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Mingqi

CHINESE TOMB FIGURINES

BY
WILLEM CLAESSEN

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Dynasties, a short historical background

In the late third century BC, the First Emperor of Qin, Shihuangdi, unified Cgina's vast regions and large population into a centralized, autocratic empire. Subsequent dynasties followed the model of government established by the Qin emperor. All decision-making power was placed in the Emperor's hands and there were no other power structures, legislatures or theological rules.

 

The four hundred years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) really encompassed three periods: the Western Han (206 BC - 8 AD), when the capital was located in Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an), the Wang Mang interregnum (8 - 25 AD), and the Eastern Han (25 -  220 AD), when the capital was moved to Luoyang. Building on the unified empire they inherited from the Qin, the Han emperors expanded China's territory through numerous border wars, established a bureaucratic structure to administer the monarchy, improved agriculture and other technologies, and united the various ethnic peoples under the Confucian state ideology.

 

The decline of the Han empeire, due to popular uprisings and revolts, culminated in the flight of the emperor and the burning of the palaces, temples and houses of Luoyang. The four hundred years of disunity and warfare which followed stand in dramatic contrast to the previous four centuries of stable and peaceful Han rule. Even the name given tp the turbulent period, Six Dynasties, gives testimony to its divided nature. Petty kingdoms struggled against one another to achieve control over different regions of the oncevast Chinese territory. Warfare, disease, social unrest, political chaos and disillusionment with the Confucian ideals of statecraft resulted in the ascendancy of Buddhism during the Six Dynasties.

 

A tribe from the northern border areas of China, the Toba Wei, formed the most powerful state and provided imperial patronage of Buddhism. As the rulers expanded their control into the central plains of China, they also spread the influence of Buddhidm which brought about the creation of splendid temple complexes. In the late sixth century, China was reunited again under the ruling houde of the Sui. The first emperor of the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618) established Buddhism as the state religion, reorganized the economy, and created cultural homogeneity among the former regional factions. However, under the rule of his successor, this short dynasty collapsed due to combination of political corruption and rivalry and disastrous border wars.

 

The succeeding Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) was built upon the foundations established by the first Sui emperor. A succession of astute emperors in the sevnth an eighth centuries ushered in and sustained one of the most brilliant epochs of Chinese civilization. While their military genius and civil administration contributed to the political stability and economic prosperity of the Tang Dynasty, the emperors' tastes, fashions and social habits became lasting influences on the development of Chinese culture during succeeding dynasties. Successful military campaigns, patronage of Buddhism, and subsequent religious pilgrimages along with the development of a cosmopolitan population. A strong interest in exotic arts, goods and fashions from abroad became the hallmark of the splendid Tang since it served as the eastern terminus of the great trans-Asian Silk Route and was also the location of the main imperial palaces.

 

(text: Seeking immortality by Janet Baker)