In January 2016, the number of Chinese tourists flying to Australia in a twelve-month period exceeded one million for the first time. Travels were driven by the lower dollar, which “has been good for hotels, retailers and tourist attractions,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Among those enjoying, or perhaps flattering, Chinese patronage is the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where numerous treasures from the Tang dynasty are currently on display. China’s imperial monarchy was abolished little over a century ago, in 1912, but one-percenters of the mainland still float a sense of dignity in court dressing. Their finery is exotic, colourful and, with the advent of technology, customisable. One of my fellow gallery visitors, a striking Chinese beauty with painted lips, tucked her sunglasses into a pink ostrich Birkin bag—a modern treasure—so that she might better appreciate an ancient one: a mirror with sumptuous mother-of-pearl and turquoise inlays, from the year 736.
Tang: Treasures from the Silk Road Capital is a moderate-sized exhibition celebrating ancestral largesse. Approximately 135 objects feature in the show, skating across earthenware, religious idols, metallurgy and calligraphy. They have been drawn from eleven museums and cultural shade houses from the Shaanxi Province, situated south west of Beijing. Most exhibition visitors begin at the lower level, where an alcove offers an immersive digital rendering of the Mogao grottoes. As you hover an iPad over the wall, which has been webbed in thick white lines, patchy simulations of time-weathered stone walls, adorned with deities, stun the eye. The real cave, located in Dunhuang, at the edge of the Gobi desert, is one of many that has been closed off to tourists. I was surprised to feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The project is audaciously modern, and makes no qualms about rattling purist sensibilities. Does the technology profane the art, which was started by hermit monks in the fourth century? Who cares. The method may be new, but the madness is all the same: narrowing the chasm between us and the gods.
Long before Botticelli painted Venus standing on a shell, flanked by airborne deities, the poet Du Fu wrote a soulful ode to another beauty in The Ballad of the Fair Lady. Crude but accessible translation from the Chinese describe her as a highborn woman “fair beyond compare,” who was abandoned by her husband and left to earn a pittance selling flowers. Fu evokes the image of a mandarin duck, which is said to be monogamous for life (and thus a symbol of connubial fidelity) and consistent with the culture’s predilection for waterfowls. A gilded silver basin with mandarin ducks and floral medallion designs is featured in the show. It was unearthed from the rear chamber of the Famen Monastery crypt, in 1987, along with two other stunners: a lobed salt cellar with a serpentine stem, and a lordly incense burner with an elephant motif. History books and Disney films are teeming with provincial girls who encountered transcendence—Joan of Arc, Cinderella—and the quiet people of the Dongguan Village, in Zhaoren Town, were just as lucky. In 1993, a quartet of gilded bronze Buddha statues were unearthed there, rewarding (and confirming) the people’s toil and piety.
Tea, like Buddhism, was a gift from China to Japan. The brew was drunk by clerics and scholars, and they made an art of it. Their women made an art of dressing. Ladies’ beauty routines were methodic, underscored by spiritual finesse. A fine lead powder was spread across the face, the cheeks were rouged and the eyebrows drawn. Dyed paper, gold foil, and textiles (huadian) were pasted onto the forehead in floral and piscine shapes, before dimples were dramatised by dots (mianye) placed one centimetre away from either end of a winsome smile. The finishing touch was a paste or balm that covered the lips, most often in a red or cherry shade. Empress Wu Zetian, the first and only woman monarch in China (she ruled in the brief Zhou period, that interrupted the Tang reign from 684-705), is said to have favoured a cosmetic paste known as zixuedan, a powdery purple and red concoction that smoothed the deepening furrows of her skin. By all accounts, she succeeded Cleopatra as the world’s eminent Cosmo Girl. Marie Antoinette, the empress’s aesthetic heir, was born over a thousands years later.
