Raiders of the Lost Art – The Tang dynasty, founded by the Li family, was one of the most powerful dynasties in China. The last Sui dynasty emperor had been assassinated, and the Li family arose from the chaos of the civil war that followed the assassination. They succeeded the Sui dynasty between 690 and 705 and lasted for about 300 years. This dynasty unified China after 300 years of division and Fragmentation.
Taizong, the dynasty’s second emperor, made exemplary changes to the government during his rule. He reformed the social structure, military, education, and religious practices. He inaugurated a period of progress and stability during his rule. Historians refer to this period of the Tang dynasty as the golden period of the cosmopolitan culture during which art, literature, tradition, and trade flourished in the country.
Xian, the capital city of Tang, was the centre of the empire. The Tangs had a challenging dominance over central Asia due to their import and export business. They spread their influence to Vietnam and Korea in the east and Afghanistan in the west. Even today, the modern metropolis of Xian is built on the same site, and a few remnants of the Tang capital remain, offering a glimpse into the lost grandeur of the Tang dynasty. The Great Wild Goose Pagoda is one of them.
Welcoming ambassadors and traders from foreign countries became a way for the Tang dynasty to reflect on its cultural economy. They established sea routes to Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and further beyond, but trade was mostly happening through a legendary land route – The Silk road.
The Silk road | Raiders of the Lost Art
The Silk Road stretched from the Tang capital of Xian through Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Karakum desert towards Europe. It was an extensive trade route with nodes of trading centres, marking its significance for about 1000 years in medieval history. The Sogdians and the Tang Chinese invested hugely in the infrastructure of this lucrative trade route; hence, they predominantly used it.
The silk road was named after its use by merchants to trade Chinese luxuries such as silk across several miles. The fall of the Han dynasty and the crash of the Roman Empire II caused the end of this trading journey, and The Silk Road was closed in the 3rd century. The unification of China caused a reopening of this old trade route. This time it was not just the trade of silk but also other goods, including glass, gold, silver, and spices. Ideas were traded, too, with one of them being Buddhism. Buddhist Pagodas were beginning to be built in China.
With so much cultural and social progression in the system, the Tangs built several architectural structures to demonstrate their power and stature. Tombs were among them.
Tombs of the Tang dynasty
In 1960, a team of Chinese archaeologists made a remarkable discovery that corroborated Chinese history texts. They opened one of the tombs of the Qianling mausoleum that belonged to a young princess who lived 1200 years ago. It was one of the most important Tang dynasty tombs discovered. It brought about an understanding of the dynasty’s life and afterlife concept. The dead members of the Li family were believed to find life again in the ‘Chambers of Death’ of the tombs.
The inside of the tomb was a treasure trove of murals. The murals depicted stories of people who lived during the Tang dynasty. Spaces were articulated and designed to create an appropriate afterlife for the dead princess.
Qianling Mausoleum | Raiders of the Lost Art
Near the city of Xian in North Western China was an ancient Mausoleum, the burial grounds of the mighty Tang Dynasty. Built-in 684, the mausoleum complex housed the tombs of the members of the imperial Li family – emperor Taizong, emperor Gaozong, and his wife, Wu Zetian.
Emperor Gaozong built the museum during his reign, and it neared completion in 684, a year after his death. After the demise of Gaozong, empress Wu Zetian took over the empire in 690, seizing ultimate power. Wu Zetian was a great sponsor of art and religion. She was a charming power-hungry empress who deposed her sons and killed her infant daughter for rivalry. As she grew older, she ruled with the support of her two lovers, who gained the enmity of Wu Zetian’s grand grandchildren – Prince Yidder and princess Yong Tai, whom the empress sentenced to death for derogatory obligations. After the death of Wu Zetian, magnificent new tombs were built for princess Yong Tai and her brother in the Qianling mausoleum.
The mausoleum housed 19 tombs, and only those of princess Yong Tai and four others were opened. The tombs of Yong Tai and her brother were large with similar structures and were approached by a sloping passage with a ground-level opening. These tombs had two large chambers linked by a short corridor underneath a truncated mound above the ground. They were divided into three sections. The tomb walls were painted with everything the dead needed to live with – soldiers, musicians, or bodyguards. The paintings were murals of colour and detail, giving an insight into life during the dynasty’s golden age. They were a representation of the historic cultural activity during the Tang time. The scenes of the murals showed culture, tradition, and societal growth through the trade of goods from foreign lands.
The murals in the first section of the tomb were paintings of an official guardian who was meant to guard the tomb, while the second section painted stories of Yong Tai’s personal life. The last section was where the coffin was placed. The young princess and her brother were buried with luxuries like gold, silver, and jade looted during the dynasty’s fall. Frescoes and ceramic figures remained unstolen in the chambers.
Terracotta Army | Raiders of the Lost Art
Another ancient wonder of China that was accidentally discovered in 1974 was the Terracotta Army. This was another burial ground where several hundred warriors, acrobats, and musicians were buried along with China’s first emperor to accompany him in his afterlife. Since its discovery, the Terracotta Army has been a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The power of the Tang dynasty withered in the 7th century, and so did their control over the Western regions. The Tibetan empire took over, and there was no recovery from the downfall. The silk road and its networks were closed, but the Tang dynasty’s legacies – calligraphy, culture, literature, and art prevailed.
97 fascinating mural paintings and ceramic figures from the tombs have been moved to the history museum in Xian. Though the murals have faded, they have preserved the spark of life that prevailed in the Tang dynasty for ages.
Free documentary- History. (2022). Tomb Raiders, Raiders of the Lost Art [Youtube video]. Available at: https://youtu.be/AxsgEvRRJ_4[Accessed 7 Jan,2023]
Wikipedia. (2022)Tang dynasty[online](Last updated 24 December, 2022) Available at: Emperor_Gaozong_of_Tang[Accessed 7 Jan,2023]
Yug. (2016). Tang dynasty. [Photograph]
Shong. Emperor Taizong. [Photograph]
Getty Images. Great Wild Goose pagoda. [Photograph]
Ghoghnos. Silk road. [Photograph]
Bairuilong. (2014). Qianling Mausoleum. [Photograph]
Wikimedia commons. Murals of Princess Yong Tai’s tomb. [Photograph]
Lucas Peterson. The Terracotta Army. [Photograph]