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Painting in Tang Dynasty (220 AD - 589 AD)

History Overview

After three hundred years of turbulence and warfare, China was briefly reunited in one single state in 589 A.D. The short-lived Sui Dynasty lasted merely thirty years, when revolt broke out and the Sui was overthrown by a new dynasty, the Tang in 618 A.D.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) could be characterized as the golden age of China. During the Tang era, the economy prospered; traders and travellers came from as far as India, Arabia, Japan and Southeast Asia to work and live in the capitol, Chang'an, which was considered the center of the world by the Chinese.

Tang rulers were also tolerant of foreigners as Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and other religious groups coexisted in harmony. Religious pilgrimage was also encouraged as countless tales and stories were written about monks travelling along the famous Silk Route bringing back invaluable Buddhist scriptures to China. Under Tang rule, culture and the arts flourished. Painting style was elegant, reflecting the general prosperity of the golden age of Chinese feudal society.

Art History

The achievements in art were unparalleled during the Tang period. It was during the Tang that the greatest poetry was composed, the greatest pictures painted. Tang paintings reflected a relaxed style, formal lines were replaced by free-flowing contours, and there were less compulsion to close broken lines. The brush strokes were suggestive and arbitrary compared to earlier Han paintings, which were formal and rigid.

During the mid Tang period, artists relied less on color, and more on descriptive and expressive power of the brush strokes. The greatest master of the dynasty, Wu Daozi, an eighth century painter, renouned for his calligraphic brush work (unfortunately, none of his works survived), used only thin washes of color or none at all. Wu served as a painter in the court of Emperor Ming Huang, who was also a great patron of the arts. Another great painter, Wang Wei (699-759), master of figure and landscape, was considered the father of monochromatic brush-work. Wang used washes to create depth and used textured strokes to create shades and lines.

In contrast to the innovators such as Wu or Wang, court artists drew fine lines and used bright mineral pigments. Chang Xuan and Chou Fang were two court artists who specialized in drawing pictures of court ladies. Chang Xuan's "Ladies Preparing Newly-woven Silk" (11th century reproduction), while static, showed some movement in the painting, as seen by the little girl bending over and the court lady leaning backwards as she pulled on the silk scroll.

It was due to the Tang emperors (and empress), that Buddhism flourished as it did in China and the effects could be felt as far as Japan. Buddhist paintings comprised of the majority of art works found during the Tang period. One of the famous Buddhist paintings was found in the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas near Tun-Huang, in western Kansu Province, far northwest of China: Paradise of Amitabha Buddha. The painting, perfectly preserved, depicted the Buddha sitting in the Western Paradise.

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