From Kudzu to Shizu, Part 2

chaOf Horses and Heaven

We left the Marquis Yi display and entered an area that was decorated in the style of a room in a royal tomb complex. It was square, symbolizing Earth, while the adjoining room was round, symbolizing Heaven. In the square room were a mixture of artifacts from several different periods. There was the Dragon and Phoenix crown of an Empress (Ming dynasty 1368-1644 A.D.) done with gold figures attached to a headdress made of kingfisher feathers lacquered and appliqued. The effect was a lot like turquoise or lapis, which is what I thought it was made of at first. This way the effect is the same and it’s much lighter, which I assume the Empress would appreciate during those long courts.

There were multiple jade artifacts, including a belt and numerous pendants, exquisitely carved with dragon and phoenix and cloud motifs, but what got my attention was another funeral bronze, a large horse from the Han Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). The Great Wall had been built to keep out the steppe peoples (of which the Mongols were merely one example) but the Chinese had gone for the northerners’ horses in a big way. A special breed was called “heavenly horse” (Tian Ma) and most of the Han bronzes are meant to represent it. This particular example is standing as if tensed to rear up at any moment. There’s a great feeling of motion and power captured in this bronze. One ear is flat, another sits upright almost like a spike. The mouth is open wide, the head is angular and abrupt, partially stylized but it captures the life and movement of the animal as well or better than any more life-like rendering I’ve ever seen. It made a great contrast with the Tang (pronounced “tung”) Dynasty pottery horse nearby that was made almost 1000 years later. This horse is very naturalistic, and sedate. It stands still, head slightly bowed, serene.

Time to talk about the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) artifacts a bit. The Tang Dynasty is considered by many to be China’s Golden Age, and the pottery figures seem to back that up. There’s a refined artistry about most of the Tang figures, starting with the horse I mentioned earlier, through the temple guardian figures: a camel, a winged beast with the head of a man, a supernatural warrior called a “Heavenly King” (Deva) and (oddly enough), a well-dressed Court Official (Note: I guess they figured that, if the Heavenly King with his armor, fierce expression, and Phoenix helmet wasn’t enough to frighten the bad spirits away, call in the bureaucrats). These were done with a three color glaze that was dripped on the figures before they were fired. Sort of made them look like watercolors left in the rain, but a very nice effect.

Next were the Yang ladies. They were called that because of the Lady Yang Guifei, imperial consort to the Tung emperor Xuanzong. He purportedly was infatuated with the lady to such a degree that ruling his Empire took second place, and the Lady Yang herself took over many of his duties behind the scenes. Unfortunately her enemies eventually conspired to have her strangled, leaving the Emperor inconsolable. Lady Yang was apparently a very “Rubenesque” woman, and set the style of feminine beauty for many years. The three Yang style pottery figures had very round faces and wore long flowing robes and curly toed shoes. Their eyes are shown closed, their expressions serene, their posture graceful.

When we think of treasures we think of gold and silver, and there were certainly plenty of examples of both (did I not mention the gold bowl in the Marquis Yi exhibit? Darn thing weighed over four pounds, not counting the spoon) but as you may have guessed in my opinion the bronze and pottery artifacts were much more impressive. Which leads me to another of my favorites: the Tang Dynasty Zodiac animals. These twelve figures are just over a foot tall each and represent each aspect of the Chinese Zodiac (Dragon, Dog, Goat, etc). They are shown with human bodies and animal heads. They wore flowing robes, with arms folded and hands tucked in sleeves. They were a delight. Whoever made them clearly had fun doing it. There was a great sense of respect and humor in the figures’ expressions; the tiger and the snake especially wouldn’t have been out of place in a Warner Brother’s epic.

We’re about to leave the square room of the tomb complex and go to the round (“heavenly”) chamber, but there was one more artifact I wanted to mention first. This was a gilt reliquary mounted on a carved stone base. This was an object used in Buddhist ceremonies, representing a Lamaist Pagoda on a sacred mountain. It had a gilt cover representing the dwelling place of the Buddha, and occupied by small figures of the Buddha and his Veda guardians. At each corner of the base was a porcelain jar for holding medicinal herbs. It was a lovely piece of work in itself, but I had a strange experience when I approached it. I had the sudden image of a man with a shaved head, holding three sticks of incense, bowing three times toward the reliquary. It was as much feeling as an image, gone in an instant, but for that moment I felt as if I was the one making obeisance to the shrine. If it’s true that venerated objects retain some of the spiritual power that they’ve been exposed to, then, without being too woo-woo about it, maybe that was what I felt. Or maybe just my imagination gone berserk again (it happens). Weird.

Ok, we enter the round room and there is the Jade Man. Actually it’s the burial shroud of Prince Liu Sui of Liang, Han Dynasty. The ancient Chinese believed that jade had magical properties, including the preservation of bodies. About a score of these suits have been excavated, so you may have seen pictures of one. It’s essentially a full body covering made of rectangular pieces of jade sewn together with gold, silver, or bronze thread. Prince Liu Sui’s suit uses gold. It’s complete with jade gloves, jade boots, and a jade facemask with jade nose. The body was completely covered. If I remember right, by the end of the Han period the practice had been abandoned as too wasteful (and, face facts, it didn’t work anyway).

Sharing the symbolic tomb with Liu Sui was the burial shroud of the Princess of Chen (Liao Dynasty 907-1125 A.D.). Besides jade, gold and silver were also said to have had the power of preservation, so the princess was buried in a padded shroud covered with silver mesh. It apparently worked as far as the shroud was concerned; it was well preserved. The shroud indicated a fairly small woman, but the gold mask that was placed over the face of the body looked more like a Yang-style lady, nearly round. The eyes of the mask stare out, calmly, the face is expressionless. The Princess herself didn’t do as well, being reduced to a few teeth and part of a skull by the time her tomb was excavated.