THE Chinese still rejoice in the glory of the Tang Dynasty, which, continuing for three centuries (AD 618-906), was an era of military successes, expansion, trade - and (in its early years) strong government. Beyond these achievements it was a time of wonderful flowering of the arts: literature, painting and calligraphy, philosophy, fine manners, and elegance. It was also an epoch of great musical enthusiasm.
One indication of the musical tastes of the dynasty is preserved in the little porce-lain figurines which were buried, along with other miniature household paraphernalia, in the tombs of wealthy men. It was thought that such things would make the departed comfortable, and keep them amused in the next world. These objects often included musicians and dancers, like the five we see here.
The three musicians are seated, two with their lutes (one of which has a bent neck), and the other with a type of mouth organ, capable of producing chords. They are flanked by two lithesome dancers, whose lively and graceful poses suggest that they are hearing a rhythmic strain. All are girls, and all have astonishing coiffures, which give the effect of huge bows of hair on each side of the crown.
Over the last thousand-odd years their once-bright colors have faded, though one can see that the musicians wear skirts striped with red, while the dancers' stripes are dark - black or brown. Their blouses are reddish brown, their hair black, their faces white. Animated and cheerful, these little artists give a sense of being true to life.
Early in the 7th century, when the Tang was established, the Chinese had already discovered the charms of music from abroad, notably a type of Japanese music which had entered the land during the Sui, the short-lived dynasty immediately preceding the great Tang. However, what was then called ``formal'' music - the traditional, official form of the art - was maintained for courtly ceremonies. Based on antique modes, and enhanced by bells, zithers, and chimes, it was felt suitable for such affairs - it was the music of which Confucius had approved.
The sage had had strong views about music, being disturbed in his time by the influence of ``wild'' music on the populace - loud and repetitive airs which he pronounced morally debilitating.
However, that was long ago - more than 1,000 years had passed since Confucius had spoken of these things. The Tang frontiers were open to an influx of musically gifted entertainers, dancers, and musicians who came to the capitals (either Loyang or Changan, depending on the time, where they were very welcome). They came from Japan, Korea, India, Burma, and other Southeast Asian lands; but the most important source of the new music hailed from Central Asia, and especially the town of Kucha.
The Chinese proved to be avid for what they offered in the way of ``informal'' music, and for their ``Western twirling girls.'' This imported music was referred to as ``tribute'' to satisfy the intense pride of the Chinese, who were absolutely convinced of their own superiority over everyone else - but under whatever name it was irresistible.
The performers were lovely, charming, their costumes exotic, their hairdos astounding. It became fashionable to have Kucha music teachers, and to learn their songs.
These entertainers were formidable. Delicate and frail to look at, they had yet come almost 2,000 miles by camel and horseback to pursue their profession. What those caravans entailed may only be imagined.
Once in China, the Central Asians were adaptable and clever, taking up well-known Chinese tunes, songs like ``The Green-Headed Duck,'' and singing them ``with a difference,'' bewitching everyone. From the capitals this ``wild'' music drifted to the provinces.
Professional entertainers at the capital during the Tang Dynasty led charmed lives in that pleasure-loving society. This was especially true during the long reign of the Emperor Hsuan Tsung in the 8th century, that monarch being fond of Western music, even learning to play the little drum himself, and, we are told, he employed 30,000 musicians.
In his later years, Hsuan Tsung developed another infatuation, this time for the beautiful Yang Kueifei, and ultimately his neglect of his country brought about a rebellion. The dynasty continued but under very different conditions: The foreign music receded, Yang Kueifei was no more.
After the rebellion and the fall of the emperor, after music turned back to orthodox channels, the grave figurines continued to be made for a long time. They were cheap, and no doubt comforting in a jolly sort of way, recalling happy days. Indeed, to see them now, in so different a context, is a lightening experience; they make us smile.