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Dermatopathology: Practical & Conceptual

October – December 2010 | Volume 16, No. 4

Adiposity and its perception as being aesthetic during the Tang Dynasty (China, 618-907 A.D.)

Barbaccia, Vincenzo; Bertoldo, Francesca; Borroni, Giovanni; Ciocca, Olga; Manna, Giambattista

Adiposity in art

Aesthetics of fat distribution on the human body has been documented in art through the millennia in a variety of ways. The earliest depiction of this peculiar fat distribution is evident in prehistoric stones, the so-called Venuses. The Venus of Willendorf, a stone sculpture 11.5 cm high, presently at the Naturhistorisches Museum of Wien, is an early image of the goddess of fertility. In the center, her ovoid features are marked by the umbilicus (Fig. 1). The prehistorical Venus of Cernavoda (5000 B.C.) (Fig. 2), with an enormous amount of fat on her buttocks, hips, and thighs, and the slanting position of both her head and lower legs display the importance of adiposity as a secondary sexual attribute and that in turn patently refers to female fertility.

Fig. 1

Venus of Willendorf, stone sculpture (25000-20000 B.C.), Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Fig. 2

Goddess of fertility, from Cernavoda, Romania (5000 B.C), terracotta, 21.5 cm, National Museum, Bucharest.

Fat accumulation rarely has been perceived as an aesthetic value. In classic western European art, Greeks and Romans have given innumerable examples of their preference for constant proportions between trunk, limbs, and muscle mass distribution in the virile male body, and for rounded, but not fatty, smooth surfaces and volumes in the female body. Exceptions exist, such as the Etruscan funeral monument known as the Obese of Chiusi, a terracotta depiction of an Etruscan aristocratic man, who obviously is not notable for his charm but is seen from the angle of a stark realism.

For almost 1,500 years, early Christian European art as well as Middle Ages iconology deliberately avoided demonstrating any sympathy for fat accumulation in the human body (gluttony was, to the Church, one of the seven deadly sins).

In the 16th century, the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577- 640) gave examples in most of his paintings on historical or mythological themes of a changing view of the beauty of fat, almost exclusively depicted in females. Beautiful ladies were depicted with redundant plicae of fat of their abdomen, protruding glutei, powerful thighs, and opulent breasts (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

P.P. Rubens. The Three Graces (1636-1638), Prado National Museum, Madrid.

Outside Europe, a sudden, unforeseen report of abundant forms of art is seen in a peculiar period of Chinese history, the Tang Period. The Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) continued the policy of national unity promoted by the previous Sui Dynasty (589-618 A.D.).

The Tang Dynasty

Under the Tang rulers, China expanded its influence to Central Asia, Indo-China, Tibet, and Korea, and established trade and cultural exchange with Japan. The Tang period was characterized by cosmopolitanism, with Greek and Arab traders in the markets and streets of the cities, Indian and Central Asian monks, Persian refugees from the Sassanian Court, Nestorian Christians and Jewish merchants, all building their own places of worship, whether Islamic mosques, Christian churches, Zoroastrian temples or Jewish synagogues. Buddhism continued to flourish, and new Chinese Buddhism devotees used to make a long journey to the holy sites in India. However, starting in 845 A.D., Chinese Buddhism began to decline and a period characterized by religious persecution commenced.

Taoism and Confucianism continued to flourish, and the Emperors supported the three religions at the same time. While Taoism greatly influenced literature, Confucianism was the base of the civil-service examinations. The Buddhist faith continued to be the most important source of architecture, painting and art, underscored with a specific Indian flavor. Painting reached its zenith with two celebrated masters, Wu Tao-Tsu and Wang Wei (8th century). The most famous Buddhist sculptures of the Tang period are in the great caves of Lung Men, where pious monks carved thousands of sacred images of Buddha, among them the Vairocana Buddha. The Cosmic Buddha is carved in the seated position, as the spiritual essence of Sakyamuni himself, flanked by two Bodhisattvas, two monks, and four lokapalas guardians, masterpieces of Tang stone sculpture (Fig. 4). Tang sculpture used many different materials other than stone, such as bronze, lacquer, gold, ivory, silver, and clay. Most of the Buddhist bronze statues were melted down during the period of persecution. The statues of the Tang period reflect the high standards of craftsmanship, such as the silver amphorae, cups, and mirrors, a trait which was strongly influenced by Hellenistic and Sassanian Persian art. Tang ceramics show foreign shapes and models, adding to those a peculiar Chinese dynamic beauty. Polychromic glazes, made from copper, cobalt, and iron, mixed with a colorless lead silicate glaze created the green, blue, yellow and brown colors—typical colors in Tang ceramics. High quality polychrome lobed bowls, vases, jars, and ewers were produced in large quantities in addition to earthenware, representing Bactrian camels, powerful horses, tomb guardians, and gods trampling on demons. Court scenes and common life were reproduced vividly in figurines and pottery, depicting groups of musicians, polo players, foreign merchants in extraordinary clothes, with beards, and great jutting noses are seen on the pottery from central and western Asia (Fig. 5).

