Tang San Cai, or Tang Tri-color (tri-color pottery of the Tang Dynasty), was created specifically as a burial object. Its existence relates closely to the political system and burial rituals of the Tang Dynasty, according to the latest issue of China Today.
The Tragedy of Sumptuous Burials
In late 1999, a 2,000-year-old tomb from the Western Han Dynasty (BC206-25AD) was discovered on Mount Lao in Beijing's western suburbs, when it also transpired that this tomb had been robbed shortly after interment of its owner. In January 2000, the State Cultural Relics Bureau approved the excavation of this tomb in the interests of its conservation, and, for a time, this discovery was a hot topic in Beijing. People could not help wondering what possible treasure may have been buried within the tomb, but were at the same time concerned as to whether or not it had been robbed of all its original contents.
This speculation was well founded, since sumptuous burials and tomb robberies could be said to have gone hand in glove in ancient China, particularly during the Han Dynasty (BC206-220AD). Within the imperial burial system of the Western Han Dynasty, it was stipulated that, the emperor should, one year after his enthronement, begin building his tomb, using a third of the state tax revenue. During the reign of Emperor Wudi (BC156-BC87), the proportion of tax revenue used for this purpose was increased to 50 percent, and the length of time needed to build the emperor's tomb was a full 53 years. According to historical records, rebels in the late Western Han Dynasty broke into Emperor Wudi's tomb and stole numerous burial objects, but in the Jin Dynasty, 300 years later, the tomb still contained piles of rotten silk, pearls and precious stones. In 1968, the tombs of Prince Jing and his wife, of Zhongshan of the Western Han Dynasty, were unearthed at Mancheng, Hebei Province, and yielded more than 10,000 gold, silver, bronze, and jade objects.
As a consequence of this subterranean wealth, tomb robbery was rampant. It is commonly acknowledged by centuries of experts that "nine out of ten Han-Dynasty tombs are empty." Statistics endorse this assumption: Of the 39 Han-Dynasty tombs excavated in modern times, only three have escaped robbery. The tomb on Mount Lao turned out to be empty.
Progress of the Burial System
The ruling classes were appalled that they could not enjoy the prospect of a peaceful, wealthy afterlife underground, due to the risk of being victims of tomb robbery, and of being summarily evicted from their tombs. They consequently began to devise methods of protection against tomb robberies, such as building robber-proof walls, setting deadly traps, sealing the tomb channels, and even killing all the tomb builders. However, some more sober-minded rulers began to assess the vicissitudes of sumptuous burial.
The first emperor to propose simple burials was Liu Xiu of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) who abolished the rule that a new emperor should start building his tomb during the second year of his rule. He also opposed the building of large mausoleums and holding excessively ornate funeral ceremonies.
Of the rulers who advocated simple burial, Emperor Taizong, named Li Shimin (599-649) of the Tang Dynasty was the first to put into practice simple burial. Li Shimin has always been considered a wise and accomplished emperor in Chinese history, having created a period of great prosperity during his rule. When his father died in 635, he was in a quandary as to whether or not to hold a simple burial (although this was his basic intention) for fear of being seen as unfilial. To decide the matter, he invited his ministers to an open discussion wherein they might express their views on the issue. Since the emperor was known to have had a relatively democratic style of rule, and a willingness to listen to different opinions, his ministers and subordinates expressed their true opinion, quite spontaneously without fear of repercussions. One minister catalogued the tragedies that had occurred after sumptuous burials since the Han Dynasty, and argued that "saints who buried their beloved in a simple way cannot be considered unfilial." He went on to state his view that burying one's beloved in an extravagant way actually invited trouble to the deceased. This was exactly what Li Shimin wanted to hear, so he acceded to the minister's suggestion and held a simple burial for his father.
Another person who played a decisive role in Li Shimin's determination to promote simple burial was his wife, Empress Zhangsun, who had great political influence over him. When she died in 636, she stated in her will that since she had contributed nothing in her lifetime to the people's benefit, she could not, therefore, expect them to expend their hard earned cash upon her death ceremony. She requested a hill as her grave, and burial objects made only of pottery and wood. Li Shimin followed her will, and ordered a tomb be hollowed out of a hill. It is recorded that her tomb took approximately 100 people and just over one month to complete.
