china 5: a crash course in tang culture

It was my last morning in Xi’an. My flight had been delayed. After breakfast I, hence, strolled over to the Tang Dynasty Art Museum, an absolute treasure trove of Tang artistic and cultural accomplishments, to fill in the hours. From plans of the city to Tang silk robes, skilful paintings to make-up styles, the museum was both delightful and enlightening. It was like a crash course in Tang culture. Herewith some excerpts from lessons learnt.

Old maps of Xi’an, then Chang’an, show that there used to be two markets in the ancient city; the west market for international traders and the east market for local traders. The imperial palace outside the city walls was eight times larger than the Forbidden City in Beijing and was shaped as a dragon based on the belief that the emperor was the son of the dragon. The Tang architectural style was unique to the era and quite distinct from that of the Ming. The roofs of the palaces were decorated with Chi [fish] tails. The Chi are believed to have tamed the seas turning it into rain and rivers. They have been placed on Chinese roofs throughout history and even today, to protect buildings from fires. A far more effective way than the urns at the Forbidden City. Chang’an was, however, eventually completely destroyed and no traces remain of the palaces or any other imperial buildings.

Founded in the 8th Century, the Small Goose Pagoda was originally a 15-storey structure, but earthquake damage reduced it to 13. The first earthquake created a crack in the edifice as well. The second earthquake repaired the crack. This strange feat was possible because the pagoda was built with marble foundations which ensured that the building could move but not collapse during earthquakes.

And now for some fashion rules. The Tang emperor wore a screen to hide his face. The screen symbolised justice and also gave him an aura of mystery. Tang women were particularly very modern, often wearing off-shoulder dresses, riding horses, and playing polo on donkeys. The tradition of binding feet only started after the Tang. Of the 243 emperors in Chinese history there was only one empress—Empress Wu Zeitan of the Tang dynasty. Modern and liberated, she was famous for her toy-boys and male concubines, which she was quite justified in having. Her male counterparts often had up to 3,000 concubines. Tang women were extremely fashion-conscious and indulged in a wide range of hairstyles and make-up. The bindi, borrowed from India, was used in various design formats, each signifying a different mood. Blue flowers with one on the forehead and two on the cheeks meant the lady had a headache. Plumpness was beautiful. The long sleeves of their silk robes were used to hide their teeth when smiling and eating as it was considered impolite to show one’s teeth. To date, Chinese women cover their mouths when smiling. The long sleeves also came in handy as pockets and to ward off flies.

No civilisation could be complete without its art. Tang art is most championed for its three coloured—green, yellow, and brown—pottery. Favourite subjects were camels and horses. The Chinese exported silk and porcelain via the Silk Road and imported camels and horses from the Hu, the foreigners with the “big beards and noses.”

Chinese painting comprised two styles, namely, Abstract and Realistic. Materials included rice paper, brushes made of various hairs such as weasel, beaver, leopard, a mouse’s moustache; ink blocks; and ink palettes to mix ink paste. Rice paper, by the way, is not made of rice but bark, and has some unique qualities. It does not shrink with water, after crushing can be spread back into shape, and can last up to 1,000 years. Silk, another common painting surface, lasts 800 years. Chinese artworks are made up of composition, title, signature, and seal. The seal represents ownership. An old painting with various seals meant that it had had various owners. If there is no seal on a Chinese painting, the work would be considered to be either incomplete or fake. There are two main schools of art in China: Chang’an based in the city Chang’an, wherein the subject matter is philosophical ideas, and Lingnan, the southern style which focuses on sceneries. The various elements in the composition have specific meanings: bamboo symbolises an upright personality, horses signify success, and peony, China’s national flower stands for elegance.

The painters of ancient China, swiftly brushing ink and watercolours on silk, were not content merely to imitate nature. They set themselves a more elusive and challenging task—to capture the spirit, as well as form of their subjects. According to the 5th Century art critic, Hsieh Ho, a painter needed to fulfil six canons to be truly a great artist. His rules called for a high degree of skill in composition, accurate likeness, colour rendition, brushwork, a technique closely related to the picture language of Chinese writing, and venerated traditions. But most important of all he demanded an infusion of the artist’s own spirit to give the painting ch’i, the vitality of life itself.

The collection of tomb paintings in the museum portray very graphic images of life during the Tang dynasty. Of special mention are compositions illustrating Mongolian, Japanese and Iranian dignitaries visiting the city [the Tang dynasty had foreign relations with nearly 300 countries], polo races, concubines, a group of oxen depicting joyful freedom versus the misery of bondage, and scenes of the west market with people dancing, and foreigners selling their wares and riding horses. These paintings are, however, copies. The original are at the Shaanxi Museum.

And lastly what I learnt was that the Chinese zodiac is made of 12 animals based on the year of birth: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. This year is the year of the Monkey. It is believed that wearing red colour during your year keeps away evil spirits. I’m a snake. And I’m, thus, attractive, charming, and wise.

Cavernous and fearless appetites

Later in the morning, Peter, my guide and professor by vocation, led me to a traditional Chinese food market; a trade that has remained unchanged over the centuries. I couldn’t possibly leave without seeing the “real China,” as he called it, with its live chickens and snakes and frogs, and strange looking vegetables and dizzying smells.

He, thereafter, let me loose in the Muslim quarter after visiting the Great Mosque within the imposing defensive city walls built by the founder of the Ming dynasty. The walls have four main gates, one at each cardinal point and enclose a rectangular perimeter 16 kilometres in length. The mosque has been styled with a Chinese temple handbook and is built with several courtyards. It was set up in the Tang dynasty in 742 AD and was restored and added to by subsequent dynasties. Nearby is the Drum Tower. The quarter, in the most concise yet eloquent words would be that the main thoroughfare was a larger version of the food market I had visited this morning. There was food everywhere. Raw, cooked, semi-cooked, grilled, strange shaped, even stranger smelling, with benches on the pavements crowded with people eating and continuously eating. What cavernous and fearless appetites indeed!

I reached the airport to be told that my flight was delayed by yet a few more hours. I scribbled the following lines as I sat in the restaurant drinking English tea in a beer glass. Tea was not on the menu. They’d put it together as a special treat for me. ❤

Walk with me

Walk with me, said my soul to my self,
but beyond the shore
to where the mist kisses the dew
to where petals of virgin flowers
blush with hues of cherished hopes.

Walk with me, said my soul to my self,
but beyond the lane
to lose oneself in myriad turns
that whisper sweet words to my soul
about god’s places still unknown.

Walk with me, said my soul to my self,
but beyond the wall
to open fields, open skies
to where my spirit flies up high
to touch my lord with humble smiles.

Walk with me, said my soul to my self,
but anywhere,
every face, every look, every turn I take
I will see my creator at every step.
~ rama arya


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