The Light of Letters: Tang Poetry in a Barbarous World – The American Spectator


Even after a lapse of more than 20 years, I can still see it in my mind’s eye: a Tang-era molded earthenware horse figurine, its head turned resolutely to the left, its back legs ever so slightly bent in an eternal posture of readiness. Treated with a polychrome sancai ceramic glaze imbued with copper and iron oxides, the horse’s saddle and tasseled harness have turned a mottled shade of green, its skin a swirl of amber and ivory. Streaks of dark brown glazing run down the horse’s muscular shoulders and flanks onto its forearms, thighs, stifles, gaskins, and hocks, giving the appearance of fresh trickles of blood. It is evidently a Ferghana horse, known to the ancient and medieval Chinese as hanxuema, the “blood-sweating horse,” and more reverentially as tianma, the “heavenly horse.” Attaining an almost mythological status, such horses were routinely praised in ritual hymns:

Bedewed with red sweat

That foams in an ochre stream,

Impatient of all restraint

And of abounding energy,

He treads the fleeting clouds,

Dim in his upward flight;

With smooth and easy gait

Covers a thousand leagues.

Blessed with unparalleled speed, endurance, intelligence, and determination, these Central Asian steppe horses were ideally suited to the military needs of the Han and Tang dynasties, but their role extended far beyond the mortal realm. Emperor Wu of Han, who first secured access to the Ferghana herds through his conquest of the Western Regions, composed a hymn of his own in their honor:

The Heavenly Horses are coming;

Open the gates while there is time.

They will draw me up and carry me

To the Holy Mountain of Kunlun.

The Heavenly Horses have come.

And the Dragon will follow in their wake.

I shall reach the Gates of Heaven, I shall see the Palace of God.

Thus could Ferghana horses carry an emperor’s disembodied soul to the land of the immortals, concealed somewhere in the distant Kunlun Mountains, and when they were transmuted into mingqi, or entombed spirit objects, these blood-lathered equines could also serve the posthumous needs of their aristocratic owners, albeit in figurine form. No Tang sepulcher was complete without at least one Ferghana horse, to keep the dead company, or to convey them up to the Holy Mountain in style.

The particular heavenly horse I have in mind has gone on quite a journey of its own, beginning in an 8th-century burial chamber and ending not in the land of the immortals, with its soaring cliffs of jade and jasper, but rather in a dimly lit gallery in the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art, located in the downtown Dallas Arts District, where I also found myself, having undertaken an internship there back in the summer of 2000. It was an ideal place for a budding young Sinophile with a penchant for classical Chinese poetry and guqin music to spend a few months, surrounded by jade brush washers, inlaid table screens, ivory carvings, lacquerware boxes, bronze Buddhas, silk scrolls, and folding screens, all gathered together in that tastefully chosen private collection, at the time still newly opened to the general public. Of all those works, however, it was the Tang horse that most commanded my attention. Standing in its presence was enough to be whisked away to the vast steppes west of Bukhara, from whence the Ferghana horses hailed, or to the blood-soaked battlefields of the War of the Heavenly Horses, where the Han dynasty and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Dayuan clashed over access to the priceless tianma herds. Standing in its presence was enough to be transported back to the Tang capital of Chang’an, with its resplendent Buddhist monasteries and Taoist shrines and Zoroastrian fire temples and Nestorian churches, its palaces and mansions, its crowded markets, its glittering ponds dotted with fairy islands, its polo grounds, its entertainment wards, its bathhouses, its harems, its Eunuch Agency, and its Inexhaustible Treasury — possibly the greatest assemblage of cultural wonders the world has ever known.

While I would gaze upon the Crow Collection’s caparisoned horse, I would invariably be reminded of the Tang poet Tu Fu, who for his part was inspired by a painted, rather than a sculpted, representation of a Ferghana horse, resulting in one of his finest works, “A Drawing of a Horse by General Cao at Secretary Wei Feng’s House.” That haunting poem, as translated by Witter Bynner, concludes:

I remember when the late Emperor came toward his Summer Palace,
The procession, in green-feathered rows, swept from the eastern sky –
Thirty thousand horses, prancing, galloping,
Fashioned, every one of them, like the horses in this picture…
But now the Imperial Ghost receives secret jade from the River God,
For the Emperor hunts crocodiles no longer by the streams.
Where you see his Great Gold Tomb, you may hear among the pines
A bird grieving in the wind that the Emperor’s horses are gone.

The emperor’s horses are long gone now, and indeed the Ferghana horses themselves have gone extinct, though some of their genes live on in the Akhal-Teke horses of Turkmenistan, renowned for their speed, hardiness, and the otherworldly metallic sheen of their iridescent coats. Chang’an would be repeatedly sacked during the An Lushan rebellion (755–763), the Huang Chao rebellion (874–884), and various conflicts with the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Sogdians, necessitating a relocation of the imperial capital to Luoyang. The Daminggong, the Palace of Great Illumination, was reduced to a “haunt of hares and foxes,” lamented Wei Chuang, and “all along the streets of heaven one treads on the bones of state officials.” Two-thirds of the Chinese population, by some estimates, were killed or displaced in those dreadful years, and nature soon reclaimed the abandoned capital city, prompting Tu Fu to write “Spring View,” which starts with arguably the most often recited lines in the history of Chinese poetry:





guó pò shānhé zài

chéng chūn cǎomù shēn

gǎn shí huā jiàn lèi

hèn bié niǎo jīng xīn





Our nation is ruined; the hills and rivers remain.
In spring, the city lies deep in weeds and trees.
Sensing the moment, flowers shed petals like tears.

Lonely birds sing of their grief.

Chang’an is now teeming modern Xi’an, where a few Tang-era monuments, like the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, still mark the skyline. Yet most Tang artifacts that we have today survived because they were stored underground, in tombs filled with mingqi spirit objects — everyday utensils, arms and armor, and figurines of soldiers, servants, polo players, monsters, unicorns, zodiac animals, camels, and Ferghana horses.

However transfixed I was by the aesthetic charms and fascinating history of the Crow Collection’s earthenware horse, it was there and then that my somewhat ambivalent relationship with museums also began. The appeal of Tang figurines is undeniable — most every museum with an East Asian art gallery has one, and the art historian Gerald Reitlinger once quipped that “no Mayfair flat is complete without a T’ang camel” — but they are nevertheless burial goods, and under most circumstances we disapprove of grave robbery. Making matters worse, the soul, according to ancient Chinese philosophy, is sundered in twain at the moment of death, with the deceased person’s po, or animal soul, remaining behind with the body, while the hun, or spiritual soul, sets off in search of paradise. Mingqi, whether in the form of utilitarian and precious objects or ceramic representations of servants, horses, earth spirits, and tian wang heavenly guardians, were meant to accompany the po in perpetuity, thereby keeping the cosmos in harmony, the dearly departed’s twinned but estranged souls being comforted simultaneously on earth and in heaven. Appropriating mingqi through archaeological excavations, and then inserting them into the art market or the stream of commerce, seems like a particularly disrespectful sort of sacrilege, even if it results in a well-rounded museum collection. Should this mingqi, this spirit object, this vessel of ghosts, literally this 明器 or “luminous object” be in a sterile, climate-controlled, sensor-monitored display case, permanently divorced from its original context and its sacred raison d’être, or should it be in its rightful place, alongside its true owner’s po?


Où sont les neiges dantan?” “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” The medieval French poet François Villon’s melancholy question, posed in his “Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By,” has resounded through the ages, even as the annual snowfall melts away, the poet’s cold corpse molders in an unknown grave, and the material…

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