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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E2): Yale Curator Denise Leidy on the Sancai Glaze, 1.21.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E2): Yale Curator Denise Leidy on the Sancai Glaze, 1.21.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


Season 3, Episode 2 explores a beautiful form of Chinese pottery that represents the influence of China and its role as the center of cosmopolitan life at the crossroads of Eurasia at the time of the Tang Dynasty.

Sancai (三彩), Chinese pottery with green, brown/amber, and off-white glaze, is a craft perfected during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) but is it really Chinese, or did it come from Europe or Central Asia? Yale curator Denise Leidy shares her favorite Sancai pieces and talk about the Tang Dynasty, often referred to as China’s Golden Age.

Denise Patry Leidy is one of the world’s leading curators of Asian art. She is the Ruth and Bruce Dayton Curator of Asian Art and head of the Department of Asian Art at Yale University. Previously, she served as the Brooke Russell Astor Curator of Chinese Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as curator at the Asia Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Denise has curated exhibitions such as Global by Design: Chinese Ceramics from the R. Albuquerque Collection (2016), Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom (2013), Red and Black: Chinese Lacquer from the 13th to the 16th Century (2012), and Hidden Treasure of Afghanistan (2009). Her publications include How to Read Chinese Ceramics (2015), Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2010), and The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning (2009).

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 2:

Why did you choose the Tang Dynasty horse as your object?

Denise Leidy: I am aware the of the enduring appeal of a good Tang horse. Whatever their background is, anyone who walks into a gallery will be struck by the beauty and engaging possibility of these works.

One of the fun things about an iconic Tang horse, it was made for use in a Chinese tomb, is that it is an imported good. The horse itself was probably native to Afghanistan. It was desired in China because its longer legs made it better for playing polo and warfare.

In the 600s, China was international and cosmopolitan. And it was the center of this complicated exchange of peoples and ideas. That is the story that is reflected in the Tang horse. And it is an example of Sancai, 三彩,or three-color glaze. Sancai—which is green, amber, white and blue will come in—just sort of pops up and becomes a major moment in global history., And what I have been thinking about is why?

Who splashed these colors? I don’t know! You start finding it in the late and then it is part of elite funerary tombs in the North. Sancai gives us a visual record of this cosmopolitan exchange. When people from Persia, Korea, and central India and Japan were visiting.

Most of what has been found has been found in tombs, and pieces have been found in Thai palaces, and some in Japan.

You can see this sort of classic roman glass shape, with a Persian [pitcher], and the four on the bottom are all Chinese clay. Then you see the phoenix head, which of course is very Chinese. All are responding to this metal and glass form that has come into China. The one on the far right has a dragon shaped handle…because, why not?

I am speculating that when you ask yourself ‘why did Sancai appear?’ and you think about the cultural context in which it did appear, it was a Chinese understanding and interest in a broader world.

People in the field have said this looks like this piece of Roman glass or whatnot, but I am pushing it further.

The colors in Roman glass [reflect Sancai’s colors]. And the splash effect, is very much the aesthetic of what we are calling Roman glass. It was a luxury that spread throughout Eurasia. There is a lot of roman glass in Korea and there are a few pieces preserved in Imperial treasuries in Japan. The broader world was the Tang world at that time.

I find deep reassurance that humanity creates beauty whenever, but that we have been aware of and interested in each other since forever. [Despite politics,] there has always been a lower level of humanity where we look and learn from each other. That is an argument for visiting museums, to explore the world at your leisure and there are very beautiful things to learn out there.

If anyone wants to argue with me about my speculation, you can find me at Yale!


Full Video of Pieces of China with Denise Leidy


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