Tang Dynasty Art

Movement: Tang Dynasty Art
Dates: 618 - 907

Tang dynasty art (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ) is Chinese art made during the Tang dynasty (618-907). The period saw great achievements in many formspainting, sculpture, calligraphy, music, dance and literature. The Tang dynasty, with its capital at Chang'an (today's Xi'an), the most populous city in the world at the time, is regarded by historians as a high point in Chinese civilizationequal, or even superior, to the Han period. The Tang period was considered the golden age of literature and art.

In several areas developments during the Tang set the direction for many centuries to come. This was especially so in pottery, with glazed plain wares in celadon green and whitish porcelaineous types brought to a high level, and exported on a considerable scale. In painting, the period saw the peak level of Buddhist painting, and the emergence of the landscape painting tradition known as shanshui (mountain-water) painting.

Trading along the Silk Road of various products increased cultural diversity in small China cities. Stimulated by contact with India and the Middle East, the empire saw a flowering of creativity in many fields. Buddhism, originating in what is modern day India around the time of Confucius, continued to flourish during the Tang period and was adopted by the imperial family, becoming thoroughly sinicized and a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. Block printing made the written word available to vastly greater audiences.

Culturally, the An Lushan Rebellion of 745-763 weakened the confidence of the elite, and brought an end to the lavish style of tomb figures, as well as reducing the outward-looking culture of the early Tang, that was receptive to foreign influences from further west in Asia. The Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, in fact against all foreign religions, which reached its peak in 845, had a great impact on all the arts, but especially the visual arts, greatly reducing demand for artists.


A considerable amount of literary and documentary information about Tang painting has survived, but very few works, especially of the highest quality. There is a good deal of biographical information and art criticism, mostly from later periods such as the Ming dynasty, several centuries after the Tang; the accuracy of this needs to be considered, and much of it was probably already based on seeing copies of the art, not originals. With a very few exceptions, traditional attributions of particular scroll paintings to Tang masters are now regarded with suspicion by art historians.

A walled-up cave in the Dunhuang (Mogao Caves) complex was discovered by Aurel Stein, which contained a vast haul, mostly of Buddhist writings, but also some banners and paintings, making much the largest group of paintings on silk to survive. These are now in the British Museum and elsewhere. They are not of court quality, but show a variety of styles, including those with influences from further west. As with sculpture, other survivals showing Tang style are in Japan, though the most important, at Nara, was very largely destroyed in a fire in 1949.

The rock-cut cave complexes and royal tombs also contain many wall-paintings; the paintings in the Qianling Mausoleum are the most important group of the latter, mostly now removed to a museum. Not all the royal tombs have yet been opened. Court painting mostly survives in what are certainly or arguably copies from much later, such as Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy, probably a later copy of the 7th century original by Yan Liben, though the front section of the famous portrait of the Emperor Xuanzong's horse Night-Shining White is probably an original by Han Gan of 740760. Yan Liben is an example of a famous painter who was also a very important official.

Most Tang artists outlined figures with fine black lines and used brilliant color and elaborate detail filling in the outlines. However, Wu Daozi used only black ink and freely painted brushstrokes to create ink paintings that were so exciting that crowds gathered to watch him work. From his time on, ink paintings were no longer thought to be preliminary sketches or outlines to be filled in with color. Instead, they were valued as finished works of art.

The Tang dynasty saw the maturity of the landscape painting tradition known as shanshui (mountain-water) painting, which became the most prestigious type of Chinese painting, especially when practiced by amateur scholar-official or "literati" painters in ink-wash painting. In these landscapes, usually monochromatic and sparse, the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the "rhythm" of nature.


Chinese ceramics saw many significant developments, including the first Chinese porcelain meeting both Western and Chinese definitions of porcelain, in Ding ware and related types. The earthenware Tang dynasty tomb figures are better known in the West today, but were only made to placed in elite tombs close to the capital in the north, between about 680 and 760. They were perhaps the last significant fine earthenwares to be produced in China. Many are lead-glazed sancai (three-colour) wares; others are unpainted or were painted over a slip; the paint has now often fallen off.

Sancai was also used for vessels for burial, and perhaps for use; the glaze was less toxic than in the Han, but perhaps still to be avoided for use at the dining table. The typical shape is the "offering tray", a round or circular and lobed shape with geometrically regular floral-type decoration in the centre.

In the south the wares from the Changsha Tongguan Kiln Site in Tongguan are significant as the first regular use of underglaze painting; examples have been found in many places in the Islamic world. However the production tailed off and underglaze painting remained a minor technique for several centuries.

Yue ware was the leading high-fired, lime-glazed celadon of the period, and was of very sophisticated design, patronized by the court. This was also the case with the northern porcelains of kilns in the provinces of Henan and Hebei, which for the first time met the Western as well as the Eastern definition of porcelain, being a pure white and translucent. One of the first mentions of porcelain by a foreigner was in the Chain of Chronicles written by the Arab traveler and merchant Suleiman in 851 AD during the Tang dynasty who recorded that:

They have in China a very fine clay with which they make vases which are as transparent as glass; water is seen through them. The vases are made of clay.

