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Episode 55 - Chinese Tang tomb figures

Tang tomb figures (made around 728 AD). Earthenware sculpture, from China

It's a sure sign of middle age they say if, when you pick up the newspaper, you turn first to the obituaries. But middle-aged or not, most of us, I suspect, would love to know what people will actually say about us when we die. The privileged people I'm focusing on this week were all, one way or another, eager to fix posterity. But nowhere was it so deftly done as in Tang China around 700 AD, where powerful figures didn't just wonder what would be said about them when they died, they simply wrote or commissioned their own obituaries, so that the ancestors and the gods would know precisely how important and how admirable they were.

"They tested people in poetry, in essay writing, in the literary lyrical genres, because the most successful officials would be people who would write the words of the emperor." (Oliver Moore)

I'm in the Asia Gallery at the back of the British Museum. Behind me stand two statues of the judges of the Chinese underworld, recording the good and the bad deeds of those who had died. And these judges were exactly the people that the Tang elite wanted to impress. In front of me, I'm looking at a gloriously lively troupe of ceramic figures. They're all between two and three feet (60 to 90 cm) high, and there are 12 of them - human, animal and somewhere in between. They're from the tomb of one of the great figures of Tang China, Liu Tingxun, general of the Zhongwu army, lieutenant of Henan and Huinan district and Imperial privy councillor, who died at the advanced age of 72 in 728.

Liu Tingxun tells us this, and a great deal more besides, in a glowing obituary that he had commissioned himself and which was buried along with his ceramic entourage. Together, figures and text give us a marvellous glimpse of China 1,300 years ago, but above all, they're a shamelessly barefaced bid for everlasting admiration and applause.

Wanting to control your own reputation after death isn't unknown today, as Anthony Howard, for years obituaries editor at 'The Times', recalls:

"I used, oddly enough, to get lots of letters - in the almost decade I ran The Times obituaries - saying, 'Oh, I do not seem to be getting any younger, and I thought it might be helpful to let you have a few notes on my life'. And they were unbelievable. People's self conceit - saying things like, 'Though a man of unusual charm', and this kind of thing. I mean, I couldn't believe that people would write this about themselves. So of course no-one nowadays self-commissions their own obituary, and those that were sent in always ended up straight in the waste-paper basket.

"I think that probably they are designed as part of the history of our time. I mean one of the rows I used to have was whether you could put criminals into the obituaries page. Some people regard being on the obituaries page as the equivalent of being awarded the OBE, or the CBE even, and think it was quite wrong that you should put in, say, the Kray brothers. But I said, 'No, I'm sorry, that is they are part of the climate that's created the age in which we live, and therefore you can't have a moral test as to whether you get an obituary or not'. And I think that's right.

"I used to rather boast, and say that on the obits page of 'The Times', 'We are writing the first version of history of our generation'. And that is what I think it ought to be. It certainly isn't for the relatives, or the family, or even the friends."

The Tang obituaries were not for family and friends, either. But nor were they the first version of history for their generation. The intended audience for the obituary of Liu Tingxun was not earthly readers, but the judges of the underworld, who would recognise his rank and his abilities, and award him the prestigious place among the dead that was his due.

Liu's obituary tablet is a model of colourful self-praise, and he aims a great deal higher than Anthony Howard's "man of unusual charm". He tells us that his behaviour set a standard which was destined to cause a revolution in popular manners. In public life he was an exemplar of, "benevolence, justice, statesmanship, modesty, loyalty, truthfulness and deference", and his military skills were compared to the fabled heroes of the past. In one great feat, we're assured, he beat off invading troops "as a man brushes flies from his nose". It's great stuff!

Liu Tingxun pursued his illustrious, if turbulent, career in the high days of the Tang Dynasty, which ran from 618 to 906 AD. The famous Silk Road was in full swing. The Tang era represents for many Chinese a "golden age" of achievement, both at home and abroad. This great outward-looking empire, along with the Abbasid Islamic Empire in the Middle East, together created what was effectively a huge single market for luxury goods, that ran from Morocco to Japan. You won't find it written in many European histories, but these two giants, in effect, shaped and dominated the early medieval world. Western Europe, by contrast, when Liu Tingxun died in 728 and our tomb figures were created, was a remote and underdeveloped backwater, an unstable patchwork of small kingdoms and precarious urban communities. The Tang ruled a unified state that stretched from Korea in the north, to Vietnam in the south, and far west along the Silk Road into Central Asia. The power and the structure of this state - along with its enormous cultural confidence - are vividly embodied in Liu Tingxun's ceramic tomb figures.