Fig. 4

Vairocana Buddha. (Tang Dynasty, 672-675 A.D.), stone, Feng-hsien-ssu, Lung Men, Honan.

Fig. 5

A foreign man holding a goose. The man has short curly hair, a hooked nose, and is seated, holding a plump goose that is being force-fed by means of a funnel in its open beak. Glazed pottery (Tang Dynasty). Christie’s. Fine Chinese Ceramics, Bronzes and Works of Art, New York, March 1998, p. 132.

The Tang "fat ladies"

Court life is captured in thousands of pieces of Tang pottery. In the middle of the 8th century, the fairy-like slenderness of the 6th Dynasty’s women gave way to an almost Victorian rotundity. [1] What was the cause of the changing fashion of the Tang Court in the middle of the 8th, and its references to the female form?

When we take a look at the thousands of painted earthenware figures decorated with color glazes which came to us from the Tang graves, we are impressed by the variety of human beings and animals, all of them telling of the quality of life, tastes, and the ideals of beauty during the Tang period. Among them, the figures of young court ladies elegantly dressed in long flowing robes, usually with rosy cheeks, framed by elaborate coiffed hair, sometimes with a single topknot, sometimes with a double topknot, immediately attract attention. A magnificent example of them is given in Figure 6.

Fig. 6

Painted pottery figure of a Court fat lady (Tang Dynasty, about 750 a.D.). Sotheby’s. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art. New York, March 2005, p. 209.

The standing, quietly imposing figure of a young lady is dressed in a long soft robe, her hands closed together in front on her full abdomen, which sways forward and on which a small duck is perched. Her plump and rosy cheeks and her gorgeous double chin, encircle small, delicately rendered lips. Her nose is small and regular, and her eyes, delineated by elongated eyelid rimae, confer on her an aristocratic, yet a slightly detached, searching glance. The hair is dressed in an elaborate cowl coif fanning out on the sides and is crowned by a pendulous chignon in a way that is known in China as domaji and by the China connoisseurs, as “falling off the horse.” Legend has it that this fashion was started by Yang Guifei, an Emperor’s concubine who fell off a horse during a polo game.

According to the old Chinese popular legend, around 750 A.D., Yang Guifei, a young lady, was welcome at the imperial Court, where soon she became the concubine and the imperial mistress. She was a beauty, characterized by unusual chubby cheeks, and she was definitely on the plump size.

Comment

Apparently, it was with the arrival of Yang Guifei to the imperial Court that the shift to the appreciation of plump cheeks as recorded in the pottery figurines was started. Yet, apart from the influence of the single lady Yang Guifei, there may be other reasons for that change in Court fashion. The first is the cosmopolitanism of the Tang Dynasty, characterized by the opening of China to foreign influences, such as from India and Persia. In the Asian subcontinent and in Western Asia the appreciation for adiposity in the female gender was well established on aesthetic and social grounds. The second point is that not only ladies, but also many court officers were portrayed in the Tang period with the features of “fat gentlemen.” In one pottery figurine (Fig. 7) a man inclines his head to the right, showcasing the left side of his full-cheeked face. The possibility that diet and food accessibility at the Tang Court were different from that of the common people should also be taken into account.

Fig. 7

Painted pottery figure of a “fat gentleman” (Tang Dynasty, early 8th century). Sotheby’s. Fine Chinese ceramics and works of art. New York, March 2005. Pag. 201.

The “fat ladies” of the Tang painted figurines demonstrate, above all, the variability of man’s perception of beauty throughout the millennia, and the sudden shifts in adopting the latest style. A recurrence of the appreciation for the aesthetics of fleshy ladies cannot be excluded in the near future, despite the present ideal of the of starving-model form in Western Countries.

Summary

Fat distribution of the human body has been documented in the history of art through the millennia in a variety of ways. The earliest depiction of peculiar fat distribution is given by the prehistoric stones, the so-called Venuses. Early Christian European Art, as well as Middle Ages iconology deliberately avoided demonstrating any sympathy for fat accumulation in the human body. Outside Europe, however, a sudden, unforeseen report of adiposity in the history of art is given by a peculiar period of Chinese history, the Tang Period. Thousands of painted earthenware figures decorated with color glazes from the Tang graves tell of the quality of life, tastes, and ideals of beauty during the Tang period. Among them are the figures of young obese court ladies. A magnificent example of them is presented and discussed in its historical context.

Giambattista Manna, M.D., Vincenzo Barbaccia, M.D., Francesca Bertoldo, M.D., and Olga Ciocca, M.D., are from the Department of Dermatology, University of Pavia, Fondazione IRCCS Policlinico San Matteo, Pavia, Italy, where Giovanni Borroni, M.D., is Professor and Chairman.This article was reviewed by Almut Böer-Auer, M.D. Contact corresponding author via email: g.borroni@smatteo.pv.it .

References

1. Sullivan M. The Arts of China. Third Ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984:140.