In 1904, the construction of the Bianluo Railway began. As a part of the later Longhai Railway, this transportation line passed through Mangshan to the north of Luoyang city, an ideal place for emperors, officials and civilians to choose their burial grounds since at least the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.
The construction of modern railways undoubtedly broke the peace of another world, but it also allowed underground treasures to see daylight again. Among many damaged Tang tombs, a type of color-glazed ceramic funerary object that had never been seen before by people drew attention from antiquarians; this is "Tang Sancai".
Since then, people have been indulging in the gorgeous and lustrous colors of Tang Sancai as if all the grandeur and majesty of Tang Dynasty were condensed into such an object. It was an era completely different from that during Qing Dynasty; gazing upon and playing with Tang Sancai might help one temporarily withdraw from chaotic times and dream peacefully in a book room filled with sandalwood aroma.
The Legacy of the Tang Dynasty
In fact, although they are called Tang Sancai, there is no record of such object names in historical documents. The name "Tang Sancai (唐三彩, Tang Tri-color Glazed Ceramics)" may have originated from the mouths of antique dealers and collectors.
In 1942, Zhao Ruzhen, a collector of antiques during the Republic of China era, wrote in his book "Antique Guide" that this kind of colored glazed ceramics was described as follows: "The best ones are drawn with three colors - lead yellow, green and blue on a white ground body without color glaze." Regardless of their colors, these Tang Sancai pieces with vivid shapes and ever-changing colors themselves have great aesthetic connotations.
Even today, those Tang Sancai pieces displayed in museum cabinets have an incomparable "grandeur and majesty" of the Tang Dynasty. Even through a layer of glass, they can make people linger on them. For antiquarians, the appearance of Tang Sancai was undoubtedly a surprise.
From an archaeological research perspective, these Tang Sancai objects also contain huge amounts of historical information. The basic types of terracotta figurines were realistic which enables us to observe that already far-gone prosperous time period when we look at them.
Scholars study every detail about clothing accessories or gestures and expressions depicted by each terracotta figurine. Studying these details provides scholars with insight into fashion trends at that time period as well as deep influences on Chinese culture by Western regions.
Looking further back in history, the production and consumption patterns surrounding ceramic ware during the Tang Dynasty or even the burial system used at that time provide valuable insights for researchers. All reasons combined together make “Tang San Cai” famous all over the world but this fame brought some troubles to the place where it was excavated from.
Luoyang Beimang's tombs were frequently looted in the first half of the 20th century. Tang Sancai objects found during these lootings either fell into the hands of private collectors or were purchased by overseas institutions, but some also remained preserved in official museums. It was not until after the founding of New China that scientific excavations and studies on Tang Sancai began to be organized and planned systematically.
Various colors of Tang Sancai
The glaze colors of Tang Sancai are far more diverse than just three colors, despite the name. As a type of low-temperature lead-glazed pottery popular during the Tang Dynasty, its glaze colors mainly consist of yellow, green and white. In addition to these, Tang Sancai's color palette also includes various hues such as ochre, brown and blue, among others. Some ceramics with less than three hues are also referred to as "Tang Sancai".
Unlike ancient opaque earthenware or porcelain which is known for its cleanliness and delicacy, Tang Sancai lies somewhere in between due to possessing some characteristics of both ceramic types. From a ceramic perspective, it uses fine kaolin clay as its body material and applies various colored glazes on top. Craftsmen were adept at manipulating different metal oxides to create colors: iron oxide results in yellow while cobalt ions produce blue; copper oxide is used in green glazes.
Thus by adjusting the proportions of different chemical components, ancient were able to formulate shades such as light yellow, ochre yellow, emerald green, dark green, sky blue, and purple amongst others.
Additionally, Tang Sancai's high lead content acts as a flux that allows differently-colored glazes to flow together during firing resulting in vividly colorful artistic effects. So why isn't it considered porcelain? Generally speaking, the firing temperature for porcelain is above 1200℃ whereas the firing temperature for Tang Sancai is lower than that.
In making this type of pottery two firings are needed, the first being biscuit-firing while the second involves applying colored glaze onto the surface before undergoing another round of kiln-firing at 900℃, which produces finished tri-color glazed ceramics. Because its firing temperature is lower compared with typical porcelain products, it can be classified as a type of pottery instead.
The Huangye kiln in Gongyi, Henan Province is the main site for producing Tang Sancai. Its products not only meet the needs of Luoyang and are also supplied to Xi'an, and can also be shipped by waterway to other provinces such as Jiangsu and Hubei.