They're arranged in six pairs, and all of them are just three colours: amber-yellow, green and brown. It's a two-by-two procession, and at the front are a pair of monsters, dramatic half-human creatures with clownish grimaces, spikes on their heads, wings, and hoofed legs. They're fabulous figures heading up the line, in order to protect the tomb's occupant. Behind them come another pair of guardians, these ones entirely human in shape, and their appearance clearly owes a great deal to India. Next in line, contained and austere, and definitely Chinese, are two civil servants, who stand, arms politely folded, braced for their specific job - to draft and to present the case for Liu Tingxun to the judges of the underworld. The last human figures in this procession are two little grooms, but they're completely overwhelmed by the magnificent beasts in their charge that come behind them. Firstly, two splendid horses, just under three foot (90 cm) high - one cream ,splashed with yellow and green, and the other entirely brown - and, bringing up the rear, a wonderful couple of camels, Bactrian ones with two humps, and their heads thrown back as though whinnying. Liu Tingxun was setting off for the next world magnificently accompanied.

Ceramic figures like these were made in huge numbers for about 50 years, around 700. Their sole purpose was to be placed in high-status tombs. They have been found all around the great Tang cities of north-west China, where Liu Tingxun held office. The ancient Chinese believed you needed to have in the grave all the things which were essential to you in life. So the figures were just one element in the total contents of Liu Tingxun's tomb, which would also have contained sumptuous burial objects of silk and lacquer, silver and gold. While the animal and human statues would serve and entertain him, the supernatural guardian figures warded off malevolent spirits. You could hardly make better preparation for being dead!

Between their manufacture and their entombment, the ceramic figures would have been displayed to the living only once, when they were carried in the funeral cortege. They were never intended to be seen again. Once in the tomb, they took up their unchanging positions around the coffin, and then the stone door was firmly closed for eternity. A Tang poet of the time, Zhang Yue, commented:

"All who come and go follow this road,
But living and dead do not return together."

Like so much else in eighth-century China, the production of ceramic figures like these ones was controlled by an official bureau, just one small part of the enormous civil service that powered the Tang state. Liu Tingxun, as a very high-ranking official in that state, brought two ceramic bureaucrats with him into his tomb, presumably to take care of the everlasting admin. Oliver Moore has studied this elite bureaucratic class, which has become so synonymous with the Chinese state that we still refer to senior civil servants as mandarins:

"Administration was a bureaucratic operation. It combined very old aristocratic families with what we could call new men. They were divided into various ministries - public works, the economy, there was a military board - and then the largest of all, the one in which more officials were involved than in any other activity, was ritual, with something like between 30 - 50 per cent. And they would organise recurrent annual or monthly rituals, celebrations of the emperor's birthday, or princes' and princesses' birthdays, seasonal observances - things like the ploughing rite, where the emperor would open the agricultural season by symbolically ploughing a field somewhere in the palace.

"There was a very small group, whose significance grew throughout the Dynasty, who took examinations and competed for state degrees. Later on, this system becomes magnified. So that by about the year 1000, you have something like 15,000 men coming to the capital to take exams, of whom only around 1,500 would get a degree. So this is a system in which the largest number, well over 90 per cent, will fail - repeatedly for the whole of their lives. And at the same time, this is a system which fosters loyalty to the Dynasty - which is quite remarkable really."

Liu Tingxun was a loyal servant of the Dynasty, and his tomb figures, both human and animal, sum up many aspects of Tang China at its zenith. They show the close link between the military and the civil administration, the orderly prosperity that allowed, and controlled, such sophisticated artistic production, and the confidence with which power was exercised both at home and abroad.

The horses and the camels in the general's entourage show that Liu Tingxun was, as you might expect, seriously rich, but they also underline Tang China's close commercial and trading links with Central Asia and the lands beyond, through the Silk Road. The ceramic horses almost certainly represent a prized new breed, tall and muscular, brought to China from the west along what was then one of the great trade routes of the world. And if the horses are the glamorous end of Silk Road traffic - the Bentleys or the Porsches, so to speak - the two Bactrian camels are the heavy-goods vehicles, each capable of carrying up to 120 kilograms of high-value goods - silk, perfumes, medicines, spices - over huge stretches of inhospitable terrain.

The whole assemblage of Liu Tingxun's tomb - figures, animals and obituary text -speak of China's steady westward expansion under the Tang, the wealth that came to it from its domination of the trade routes, and the social and intellectual sophistication of its governing elite.

This week I've been concentrating on luxury objects made by the powerful to assert their status in this world and the next - great resources expended to create beautiful works of art for a restricted audience that usually included the gods. Because these beautiful things were admired, they survived, and they've shaped the way much of history has been written. But what about the story of more anonymous humdrum lives, lived out among less glamorous objects? Next week we've got a few bits of broken pot and some chopped-up silver, which will tell us a quite different, but I hope equally fascinating, tale.

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