The exhibition’s accompanying literature notes that Tang cosmetics enabled a “diva in her fifties to transform into a pretty young girl after some careful work.” Emperor Xuanzong (ruling 712-756) had ordered his imperial painters to record the most popular eyebrow styles, and gave them names such as ‘hanging pearl’ and ‘horizontal smoke’. But like geishas in Japan and, later, punks in England, the true arbiters of style were sidelined beauties of defiant chic. Hair was worn in a chignon—a low bun—and anchored by pins festooned with dangling pearls or jade; golden laurel; flower or branch veins; and birds, whose plumage was beat. The vogue was a body-hugging blouse that seems to have presaged the corset, and a skirt that skimmed the leg. A peibo (sash or cape) hung across the wearer’s shoulders. It was typically made of gauze or leno weave, and dispelled the austerity (some would argue dowdiness) of the woman’s body when it would “catch the breeze and achieve a flying effect.” The Silk Road connected the Tang empire’s capital of Chang’an to the Mediterranean Sea. It provided their sisters to the West, who were meanwhile languishing in the Dark Ages, with a much needed lifeline. But if beauty was social competition, Tang women never condescended to make it a close one. “The Tang dynasty is the highest achievement in Chinese history,” says Yin Cao, resident curator of Chinese art. “The whole empire opened its doors to embrace people from all over the world. This was the New York of the eighth century.”
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, in the real New York, opened its Costume Institute’s annual exhibit. Over 800,000 people saw China: Through the Looking Glass. Andrew Rossi chronicled its production in a documentary, The First Monday in May, which is now playing in select cinemas across Sydney. After leaving the Tang exhibit, I caught an evening screening at the Dendy, in Newtown, where a busker with an ashen beard was singing ‘Moon River’ to deaf and dismissive by-passers. “Fashion is easier to understand than language,” Anna Wintour tells the camera. She later expresses fears that Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibit, has laid out decor that resembles a Chinese restaurant. His proposal for the museum’s grand entry staircase includes two dragons that resemble topiary waterslides.
“Is this based on Chinese something?” Wendi Murdoch asks.
“It’s the something that I’m worried about,” Baz Luhrmann grins.
Bolton wants to put a picture of Mao Zedong in a room with Buddhist statues, ostensibly a commentary on political deification. His artistic director, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, warns him that it might offend some people. “Don’t make it too busy,” he says. “Seeing too much is seeing nothing.”
For a brief moment, Bolton is seen whittling down the hip of a mannequin. The Tang curators make a point of dispelling the myth that exposed cleavage and plumpness was the paradigm of Eastern beauty. “Although these claims are evidenced in some paintings and pottery figurines, both are subjective misconceptions that result from the legend that Emperor Xuanzong favoured the voluminous concubine Yang Guifei,” they write. But the reverence paid to portly women ran alongside lovely depictions of waifs, and that archetype of slender impassivity continues, somewhat insidiously, today.
Before Hollywood and fashion magazines made a cult of dressing up, the Chinese harboured a keen sense of feminine dignity. They took their vanity to the grave. Scissors, tweezers, and clam shell boxes have been found in Tang graves, as well as mirrors that were decorously placed beside the deceased person’s head. Women of dignified beauty with exposed cleavage, it is said, appear on the insides of burial chambers and stone coffins. This suggests that they were familiar with the tomb’s occupants from the privacy of their own homes, rather than in public. The exposed might have been a gentleman’s mistress, or a noblewoman’s lady in waiting. People used to privilege are often loath to suffer the indignity of losing it, even in the afterlife.
Couture and pathos are resurrected in one of Rossi’s most beautiful scenes. When a large white box enters the Costume Institute, a small team of restorers are tasked with opening its contents. Slowly, in almost dead quiet, they lift a magnificent Dior couture dress (from one of John Galliano’s earliest collections) and spread it on the embalming table. The green silk glistens obscenely, and the feather trim quivers under the cosmic weight of each person’s breath. Later, when Galliano walks in to meet Bolton, he is staggered to see more of his early designs. “It’s like reuniting with a child you haven’t seen in years!” he exclaims, throwing his gaze over the chorale of mannequins dressed up to sing a lost gospel. As time runs out and panic settles in, Anna Wintour suggests that the museum close off an entire wing on a Sunday to finalise the show, reasoning that “the public can come back next week.” The board members in the room look stunned by her proposal, if not her insouciance. But if the queen says it shall be.