Culture and Spirit during the Apex of the Tang Dynasty (Part 1)
The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) is considered a glorious period in Chinese history, a time when China was the largest and strongest nation in the world. The apex of the Tang Dynasty refers to the time between the "Reign of Zhenguan" (i.e., the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang) and the "Era of Kaiyuan" (i.e. the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.) During this period, China enjoyed a moral political system and flourished in all aspects including the economy, society, as well as literature and the arts.
Why was this so? It was because Emperor Taizong and his successors had caring and benevolent hearts for the people. They appointed virtuous and capable people to important positions, and were able to accept suggestions and even criticism from their appointees. Although supreme as an emperor, Taizong was humble, respectful, and tolerant. He even appointed those who had opposed him in the past to important positions. Emperor Taizong had always been diligent and had lofty goals. Thus, he was not only the pioneer of the golden age of the Tang Dynasty, but also a role model for future emperors.
The unique character of Tang culture can be summarized as "having an open and broad mind, combining the very best of all." It is precisely this spirit that forged this culturally diverse and splendid period in Chinese history.
I. Literature and the Arts
"The Complete Tang Poems," compiled during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1654 – 1722 AD) of the Qing Dynasty, is a collection of more than 48,000 poems written by over 2,200 poets. The number of accomplished poets and the diversity of their poetry was a shining star in the history of Chinese literature. The poems written during the Tang Dynasty were not only great in number, but were also high in artistic value.
The opening piece of "The Complete Tang Poems" was Emperor Taizong's ten poems of "The Imperial Capital." "My heart rose with the sun in clear sky; my aspiration as pure as the autumn chrysanthemum." (From "Re-visiting the Battlefield where I Defeated Xue Ju") Xue Ju was a warlord at the end of the Sui Dynasty. These pieces had an imposing spirit, which allowed the readers to experience the author's lofty realm and high ambitions.
The ensuing poems by the officials in Emperor Taizong's royal court also manifested open and broad vision. For example, high-ranking official Yang Shidao wrote in his poem "Waiting to See His Majesty in Early Autumn:" "In the clean air and clear sky, I felt my mind was broadened while reciting a poem." The upright, pure, and simple character of poems during the Reign of Zhenguan had quite an impact on future generations.
The golden time of the Tang Dynasty produced countless renowned poets: "God of Poetry" Li Bai, "Saint of Poetry" Du Fu, Meng Haoran and Wang Wei who were both famous for poems describing natural scenery, Gao Shi and Cen Shen whose poems were mostly about life in border areas, "the Poetry of Confucius" Wang Changling, and so on. In the later years, Bai Juyi was typical of many poets in the mid-to-late Tang Dynasty. Their poems are profound, imposing, and far-reaching; they transcend the mundane and embody the spirit of the Tang Dynasty. "(My heart is so) inspired by lofty aspirations, as if we were about to fly to the blue sky to pluck the moon." This poem, written by Li Bai, is just one example of their skill with words.
In addition to poetry, Tang style essays, novels, and tales of marvels also reached a very high artistic level. Scholars of the Tang Dynasty wrote about people's lives and exposed the dark side of society, demonstrated acute insight, courage, sense of responsibility, great foresight, and broad vision. Between the lines, we are able to see their high ambition of "saving the multitudes of people, and maintaining the peace and prosperity of society."
II. Calligraphy and Painting
Emperor Taizong paid great attention to calligraphy. He established the Hongwen Palace and appointed renowned calligraphers to teach students. He issued an order that all officials whose rank was over the fifth grade must go to Hongwen Palace to study calligraphy. Emperor Taizong praised the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi, one of the greatest calligraphers, as "perfect in terms of both virtue and art," and advocated Wang's style of calligraphy. Calligraphy was thus on an orthodox path. Under the influence of Emperor Taizong, the later emperors such as Gaozong, Zhongzong and Ruizong also loved and advocated good calligraphy. As a result, calligraphy reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty also produced the largest number of calligraphers among all of the dynasties. For example, Ouyang Xun, Yu Shinan, Yan Zhenqing, and Liu Gongquan just to name a few. Their works still serve as prime examples for calligraphy lovers to emulate.
The painting circle was very active during the Tang Dynasty, and the range of subjects was broadened like never before.
"A True Portrait of Taizong" and "The Twenty-Four Officials of Great Merit" by painter Yan Liben looked true to life and vividly represented the images and expressions of Emperor Taizong and his officials, whose great feats laid the foundation for the prosperity of Tang. Yan was therefore acclaimed "a god-like painter."
Another painter Wu Daozi made over 400 Buddhist and Taoist mural paintings in temples at Chang'an and Luoyang. Each Buddhist and Taoist figure was different from the other; moreover, his paintings fully displayed the mighty dignity of Buddhas and deities, and the splendor of paradises. He was able to finish a painting with one flourish of the brush, and his paintings awed the entire Chang'an city. Later generations respected him as the "Saint of Painting" and described his work as follows: "Waving the brush as a swirl of wind, as if a god is helping him." Painters and sculptors worshipped him as the "Founding Master." He was and remains quite influential.
Mural painting and sculpture also made great progress during the Tang Dynasty. They had outstanding composition and rich colors, sumptuous yet elegant, bright yet calm. They were truly magnificent and graceful. For example, "The Western Pure Land," one of the paintings in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, displayed the magnificent scene of a heavenly paradise with a multitude of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and sentient beings, each with a radiant look and vivid expression; it is truly awe-inspiring and enchanting.