The Arabs were well used to glass, and he was certain that the porcelain that he saw was not that.

Yaozhou ware or Northern Celadon also began under the Tang, though like Ding ware its best period was under the next Song dynasty.


Most sculpture before the official rejection of Buddhism in 845 was religious, and a vast amount was destroyed during the Tang period itself, with most of the rest lost in later periods. There were many bronze and wooden sculptures, whose style is best seen in the survivals in Japanese temples. Monumental sculpture in stone, and also terracotta, has survived at several complexes of rock-cut temples, of which the largest and most famous are the Longmen Grottoes and the Mogao Caves (at Dunhuang), both of which were at their peak of expansion during the Tang. The best combined "the Indian feeling for solid, swelling form and the Chinese genius for expression in terms of linear rhythm ... to produce a style which was to become the basis of all later Buddhist sculpture in China."

The tomb-figures are discussed above; though probably not treated very seriously as art by their producers, and sometimes rather sloppily made, and especially painted, they remain vigorous and effective as sculpture, especially when animals and foreigners are depicted, the latter with an element of caricature. A rather different class and type of tomb sculpture is seen in the reliefs of the six favourite horses at the mausoleum of Emperor Taizong (d. 649). By tradition these were designed by the court painter Yan Liben, and the relief is so flat and linear that it seems likely they were carved after drawings or paintings.

Metalwork and decorative arts

Tang elite metalwork, surviving mostly in bronze or silver cups and mirrors, is often of superb quality, decorated using a variety of techniques, and often inlaid with gold and other metals. An exceptionally fine deposit is the collection in the Tdai-ji in Nara in Japan of the personal goods of Emperor Shmu, given to the Buddhist shrine by his daughter Empress Kmy after her father's death in 756. As well as metalwork, paintings and calligraphy, this includes furniture, glass, lacquer and wood pieces such as musical instruments and board games. Most is probably made in China, though some is Japanese and some from the Middle East.

Another important deposit was discovered in 1970 at Xi'an when the Hejia Village hoard was uncovered by construction. Placed into two large ceramic pots, 64cm high, and a silver one, 25cm high, this was a large collection of over a thousand objects, altogether representing a rather puzzling collection. Several of them were gold or silver vessels and other objects of the highest quality, as well as hardstone carvings in jade and agate, and gemstones. It was probably hidden in a hurry during the An Lushan revolt, in which the Tang capital was taken more than once. Many of the objects are imported, mostly from along the Silk Road, especially Sogdia, and others show Sogdian influence. Two objects from the hoard (illustrated) are included on the very select official list of Chinese cultural relics forbidden to be exhibited abroad. The hoard is now in the Shaanxi History Museum.


There had been an enormous amount of building of Buddhist temples and monasteries, but in 845 these were all confiscated by the government, and the great majority destroyed. The normal construction material for buildings other than towers, pagodas, and military works in the Tang was still wood, which does not survive very long if not maintained. The rock-cut architecture of the famous surviving sites of course survives neglect far better, but the Chinese generally left the external facades of cave-temples unornamented, unlike the Indian equivalents at sites like the Ajanta Caves.

Two large Tang pagodas survive in the capital, now Xi'an, which otherwise has few remains dating back to the Tang. The oldest is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, rebuilt in 704 in brick, and reduced in height after damage in the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda was also rebuilt in 704, but only lost a few metres in the earthquake. Some Tang pagodas tried to reconcile the form with the Indian shikara temple tower, or even had a stupa as part of the superstructure; the Taht at the Ishiyama-dera temple in Japan is a surviving later example, with a roof on top of the stupa.

The main hall of the relatively small rural Nanchan Temple has a main structure of wood. Much of it appears to have survived from the original construction in 782, and it is recognised as the oldest wooden building in China. The third oldest is the main hall of the nearby Foguang Temple of 857.

Both are studied for their dougong bracketing systems, joining the roof to the walls. These complicated arrangements persisted until the end of traditional Chinese architecture, but are often considered to have reached a peak of elegance and harmony in the Song and Yuan dynasties, before becoming over-elaborate and fussy. The Tang examples show an increase in complexity before the great periods, and the beginnings of the uplift at the edges of roof lines that was to grow stronger in later periods. Japan has preserved rather more temple halls built in very similar styles (or in many cases has carefully rebuilt them as exact replicas over the centuries).



  • Hansen, Valerie, The Silk Road: A New History, 2015, Oxford University Press, ISBN0190218428, 9780190218423, google books
  • Sullivan, Michael, The Arts of China, 1973, Sphere Books, ISBN0351183345 (revised edn of A Short History of Chinese Art, 1967)
  • Vainker, S.J., Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, 1991, British Museum Press, 9780714114705

Further reading

  • Watt, James C.Y.; etal. (2004). China: dawn of a golden age, 200-750 AD. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN1588391264.

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