The Tang Dynasty (618-907) is undoubtedly one of the most artistically exciting periods in the long history of China. The arts of the Tang are characterized by their diversity, the cosmopolitan nature of their design, and by the high level of technical skill employed in their manufacture. In the first half of the Dynasty, up to the time of the An Lushan rebellion (AD 756), the level of luxury enjoyed by the court and the Tang elite ensured the production of a wide range of goods of the highest quality.
Funerary objects provide us an enormous amount of information about daily life in the Tang capital Xi’an. It was during this Dynasty that China was once again actively engaged in foreign trade, with the West along the Silk Route and with other Asian regions via both land and sea routes. Thus the influences of other cultures are seen on the arts of the Tang Dynasty, while in turn, China’s own products travelled abroad exerting influences on the arts of those countries which received them.
The Tang Dynasty is particularly admired for ceramics, metalwork and stone sculpture. In ceramics both high-fired and low-fired wares reached new heights, while, perhaps for the first time in centuries, ceramics were accorded states in their own right as opposed to being seen as substitutes for other materials. They were not only celebrated in Tang poetry, they were singled out for attention in Lu Yu’s famous Cha Jing (Tea Classic).
The working of precious metal also reached a high level of technical and artistic skill in the Tang Dynasty, and shows influence of metalwork from the Near East. Repoussé, chasing, engraving and inlays became increasingly sophisticated and delicate, with gold inlays applied to silver being especially fine. Gilt bronze working largely carried forward the technology of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) to produce both vessels and delightful figures.
Buddhism flourished, particularly during the first two centuries of the Tang Dynasty, which saw considerable changes in the styles of Buddhist sculpture, from the rather columnar Sui Dynasty (581-618) style to a more naturalistic approach. Cave temples such as those at Longmen in Henan and Tianlongshan in Shaanxi province provide evidence of these developments. The figures of the Tang Dynasty become softer, more naturalistic, even voluptuous, in their appearance. The stance of the images is more fluid, and the details of dress and jewellery are more carefully rendered, while the faces portray a dignified serenity.