In addition to this location, other Tang Sancai kilns have been discovered in Huangbao Kiln in Tongchuan Shaanxi Province, Liquanfang Kiln in Xi'an, Xiguan Kiln in Neiqiu county, Hebei Province and Jiezhuang Kiln in Hunyuan county, Shanxi Province.
Crafts of Tang Sancai
Regarding Tang Tri-colored glazed ceramics alone, it can be said that it began in Tang and ended in Tang. But in fact, the foundation of its appearance can be traced back to several hundred years ago.
This type of lead-glazed earthenware has been around since the Han Dynasty and was prevalent during the Northern Qi period. The popular yellow glaze or other low-temperature lead-glazed ware started from the Sui dynasty up until the early Tang (from Emperor Gaozu to Emperor Zhongzong, 618-683 AD) and developed into the production of terracotta figurines.
One characteristic of early Tang figurines was the use of yellow glaze or painted yellow glaze on white porcelain clay body followed by decoration with colors such as vermilion, blue, green, black etc.
These figures were unearthed mainly in areas centered around Luoyang and Xi'an and appeared mostly during Taizong's reign (626–649) till Gaozong's reign (649–683), which could be viewed as initial stage products for making Tang Tri-colored glazed ceramic.
In 647 AD, Cui Dayi who served as county magistrate at Changyang County was buried together with his wife Lady Li where quite a number of thin-yellow glazed pottery figures with painted decorations were unearthed. In Shaanxi province, this kind of artifacts are concentratedly found in the Zhaoling mausoleum complex belonging to higher-level burials.
According to current archaeological data, Zhang Wenju's tomb from Emperor Gaozong’s era (670 AD) is considered the earliest burial site containing tri-color glazed ceramics objects accompanied by deceased personages, breaking the commonly held belief that Tang Sancai only appeared during the heyday of Tang Dynasty.
However, it wasn't until Wu Zetian's reign when larger-sized Tang Sancai started to appear. By then, consumption of Tang Sancai had already extended to a wide range of people, including royalty, officials at various levels, and even wealthy commoners. Influenced by the trend of lavish burials, production of Tang Sancai flourished and developed into exquisite works of art.
Types of Tang Sancai
The categories of Tang Sancai include figurines of people and animals, tomb guardians, model wares, daily use vessels, and architectural components. Generally speaking, the vast majority of Tang Tri-colored pottery discovered through archaeological excavations were unearthed from tombs as Mingqi (burial objects), but a small number have also been found in urban ruins or kiln sites. This means that Tang Tri-colored glazed pottery may have been used for burial purposes or considered as common household items, it all depends on the specific circumstances.
Larger-sized figurines such as those depicting people, animals, and tomb guardians were made specifically for burial purposes. On the other hand, various types of Tang Sancai vessels such as bowls, pots jars, and cups could be used both for burials or in everyday life. For instance at remains of Bai Juyi's residence where Tang Sancai basins, dishes, jars, pots, etc can be seen.
It is worth noting that some vessels might have been used before they became funerary objects. This implies that one object might serve different functions with different meanings during different usage stages.
Tang Sancai figurines of people generally reflect political scenes and daily life, including civil officials, military officials, warriors, male and female attendants and Hu figurines.
In terms of manufacturing techniques, often feature a "Kai Xiang" design where the head is left unglazed. After firing, the facial features are painted on with pigments for a more vivid appearance.
The civil/military official figurines unearthed from Anpu Tomb in Luoyang represent the peak development of this type of figure. The 112 cm tall civil official wears a black Jin Xian crown on his head and a green high-collared wide-sleeved coat over a long Liangdang with white sashes hanging between his legs. He also has cloud-shaped shoes with upturned tips.
This 113 cm tall military official wears a bird-shaped Ruyi crown on his head and holds a Hu board in one hand. His clothing style is basically the same as that of the civilian officials but with different decorations.
"Hu" was an ancient term used by Han Chinese to refer to minority ethnic groups in northwest China such as those from Central Asia or West Asia.
Hu figurines were not common among Tang Sancai figures, they have low absolute numbers and excavation ratios. The royal tombs are where most Hu figures have been found. In addition, there have also been many discoveries made along the Hexi Corridor which were part of Silk Road.
The "Hu" in the Tang figurines probably refers to the Sogdians from Sogdia. They were businessmen who came eastward during the 3rd and 8th centuries AD for trade. Some of them settled down in the Western Regions (today’s Xinjiang) and Central Plains, continuing their businesses or taking up agriculture. Some even became officials at central or local governments.
