China’s Golden Age

Poems of the Late T’ang

translated from the Chinese and with an introduction by A.C. Graham
New York Review Books, 173 pp., $14.95 (paper)


Women in the courts of the T’ang Dynasty, between 618 and 907, painted their eyebrows green; the standard of beauty was to have brows as delicately curved as the antennae of moths. Foreheads were powdered yellow with massicot, a lead oxide, for yellow was the color of vitality. Plumpness, as in many societies where the masses are hungry, was the ideal and useful, men claimed, in winter: in the poorly heated palaces, a prince or minister could huddle his heftiest concubines around him to protect him from drafts.

There are at least twenty-four hairstyles mentioned in T’ang poetry, some a foot high, held together by lapis lazuli hairpins clattering with pearls, with silk flowers and birds of gold perched on the top. As the empire was crumbling, the most popular styles had names such as “Deserting the Family” and “Uprooting the Grove.” Yang Kuei-fei, the emperor Hsüan Tsung’s beautiful courtesan whose machinations set off a civil war, kept a tiny jade fish in her mouth.

The empire, expanding and contracting with conquests and defeats, at its height stretched east to the China Sea, south to Annam, and west along the Silk Road as far as Samarkand. The Grand Canal, a massive feat of construction 1,200 miles long, linked north and south, and a network of highways and waterways connected 1,859 cities, twenty-two of them with populations of at least half a million. The capital, Ch’ang-an (present-day Xi’an in central China), was the largest city in the world, some thirty square miles, laid out in a grid pattern with wide avenues lined with fruit trees and patrolled by unforgiving policemen, the Gold Bird Guards. Nearly two million inhabitants were apportioned into 108 walled wards, including two vast markets with hundreds of lanes, strictly organized according to goods and services; parks with artificial lakes and mountains and imported birds and game; and an extensive Pleasure Quarters of banquet halls and brothels.

Every aspect of life was codified and enforced by imperial edict: the length of tunics, the price of each item in the market, the colors that may be worn by ministers of certain ranks, the number of blows with a thin rod that a speeding coachman should receive. There were prohibitions against eating a white sheep that had a black head or a dish of pheasants with walnuts. Censuses of every village were taken to ensure an exact collection of taxes and to fill the ranks of compulsory labor and conscription. The country was converted to a cash economy and the foundation of imperial wealth became its tax on salt, a commodity everyone needed. Under the T’ang, the system of strict examinations on the classics as a requirement for entering the civil service became universal; one census listed 130,000 students. Although this hardly resulted in a meritocracy, it meant that some young men who did not come from well-connected families could rise to powerful positions in the government, and an increasing number of talented—or, at least, educated—people entered the bureaucracy.

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