China’s Middle Ages showcased

Statuettes of Lokapala and women horseback riders playing polo, Sassanidian coins, and adorned statues make up just a fraction of the 170 or so items accumulated from China’s most significant museums, including Beijing’s National Museum, for Greece’s biggest-ever exhibition of ancient Chinese masterpieces, which opens July 10 at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. Titled «China of the Tang Dynasty, A Golden Era (7th-10th Centuries),» the exhibition, which goes on show in Athens after having impressed masses of Italians at Naples’s Archaeological Museum, will run through August 31. It covers a prosperous period in Chinese history when the dynasty doubled in size while also experiencing tremendous economic growth and cultural prosperity, including new techniques in pottery, such as the introduction of porcelain to the art form. Gun powder, printing, and certain types of clockwork mechanisms were also invented during the era of the Tang Dynasty. The exhibition, organized by the Byzantine and Christian Museum’s director Dimitris Constantios with Mary Pantou, in conjunction with the Culture Ministry’s division for museum activity, is spread over 1,500 square meters of floor space. All this aside, a Chinese antiquities exhibition at the Byzantine and Christian Museum seems incongruent. But the organizers have an explanation: «The Tang Dynasty ruled during China’s most important period of the Middle Ages. The visitor may marvel at gems from the dynasty and become acquainted with the society and art of the period, during which it becomes apparent that China was not at all isolated,» the show’s organizer’s noted. «Because China opened up to all of Central Asia, it came into contact, from early on, with Greek civilization through Hellenistic kingdoms and Persian art. In other words, Byzantine themes are touched upon.»  The items on show depict the relations between the Tang Dynasty and its neighboring regions, life in the palace, local habits and Buddhist worship. Also, taking into consideration the Byzantine and Christian Museum’s permanent exhibition, the Tang Dynasty show provides visitors the opportunity to make comparisons between two concurrent civilizations. As was the case in Byzantium, emperors during the Tang Dynasty governed through a rigidly defined set of values, noted Constantios, the museum’s director. Officers held meetings with the emperor on a daily basis to forge dynasty policy. On a general level, life in the Tang palace, compared to Byzantium, did not differ greatly. Concubines, however, were plentiful in China. The Forbidden City and its luxurious buildings and priceless treasures was home to the emperor, the official spouses, and thousands of concubines. «Eunuchs, soldiers, musicians, dancers, stablemen, and all other forms of servants tended to the royal court’s daily requirements,» noted the organizers. «Members of the upper class were entertained at banquets, on hunting expeditions and at sporting events such as horse riding and polo.» Women could take part in the activities arranged for men, such as horse riding and polo, clad in male attire. The palace’s ladies enjoyed a certain degree of freedom, explained Constantios. «They took care of appearance, sported elaborate hairdressing, and wore clothing according to prevailing trends.» As was highlighted at a recent seminar, «The Woman In Byzantium,» organized by the Christian Archaeological Society, Byzantines, too, had interests in fashion. Music and dance were highly popular at Tang Dynasty banquets. Female dancers were charming and stylish and wore breezy outfits featuring tight sleeves, usually long, to accentuate the smooth and fluctuating movement of their arms. Winds, percussion and strings were the most commonly used instruments. «We had learned to look at these civilizations from a Western perspective and considered them to be slightly inferior worlds that weren’t part of ours. It was thought that there were no connections. But, it was the exact opposite that applied. We weren’t alone in the Middle Ages,» noted the organizers. The exhibition’s items represent the Tang Dynasty’s entire range of social classes. Zodiac signs, highly valued during the Tang era, make up a major part of the show. «It was believed that an individual’s character was influenced by his or her year of birth. Every year was represented by a specific zodiac sign,» said Constantios. Accompanying texts for the show, compiled by Aglaia Karamanou, a former director at the Asian Art Museum, show that Chinese faith in zodiac signs dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). «Zodiac signs can also be found at graves with the objective of protecting against evil,» notes Karamanou. Another impressive section of the exhibition features frescoes depicting women wondering around the palace’s gardens, as well as horseback polo action. China’s renowned porcelain art, an achievement reached during the Tang Dynasty with the aim of creating more durable and elegant ceramics, is also well represented at the Athens exhibition. Human sacrifice was practiced in China until the 5th century BC. When the ritual was abandoned, various statuettes and statues made their appearance at graves. «We see, then, a correlation with our funeral gifts,» noted Constantios. The graves of the affluent were grand and connected to long passages similar to those of Macedonian tombs. Byzantium during the Tang Dynasty was plagued by a dispute over worshipped icons. The Tang Dynasty coincided with dark centuries in Byzantine history, between the 7th and 9th centuries, a period during which Byzantium lost major ground against the East.