caves at Dunhuang. Pass an iPad in front of a gridded wall and ceiling, and the Buddhist paintings are reproduced on the screen in sharp detail. We may be catching a glimpse of the future of exhibition design, if not the future of travel.
The heart of the Tang empire was the ancient capital of Chang’an, now modern day X’ian. Cao Ying, the AGNSW’s curator of Chinese art writes: “for more than two centuries, Chang’an became the biggest and most advanced city in the world, leaving a legacy in urban history that has echoed down the ages.” What made the city remarkable was that it had been carefully planned in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui, and laid out in such a manner that the aristocracy were housed in the east, and the merchant classes in the west. There were large, well-organised markets where goods from the Silk Road were bought and sold.
At its height Chang’an was the very definition of a cosmopolis, home to thousands of foreigners and tolerant of different religions. Such conditions are conducive for social and cultural progress, and the Tang era is widely viewed as a golden age in Chinese history. Its openness stands in contrast to the insularity of later dynasties, notably the Ming, which turned its back on an era of maritime exploration and banned ocean-going vessels in 1436. This move would leave China a backward nation, unprepared for the assault on its sovereignty that came with the Opium Wars of 1839-42.
Traces of other cultures are scattered throughout the show, from two well-preserved examples of Middle-Eastern glassware (cats. 36 & 37), to a ceramic sculpture of a kneeling camel and its rider (cat.120-121). The man’s features identify him as a foreigner.
The most significant import of the period was Buddhism, which was favoured by most of the Tang emperors. The faith arrived in China in the early years of the dynasty. We’re told that by the reign of the Emperor Xuanzong (712-756), in Chang’an alone there were 75,524 monks and 50,576 nuns.
Many of the most impressive pieces in this exhibition are Buddhist in origin, including a marble statue of the so-called ‘Medicine Buddha’ (cat. 16) and two serene heads now separated from their bodies (cats. 18 & 19). I won’t attempt to discuss the styles and variations in Buddhist art, but many of the Tang works are conspicuously Esoteric, with mystical symbolism reflecting their Indian origins. There is a stylistic and doctrinal gulf between the stone Buddha heads and pieces such as a gilded silver statuette of Mahavairocana, the Supreme Buddha of the Cosmos (cat. 8), or a bronze bodhisattva the Chinese called Guanyin Pusa (cat. 15).
Aside from the discussions of the city of Chang’an, and landmarks such as the Dunhuang Caves and the Famen Monastery, the two major themes in this show relate to the changing image of Tang women and the objects associated with death and burial. The latter category is very broad, as most of the items in this show seem to have been discovered in tombs. Thousands of sites have been excavated, and there are plenty more awaiting their turn.
The role of women, discussed in a catalogue essay by Qi Dongfan, is a crucial topic, as the Tang dynasty encompasses the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, the only woman ever to ascend the Chinese throne. This has led some historians to presume that Tang women had greater freedoms than their sisters in other dynasties. At the very least, the show reveals a constant evolution of fashions and hairstyles, including instances of women wearing masculine-style trousers, riding horses and firing arrows.
This doesn’t mean that any woman “wore the pants” in terms of social power. Wu Zetian was the exception to the rule, and owed her rise to her good connections, exceptional intelligence, and a ruthless streak that makes Lady Macbeth look like Mother Theresa.
Even Wu Zetian began her career as a concubine, which meant a life of luxury and sequestered boredom for most who achieved that dubious honour. Professor Qi quotes an order by the Emperor Xuanzong that “tall fair-skinned women” should be selected from among the commoners, and “granted” to the Crown Prince. It’s clear that Tang women may have enjoyed some cosmopolitan freedoms that weren’t available in other eras, but they were still treated as male property or as precious ornaments.
We are also cautioned against believing there was a particular type of feminine beauty that characterised the Tang. If we were to judge only by the round faces of the ceramic statues (cats. 104-111), one would imagine there was no room for the starved models favoured by contemporary fashion shoots. Yet Qi believes there was no body type that represented ideal beauty. If anything, a woman’s skill with make-up, dress, and personal accomplishments seems to have played a big role in her appeal.
It’s a warning that sweeping historical generalisations are no better than the tendency to see everything through the lens of the present day. It may be difficult to imagine how people thought in Tang times, but, being human, they were probably just as confused as us.
Tang: Treasures from the Silk Road Capital
Art Gallery of NSW, until 10 July
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 11th June, 2016