“Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses,” by Zhou Fang. Silk hand scroll, 18 inches by 71 inches, Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang Province, China. (Public domain)“Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses,” by Zhou Fang. Silk hand scroll, 18 inches by 71 inches, Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang Province, China. (Public domain)

Whether worn by or the First Lady, celebrities at the Oscars, or society women at a Met Gala, high fashion appeals to us. Some believe that high fashion originated in the 15th century French Burgundian court, but looking back as early as the eighth century in China, the fashionable female had already been a favorite subject in art.

During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), a period in Chinese civilization that had a stable economy and a flourishing culture, the genre of “beautiful women painting” reached considerable heights. And ranking above all Tang masters for utmost stylization in portraying the female figure was Zhou Fang. His exquisite silk hand scroll “Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses” (at the Liaoning Provincial Museum in China’s Shenyang province) is a rare jewel that allows us to glimpse the remarkable achievement of not only Tang female portraiture but of fashion at the time.

In this piece Zhou Fang portrays five court ladies with one maidservant. We see the ladies stand next to each other casting their eyes on dogs, a red flower, a crane, a butterfly, and a blooming magnolia tree.

To the right, two ladies play with a dog and one lady teases it with a duster. In the middle, we see another court lady admiring a red flower in her hands while a crane strolls past. A maidservant holds a fan and appears smaller, (not because of trying to show physical depth but rather due to an intentional hierarchical scale that signifies her lower status).

To the left, a court lady with clasped hands adds a sense of depth to the composition. Another lady stands beside a blooming magnolia tree and just as she catches a butterfly, she shifts her attention to a dog running towards her.

There is great intimacy between the court ladies and the nonhuman entities as they keep each other company.  Their relationship can be interpreted to represent the pleasant past times of the carefree life of noble women in the imperial palace. Ironically, a mood of languor and a sense of poignancy permeate the ladies’ countenances, as perhaps they share each other’s loneliness.  

Feminine fashion and beauty of the Tang dynasty can also be perceived through this piece. The rounded faces and slightly plump figures (by today’s standards) represent the idealized sense of Tang feminine beauty. Their fair complexions are a result of the powdered white pigment applied to their faces. Their eyebrows are depicted like butterfly wings while their mouths are painted as cherry-like lips. High coiffures were also characteristic of aristocratic Tang women and were often embellished with peony or lotus flowers and with gold ornamentation (jinbuyao).

Under their delicate silk gauzes can be seen long, elegant gowns embroidered with floral patterns and geometric motifs. Zhou Fang uses rich colors of scarlet, crimson, and ocher for the underlying dress while his color palate presents a more subdued tones to depict the translucency of the gauze. The relatively low neckline, nearly floor-length sleeves, and wide scarves worn as stoles or draped across the arms are all characteristic of the high court fashion of the Tang Dynasty.

The flowers that adorn the ladies’ hair speak to the title of this piece. Whether it’s wearing flowers in their hair or holding one in their hands, the court ladies seem to admire the beauty of the blossoms. Feminine beauty and the flower became one as they both evoked the ephemeral nature of youth. Just as a flower wilts, youth and beauty fade.

Famous Tang poets like Li Bai, frequently juxtaposed these two ideas in their poems. Literary accounts have also revealed that the Tang emperor Xuanzong would release a butterfly during his springtime banquets and choose a partner based on whose flower it landed on.

Mike Cai is a 2012 graduate from the New York Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in 2012 and currently attends University of California–Berkeley.

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Landscape of sheep grazing near water in China. (Fotolia)Landscape of sheep grazing near water in China. (Fotolia)

Li Deyu (A.D. 787-849), a famous prime minister from the late Tang Dynasty, was born into a high-ranking family. His father was the prime minister of Emperor Xianzong.

Li Deyu was outstanding from a young age. He was a favorite of Emperor Xianzong, who often sat him on his knees. Li entered the court at an early age because of family influence, and he served during the terms of four emperors in his life.

When Emperor Wuzong came to the throne in 840, Li became the prime minister. He was in charge for five years with notable results, and the title Duke of Wei was bestowed on him.

Unfortunately, Wuzong died in 846.

Li felt uncertain about his future and asked a clairvoyant monk. The monk said that he would be demoted and sent 10,000 li to the south (the li is a traditional Chinese unit of distance; today 10,000 li is about 5,000 km). However, he could still return to the capital, the monk said.

Chinese painting of Li Deyu receiving guests. (Public domain)

Chinese painting of Li Deyu receiving guests. (Public domain)

The monk added: “Don’t worry; you are predestined to have 10,000 lambs. You have so far received 9,500 and still have 500 left, so you will surely return.”

Li sighed in wonder and said: “Master is a real sage. When I was young, I once dreamt that I toured the Jin Mountain and saw flocks of lambs everywhere. Many shepherds greeted and saluted me, telling me that these lambs were mine. I always remembered this dream, but I never told anyone!”

In about a fortnight, the minister of Zhen Wu (in today’s Inner Mongolia), Mi Ji, sent a messenger to Li that he had been given a present of 500 lambs.

Li was shocked and asked the monk, “If I refuse these lambs, can I escape my fate?”

The monk said: “As it has already happened, these lambs are now yours. Whether you take them or not, they are already within the budget of your predestined wealth. So it looks like you cannot return from your journey to the South.”

Li was very sad upon hearing that.

He was soon demoted and sent to Ya Zhou (in today’s Hainan Island). He died one year after he took up his duty there.

Thereafter, people used the phrase “consumption of 10,000 lambs” to mean that the amount one will enjoy in life is prearranged or predestined. When one has received his due amount of wealth, his life will also end.

Edited by Sally Appert.

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  • Author: <a href="http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/author/joyce-lo/" rel="author">Joyce Lo</a>, <a href="http://www.theepochtimes.com/" title="Epoch Times" rel="publisher">Epoch Times</a>
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Chinese landscape painting. (Sun Mingguo)Chinese landscape painting. (Sun Mingguo)

Yuan Keshi, a fortune-telling master in the Tang Dynasty, had inherited his father’s skills and could tell fortunes very accurately through face reading.

One day, Yuan and a scholar got into a boat together and were ready to cross the river. While sitting in the boat and waiting, Yuan looked at the other people in the boat and told his companion, “We shouldn’t be in a hurry to cross the river”. They both got out of the boat carefully to wait.

Yuan said to his companion quietly, “I looked at the people in the boat. All of them had black Qi (a form of energy, from Chinese culture) under their noses. They will encounter a big disaster very soon. As I already know this, why should we die with them?”

A while later, the boat was still waiting to leave, suddenly an odd-looking man who had a crippled leg got into the boat with his donkey. Yuan saw this and told his companion, “We can also go now. A man with great virtue is in the boat now, so the two of us don’t need to worry anymore.”

They got back into the boat, and after a while it set sail. In the middle of the river, the water suddenly became uneasy. Big waves churned, and wind blew. It looked very dangerous.

However, the boat still crossed the river safely in the end. They found out later that the man with the donkey was Lou Shide.

Lou was later positioned as the head officer of the Ministry of Supervision and became one of the three prime ministers co-governing state affairs.

Source: Ding Ming Lu

Translated by Lily Zhang Edited by Sally Appert

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