Despite Li Shimin's efforts to promote simple burial, the age-old tradition of sumptuous funerals lingered on. In 714, Emperor Xuanzong promulgated a more severe decree: "No gold and silver may be used for burial objects. Any offenders will be punished by 100 strokes of the cane. Heads of prefectures and counties who fail to discover and prevent violations will be demoted." This decree prepared the way for the prosperity of the Tang tri-color. Neither nobles nor imperial family members dared to use metal for their burial objects, opting instead for the fine workmanship and exquisiteness of tri-color pottery.
The early Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a manifestation of political harmony and economic strength. Manufacturing techniques improved, as did those of pottery. The emergence of tri-color pottery brought China's age-old traditional ceramic industry to a new high. Although its production lasted only 100 years at its peak, tri-color pottery nevertheless had a great influence on succeeding dynasties, and was replicated both at home and abroad, resulting in Song-Dynasty tri-color, Liao-Dynasty tri-color, and Japan's Nara tri-color, to name only three.
Tang tri-color is the generic name for color-glazed pottery of the Tang Dynasty. Its colors include yellow, green, brown, blue, black and white, but the first three shades of yellow, green and brown are its major tones. The body was made from white clay, and after the clay mold had been fired into a fixed shape, a mineral frit containing such elements as copper, iron, cobalt and manganese was applied. The body would then be fired again at a temperature of around 900 degrees centigrade. Since the frit was high in lead compounds, its fusing degree was low, and it would therefore diffuse while being heated, allowing different colors to permeate. Though tri-color pottery took more time and went through a complex process in its making, it was not as solid and durable as porcelain, and had a high lead content. It was, therefore, used mainly for burial utensils, and rarely for items of daily use.
Since ancient Chinese attached equal importance to their earthly and after life, different types of tri-color were made to represent each aspect of earthly life, and included articles of daily use, human and animal figures, furniture, vehicles, miniature landscapes and buildings. The human and animal figures are notable for their excellence of workmanship, which is far superior to many contemporary plastic art works.
Most of the tri-color human figures are female. They range in size from a dozen centimeters to over one meter tall, and wear gorgeous, fashionable costumes whilst emanating grace and refinement. Their full figure and round face are in conformity with the criteria of beauty in the Tang Dynasty. Human figures also include depictions of Hu people (a general term for people of non-Han origin), which make them a unique feature of the Tang Dynasty.
Apart from its economic and technological strength, the prosperity of the Tang Dynasty was also reflected in its broad contact and exchanges with the outside world. Under the ideological guidance of Emperor Taizong that it was "one family within the four seas," the domain of the Tang Dynasty was genuinely a "country under heaven," and the capital city of Chang'an, a true cosmopolis. According to historical records, during the reign of Emperor Taizong, over 100 officials above the fifth rank in Chang'an were non-Han people, accounting for nearly half of the total officialdom in the capital.
Many Hu merchant caravans traveled along the Silk Road to and from Chang'an. They included Africans, who, during the Tang dynasty, were known as the Kunlun people. Tang-Dynasty literature contains detailed descriptions of the Hu and Kunlun people, further testified by vivid tri-color pottery figures from the period. A group of male pottery figures unearthed in the 1950s around Shaanxi's Xi'an (known as Chang'an in the Tang Dynasty) and Xianyang clearly portray the physical features of African people. They are the earliest statues of Africans so far found in China. Much larger quantities and varieties have been discovered of Tri-color figurines of Hu people. They are depicted as standing, sitting, leading camels, riding on horseback, playing plucked musical instruments or dancing. They have deep-set eyes, high-bridged nose and full beards and are clad either in Tang attire or that of an outside culture.
Of the animal figures, horses and camels account for the greatest number. The Tang Empire was won on horseback, so the Tang people had a special affection for horses. No artisans of any other dynasty were so skillful in their vivid representations of horses. Such works are consequently admired and avidly collected by people all over the world. In 1989, for instance, a Tang Tri-color horse (known as number 56) sold for 3.4 million pounds at a Sotheby's auction in London. A simple standing figure could be imbued with a distinctive and irresistible charm by Tang tri-color artisans.
The camel was also an important means of transportation on the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty, over 1,300 years ago. Many camel figurines of the Tang are described in a walking position, or with their heads held high, as if whinnying.
Although neither the whereabouts of Tang tri-color kilns, nor their makers are known today, the name of Tang San Cai itself represents a great historical period and a unique ancient art form.