Boldly syncretic, the arts of China’s Tang dynasty (618–907) exhibit myriad international influences that were absorbed through diplomacy, conquest, trade, and pilgrimage. At the center of it all was Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the most populous city in the world at the time, the seat of power for the Tang imperial court, and a pulsing hub of art, fashion, and culture.
A popular theme for Tang court painters was that of foreign ambassadors submitting tribute to the emperor. Diplomatic missions and the concomitant opulent offerings were an important medium of international exchange. In the dynasty’s first decades, the Tang expanded control north and east to Goguryeo and Baekje (in Manchuria and the Korean peninsula), north to the steppes of Mongolia, west to the deserts and oases of Central Asia (in what is now Xinjiang), and south to parts of the present-day provinces of Guangxi, Yunnan, and northern Vietnam.
These and other kingdoms sent staples and exotica: lions from Persia and rhinoceroses from Champa (a kingdom in south and central Vietnam), hawks from the Korean peninsula, ostriches sent by western Turks, sandalwood from the Indonesian archipelago, cardamom from the coast of the Malay peninsula, indigo from Samarqand, and wool from Tibet. Even entertainers—musicians, dancers, and performers—were presented as gifts. Of the many varieties of tribute, horses from the west were perhaps the most valuable. They were considered vital assets in the Tang emperor’s ability to both wage triumphant conquests abroad and maintain tranquility at home.
Successful military campaigns ensured far-reaching and stable trade routes, such as the network now known as the Silk Road, which provided a thoroughfare for goods and ideas between China, Central Asia, India, and Persia. A web of maritime routes connected Chinese seaports like Guangzhou in the south to India, the Persian Gulf, and from there to the east coast of Africa. The direct exchange of goods, such as textiles, metalware, and ceramics, inspired Tang craftsmen to experiment with novel techniques, shapes, and designs. As is evident in tomb paintings and figurines, international trade whetted a taste for striking and sumptuous fashions among the Tang elite. Leopard-skin hats and close-fitting sleeves, imitating the clothing of Central Asians and Persians to the west, were popular in the mid-eighth century. High boots, practical for riding, were worn by both men and women, as were short tunics. Polo and archery contests, musical instruments and styles, and the scandalous Sogdian whirling dance were imported from kingdoms of Central Asia and fervently embraced in Chinese avant-garde circles.
Trade routes were also traversed by Buddhist pilgrims. The most famous was the Chinese monk Xuanzang (ca. 602–664), who, in defiance of the emperor Taizong’s prohibition against travel beyond China, departed Chang’an in 629 and walked to India. He returned triumphantly more than sixteen years later, accompanied by a caravan laden with sutras, statues, and relics, which he bestowed to the emperor. He chronicled his journey, describing the climates, peoples, and customs he encountered, in his book Records of the Western Regions.
Tang culture also emanated outward. Tribute was met with equal or, in some cases, more valuable donations of silk. As the dynasty wore on, the Turks supplying horses were able to demand exorbitant “prices” for their offerings. Attempts to solidify uneasy diplomatic alliances were made with marriage to a Tang princess, who would arrive with her own extensive retinue, dowry, and customs. Tang China was also the destination for pilgrims like Ennin, who came from Japan in 838. The transmission of Chinese manifestations of Buddhism to Korea and Japan, such as the Chan sect and temple architecture modeled on Chinese palaces and incorporating pagodas, intensified during the Tang. Aspects of the Chinese writing system, as well as political structure and Confucian values, were adopted in Japan as well as kingdoms in Korea and Vietnam.
Eventually, the fruits of the Tang’s effervescent outlook and international ambitions created fissures in the central government’s foundation. Hostilities with Tibet began to divert resources, while quelling rebellions at home necessitated pulling back garrisons from the northwest. A pragmatic alliance with the Uighurs to the west would prove to have expensive and even bloody consequences. To the Tang, the charms of alien cultures began to wane and more native tastes were renewed. From 842 to 846, the Tang government rejected its previously tolerant stance toward foreign religions and waged a brutal campaign against Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism. Perceiving the imperial government’s increasing feebleness, kingdoms to the south and west raided China’s borders, while bandits and rebellions instigated further unrest within, until the Tang ultimately disintegrated almost 300 years after its founding.