This week’s post is by Shawn Yuan, our associate curator and exhibitions director. Yuan is a specialist in Chinese art, so I invited him to write a post about a particularly intriguing recent gift—of a Tang-dynasty ceramic horse and rider—from Drs. Alexander and Svetlana Salerno, of New Jersey.
In 2011 our permanent collection was significantly increased by new acquisitions. One of the highlights of the gifts we received in 2011 is a Chinese Tang dynasty (618-907) unglazed pottery figure from the Salerno Collection. Though humble in appearance at only 11 inches in height and with some loss of its original pigment, this piece has contributed significantly to the expansion of our collection’s coverage of Asian art.
Like typical low-fired Tang dynasty pottery, this piece was originally decorated with mineral pigments, now barely visible on the horse. It depicts a woman, dressed in man’s clothing, who sits atop a horse with her two hands in front of her chest, probably holding a now-lost rein. This lady’s hairdo, which could be highly elaborated in Tang style, is hidden beneath a squarish hat with sides that extend downward and cover her ears. This type of hat is quite similar to those worn by male officials who served in the imperial Tang court.
The horse is sculpted in a dignified pose with four feet standing firmly on the ground. This handsome stallion, though almost unadorned and unharnessed, has amazing physical characteristics: tall size, long limbs, strong neck, Roman-nosed head, and round rump—all highly prized by the nobles who were the only people allowed by law to own and ride horses during the Tang dynasty. The horse is molded with an innate alertness: slightly turned head, wide-open eyes and pricked ears. This horse is very likely a Central Asia steed, for which Tang China eagerly traded silk, tea, and pottery via the Silk Road.
This piece was made as a burial object and represents the long and colorful tradition of Chinese burial culture. Chinese believed that souls would remain imperishable after death. The ruling families and the social elite spared no effort to fill their tombs with artifacts and treasures such as jade and metalwork. These objects were believed to ensure that, in another world, the souls of the deceased could continue enjoying the lifestyle, power, and wealth from their previous lives.
During the Tang dynasty, China enjoyed almost three centuries of cultural and economic prosperity, considered the “golden age” of imperial China. The capital of Tang China, then one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and had a population of approximately one million. It attracted international travelers coming from as far away as Arabia and Japan.
This piece illustrates the great social freedom that aristocratic women had during the Tang dynasty, and which is unseen in any period before or after. Women could not only have the liberty to dress in men’s clothing and ride horses, but even participated in outdoor sports such as polo playing. The colorful and seemingly carefree lifestyle of Tang aristocratic women has become a very popular subject in many well-known paintings since the Tang dynasty.
We are excited to acquire this Tang horse-riding lady. No doubt, it will help our students to learn about China’s visual culture and history in the future. This piece is a beginning of our endeavors to acquire more Asian works of art for the University’s permanent collection.