The founding of the Sui dynasty reunited China after more than 300 years of fragmentation. The second Sui emperor engaged in unsuccessful wars and vast public works, such as the Grand Canal linking the north and south, that exhausted the people and caused them to revolt. The succeeding Tang dynasty built a more enduring state on the foundations the Sui rulers had laid, and the first 130 years of the Tang was one of the most prosperous and brilliant periods in the history of Chinese civilization. The empire at the time extended so far across Central Asia that for a while Bukhara and Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) were under Chinese control, the Central Asian kingdoms paid China tribute, and Chinese cultural influence reached Korea and Japan. Chang’an became the greatest city in the world; its streets were filled with foreigners, and foreign religions—including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—flourished. This confident cosmopolitanism is reflected in all the arts of this period.
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The splendour of the dynasty reached its peak between 712 and 756 under Xuanzong (Minghuang), but before the end of his reign a disastrous defeat caused Central Asia to enter the control of the advancing Arabs, and the rebellion of General An Lushan in 755 almost brought down the dynasty. Although the Tang survived another 150 years, its great days were over, and, as the empire shrank and the economic crisis deepened, the government and people turned against foreigners and foreign religions. In 845 all foreign religions were briefly but disastrously proscribed; temples and monasteries were destroyed or turned to secular use, and Buddhist bronze images were melted down. Today the finest Buddhist art and architecture in the Tang style is to be found not in China but in the 8th-century temples at Nara in Japan. While the ancient heartland of Chinese civilization in the Henan-Shaanxi area sank in political and economic importance, the southeast became ever more densely populated and prosperous, and in the last century of the Tang it was once again the cultural centre of China, as it had been in the Six Dynasties (220–589).
The patronage of the Sui and Tang courts attracted painters from all over the empire. Yan Liben, who rose to high office as an administrator, finally becoming a minister of state, was also a noted 7th-century figure painter. His duties included painting historical scrolls, notable events past and present, and portraits, including those of foreigners and strange creatures brought to court as tribute, to the delight of his patron, Taizong. Yan Liben painted in a conservative style with a delicate, scarcely modulated line. Part of a scroll depicting 13 emperors from Han to Sui (in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is attributed to him. His brother Yan Lide was also a painter. Features of their style may possibly be preserved in wall paintings in recently discovered 7th- and early 8th-century tombs in northern China, notably that of Princess Yongtai (reburied 706) near Xi’an.
The royal tombs near Xi’an (706) show the emergence of a more liberated tradition in brushwork that came to the fore in mid- to late 8th-century painting, as it did in the calligraphy of Zhang Xu, Yan Zhenqing, and other master writers. The greatest brush master of Tang painting was the 8th-century artist Wu Daoxuan, also called Wu Daozi, who not only enjoyed a career at court but had sufficient creative energy to execute, according to Tang records, some 300 wall paintings in the temples of Luoyang and Chang’an. His brushwork, in contrast to that of Yan Liben, was full of such sweeping power that crowds would gather to watch him as he worked. He painted chiefly in ink, leaving the colouring to his assistants, and he was famous for the three-dimensional, sculptural effect he achieved with the ink line alone. His work (e.g., a mural at the Datong Hall of the imperial palace, representing almost 500 km <300 miles> of Sichuan’s Jialing River, produced in a single day without preliminary sketches) survives only through descriptions and very unreliable copies. Wu Daozi had a profound influence, particularly on figure painting, in the Tang and Song dynasties. His style may be reflected in some of the 8th-century caves at Dunhuang, although the meticulous handling of the great paradise compositions in the caves increasingly came to approximate the high standards of Chinese court artists and suggests the inspiration of earlier and more conservative Buddhist painters, who included Zheng Fazhi and Dong Boren. This more restrained style can also be seen in the Japanese temple murals at Hōryū Temple near Nara, executed about 670–710 in the Chinese “international” manner.
Minghuang"s Journey to Shu, ink and colour on silk hanging scroll, attributed to Li Zhaodao, Tang-dynasty style, possibly a 10th–11th-century copy of an 8th-century original; in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
The generally accepted founder of the school of scholarly landscape painting (wenrenhua) is Wang Wei, an 8th-century scholar and poet who divided his time between the court at Chang’an, where he held official posts, and his country estate of Wang Chuan, of which he painted a panoramic composition preserved in later copies and engraved on stone. Among his Buddhist paintings, the most famous was a rendering of the Indian sage Vimalakirti, who became, as it were, the “patron saint” of Chinese Buddhist intellectuals. Wang Wei sometimes painted landscapes in colour, but his later reputation was based on the belief that he was the first to paint landscape in monochrome ink. He was said to have obtained a subtle atmosphere by “breaking the ink” (pomo) into varied tones. The belief in his founding role, fostered by later critics, became the cornerstone of the philosophy of the wenrenhua, which held that a man could not be a great painter unless he was also a scholar and a gentleman.
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More adventurous in technique was the somewhat eccentric late 8th-century painter Zhang Zao, who produced dramatic tonal and textural contrasts, as when he painted simultaneously, with one brush in each hand, two branches of a tree, one moist and flourishing, the other desiccated and dead. This new freedom with the brush was carried to extremes by such painters of the middle to late Tang as Wang Xia (Wang Mo) and Gu Kuang, southern Chinese Daoists who “splashed ink” (also transliterated as pomo but written with different characters than “broken ink”) onto the silk in a manner suggestive of 20th-century “Action painters” such as Jackson Pollock. The intention of these ink-splashers was philosophical and religious as well as artistic: it was written at the time that their spontaneous process was designed to imitate the divine process of creation. Their semifinished products, in which the artistic process was fully revealed and the subject matter had to be discerned by the viewer, suggested a Daoist philosophical skepticism. These techniques marked the emergence of a trend toward eccentricity in brushwork that had free rein in periods of political and social chaos. They were subsequently employed by painters of the southern “Sudden” school of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, which held that enlightenment was a spontaneous, irrational experience that could be suggested in painting only by a comparable spontaneity in the brushwork. Chan painting flourished particularly in Chengdu, the capital of the petty state of Shu, to which many artists went as refugees from the chaotic north in the last years before the Tang dynasty fell. Among them was Guanxiu, an eccentric who painted Buddhist saints with a weird air and exaggerated features that had a strong appeal to members of the Chan sect. The element of the deliberately grotesque in Guanxiu’s art was further developed during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period by Shi Ke, who was active in Chengdu in the mid-10th century. In his paintings, chiefly of Buddhist and Daoist subjects, he set out in the Chan manner to shock the viewer by distortion and roughness of execution.