Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Rag-dung

Although Confucianism remained the basis for the structure of government in China, it was Buddhism, introduced in the first century B.C., that flourished from the Han to the Tang dynasties (206 B.C.–907 A.D.) and continued to exert its influence thereafter. Among the instruments associated with Tibetan Buddhism are ragdung, long trumpets played in pairs for morning and evenings calls to prayer, preludes, and processions. The Tibetan word dung means “shell,” and when used alone or followed by dkar it refers to a conch-shell trumpet. When combined with other qualifying words, it denotes different types of trumpets, as with rkang-dung (“femur trumpet”), rag-dung (“brass trumpet”), and dung-chen (“large trumpet”).

By the Ming dynasty, the rag-dung may have been used in court rituals, as the elegantly decorated examples illustrated here attest. It was rare for musical instruments to be enameled; cloisonné was more often reserved for containers like boxes or vases. These Tibetan-style long trumpets, one depicting an imperial five-fingered dragon chasing a “jewel” and the other lotus blossoms and scrolls (1988.349; 1989.33), were among the many instruments made in China and sent as gifts to impress officials of bordering nations like Tibet. Such gifts were not uncommon in East Asia, and on occasion even the musicians who played them were sent as part of the gift. This political custom promoted the dissemination of musical and often political ideas. Like many Asian trumpets, the conical tubes comprising the instrument are collapsed within each other for easy transport.