Tomb Guardians Figurines
Tang Sancai tomb guardian figurines are a very special type of figurine that serves to guard against evil spirits in tombs. They include human-shaped warrior Tianwang (heavenly kings) figurines and strange tomb guardian beasts. Tomb guardian figures in Tang tombs generally appear in groups, as well as other mythical creature figurines.
Warrior Tianwang Figurines
The origins of the Tianwang figurine can be traced back to Buddhist protectors but the ones buried with the dead were mainly for guarding against any disturbances inside the tomb rather than being there as Buddhist protectors. Many Tianwang figures have an exaggerated image of warriors, which can be seen as an important symbol of Chinese secularization and localization in Buddhist art.
This pair of warrior Tianwang figurines unearthed from Hansenzhai in Xi'an are dressed like warriors, muscular build, wearing helmets and armor. The craftsmen used exaggeration techniques to highlight the deterrent power that these Heavenly Kings had over evil spirits.
Tomb Guardian Beasts
The tradition of placing Tomb Guardians can be traced back to the Spring-autumn period or the Warring States period where they were made out of wood or bronze at first then developed into ceramics or stone during Middle Ages before finally evolving into high-quality soil during Sui-Tang dynasties.
The appearance varied throughout different periods until it was fixed into shape by the late Northern Dynasties when it became popularized during Tang Dynasty.
Animal figurines were an important theme in Tang Sancai ceramics, with horses and camels being the most common.
Horses were particularly significant due to their crucial role in warfare during the Tang Dynasty. Emperor Taizong Li Shimin was not only adept at riding and archery, but also had a great understanding and love for horses, which influenced society throughout the Tang era.
The horse figurines can be classified into three types: grazing horses, saddled horses, and rider-carrying horses.
Grazing horses did not have saddles or reins; used only by backup riders without equipment such as those found in Princess Yongtai's tomb. The horse on the left has gray muscles and brown hair, and hisses with his neck drawn in a whistling shape. The horse on the right has a brown body, head, and neck hanging low, as if in thought.
One popular way of decorating these figurines was by trimming their manes into tufts called "Hua Ma, flower horse". These manes varied in number and were referred to as one-flowered, two-flowered, or three-flowered manes depending on how many there are. The Tang dynasty horse figurines from tombs typically feature all three variations with three flowered manes being dominant.
Another type of horse figurine is that which depicts a person riding a horse like this 35.5 cm high Tang Sancai lady figurine held at Taipei’s Palace Museum collection. The woman sits astride her yellow horse, while she turns sideways slightly leaning forward holding reins with left hand while using right hand to strike ball on stick.
Camel figures are another common type found among Tang Sancai ceramics creations since camels played an essential role along the Silk Road carrying goods between China to Central Asia then westward towards Arabia.
In conclusion, Tang Sancai pottery animal figures provide insights into life during this period and demonstrate people's fascination with animals both aesthetically and functionally whether it be for transportation, trade or entertainment.
Tang Sancai at the Heritage Site
Although most of the discovered Tang Sancai so far have appeared in tombs, it does not mean that Tang Sancai can only be used for burial, they also served the living.
Over the past fifty years, archaeological explorations and excavations in Chang'an, Luoyang, and Yangzhou have found a considerable amount of Tang Sancai. Among them, Bai Juyi's site is particularly worth seeing.
In 1992-1993, an archaeological team excavated Bai Juyi's former residence at Lüdao Fang in Luoyang and unearthed Tang Sancai vessels such as plates, pots, jars and small figurines of tri-color people and animals. Compared with the Tang Sancai figurines seen in tombs, those from Bai Juyi’s former residence were smaller but more exquisite and lovely.
Buddhist temple sites are also places where a relatively large number of Tang Sancai items have been discovered. Six pieces of three-color ware were unearthed from Shaanxi Province’s Lingtong Qingshan Temple Pagoda underground palace site including 3 three-color dishes, 1 three-color pumpkin, and 2 guardianship lion statues.
Three dishes were placed before the Sarira Treasure account with one pumpkin being placed on one dish indicating their sacrificial nature. Two lion statues stood guard on both sides resembling protectors guarding Buddha’s sarira.
After Anshi Rebellion (755–763 AD), the number of Tang Sancai items suddenly reduced in tombs, and figurines basically disappeared. Only a few daily life items such as jars, pots, and pitchers were found in some tombs. Tang Sancai, especially the figurines, declined during this period and became a fleeting artistic treasure in Chinese history. After that,"Liao Sancai" and "Song Sancai" inherited the legacy of Tang Sancai with different styles displaying aesthetic tastes of different times.