Tang Dynasty Art
Characteristics of Arts and Culture in Medieval China.

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Portrait of Emperor Yang of Sui (643)
By Yan Liben (600–673)
From the Thirteen Emperors Scroll
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

For dates of other early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For specific movements,
see: History of Art.

Tang Dynasty Art (618-906)
History, Types and Characteristics


High Point in Chinese Civilization
Tang Arts and Culture
Woodblock Printing
Later Chinese Dynasties

Additional Resources:

For earlier Chinese cultures, see:

- Neolithic art in China (7500-2000 BCE)
- Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE)
- Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE)
- Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE)
- Han Dynasty art (206 BCE - 220 CE)

High Point in Chinese Civilization

An important contributor to Chinese art, and a high point in Chinese civilization, the Tang Dynasty provided the first real stability since the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE. Building on the political and administrative structures put in place by its predecessor the Sui dynasty (589–618), and making full use of its growing population to dominate central Asia and the kingdoms along the Silk Road, the Tangs presided over a period of growth and prosperity, marked by successful military and diplomatic campaigns, intensified commerce along overland trade routes (to Syria and Rome) as well as increased maritime trade with countries from around the world. This prosperity - combined with increased cultural contacts with its Asian neighbours (notably Korea, Japan, and Vietnam), as well as Middle-Eastern and European peoples - helped to revitalize the former practices of Sui Dynasty art, and instigated a renaissance in many different types of art, including music and poetry as well as Chinese painting and ceramic art. Ruled from its capital Changan (present-day Xian) - then the most populous and culturally diverse city in the world - Tang China rapidly became one of the greatest empires of the medieval epoch. At the same time, Buddhism continued to flourish, and its religious art continued to have a significant impact on Tang sculpture and architecture until, late in the Tang Dynasty, when it was banned to make way for Daoism.

Note: For the influence of Chinese Tang culture on its neighbours in Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards).


Tang Arts and Culture

An amalgamation of different religions, philosophies and schools of thought, Tang arts and crafts reflected a kaleidoscope of international influences that were absorbed mostly through conquest and trade. Tang armies provided safer access along the Silk Road, which maintained the flow of goods and ideas between China, Central Asia, India, and Persia. A complex network of maritime routes linked Chinese ports, such as Guangzhou, to India, the Persian Gulf, and the east coast of Africa. Tomb mural paintings and figure sculpture show the effect of foreign products on the fashions, accessories and cultural habits of the Tang elite. Exposure to outside influence also proved to be an important stimulus to Chinese painters and sculptors, notably in the eighth century during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (ruled 712–56), a period which is seen as the classical period of Chinese visual art and literature. This era set the standards to which generations of later Chinese artists aspired.

For more about the historical background to Tang Dynasty culture, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present). See also Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE).


Painting during the Tang Dynasty was (for the first time) dominated by landscape painting, known as shan shui (mountain-water) painting, which consisted of scenic views of mountains, rivers and waterfalls, depicted with pen and ink rather than paint. (See: Pen and Ink Drawings.) In these typically monochrome pictures, the desired aim was not naturalism - the replication of nature - but the capture of the 'essence' or underlying 'rhythm' of nature. These landscapes were executed mainly on vertical or horizontal scrolls, which suited the more discreet requirements of shan shui practitioners, many of whom were scholars rather than professional painters and preferred to display their work within their own select circles. One of the best landscape artists during the Tang Dynasty was Wang Wei (699-759), the reputed leader of the Southern school of painting. His style of ink and wash painting served as a model for later generations. Note: For the main principles underlying art in China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.

Zhou Fang (c.730-800) was another eminent scroll painter of the day. Initially commissioned to paint religious subjects for the emperor, he is best known for his paintings of court figures, especially of court ladies in their leisure moments. He is also known for his penetrating portrait art. Another important Tang court artist was Han Gan (c.706-83). He, too, painted Buddhist subjects, although his main contribution to the royal art collection of Emperor Xuanzong (712-56) were his pictures of imperial horses. The greatest master of figure painting was Wu Daozi (flourished 710-760), who completed over 300 murals in Buddhist and Daoist temples at Luoyang and Changan. He is also noted for his landscape art, but his work now survives only in rubbings from engraved stones. See also the related art of Calligraphy.


Plastic art during the Tang Dynasty was exemplified by the stone sculpture of Buddhas and Boddhisattvas, especially during the middle Tang. Sadly, little Chinese Buddhist Sculpture has survived in China although examples can be seen in Japan, which was deeply influenced by the arts and culture of the Chinese Tang era. However, jade carving remained the most prestigious form of sculpture.

Note: Although Buddhism and Buddhist arts were encouraged by the early and middle Tang, things changed in the 9th century as the appeal of alien cultures began to wane and more traditional Chinese beliefs were renewed. The process climaxed during the years 842-46, when the Tang authorities launched a campaign of repression against Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Nestorian Christianity.

Woodblock Printing

The Tang Dynasty made a notable contribution to the art of printmaking with its invention of Woodblock printing, which continued to be the most common Far Eastern method of printing images and texts, until the 19th century. Known in the West as woodcuts (xylography), Chinese woodblock prints helped to raise literacy rates in China and made the written word available to much bigger audiences. A miniature Buddhist dharani sutra discovered in 1974 by archeologists at Xian, the former Tang capital, has been dated to 650-670, which makes it one of the oldest surviving printed texts in the world. Tang woodblock printers were also responsible for The Diamond Sutra (868), the world's earliest known regular-size, full-length book complete with illustrations. See also: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints (1670-1900).


Chinese pottery during the Tang era made significant advances after the arts of the Six Dynasties period (220-589). Tang ceramicists, for instance, were the first to produce true hard-paste Chinese porcelain, whose translucent white body was the thinnest yet hardest ceramic form developed, although improvements would be made during the eras of Song Dynasty art (960-1279) and Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368). Tang porcelain was exported to Arabia, where it was highly prized. Other Tang innovations included three-colour porcelain (lead-glazed Sancai), reserved for funerary ware, black-glazed stoneware, and a form of celadon, much of which was made using foreign shapes and motifs. Tomb sculpture was also popular: numerous figurative works were produced in miniature statue form, made from low-fired earthenware.


Tang jewellery art of the period included much silver, as well as gold, jade and other precious metals. Decorated bronze mirrors were also fashionable. Tang goldsmithing was also noted for ritual objects made into foreign shapes as well as traditional Chinese forms. Many gold and silver vessels were no longer cast but hammered into shape using thin sheets.

For other decorative arts, see: Chinese Lacquerware (4500 BCE onwards).

Five Dynasties Period (907-60)

Following the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 906, the country was ruled by military chiefs who governed during the so-called Five Dynasties period. This period coincided with the emergence of one of China's most important artists, Dong Yuan (c.934-962), who became renowned for his figure drawing and landscape paintings, both of which remained paradigms of brush painting until the 19th century. Dong Yuan was the founder of the southern school of landscape painting, characterized by loose brushwork and an impressionistic style. At the same time, the northern school of landscape art, established by Jing Hao (c.870-925) and his pupil Guan Tong (flourished c.907-23), concentrated on traditional painting with its formal attributes, attention to detail and conventional use of colour.

For more about the arts and crafts of other Asian cultures, see: Japanese Art as well as: India, Painting & Sculpture.

Later Chinese Dynasties

Later cultural periods in Chinese history include:

- Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644)
- Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911)

• For more about shan shui painting and woodblock printing in medieval China, see: Homepage.

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