The Legend of the "Fat Lady" in Chinese Art

Her hair like a cloud

Her face like a flower

A gold hair-pin adorning her tresses

Behind the warm lotus-flower curtain

They took their pleasure in the warm spring night.....

Xuanzong (712 - 755 AD)

The Tang dynasty (618 - 906 AD) is generally regarded as the Golden Age in Chinese History. Under one of it's greatest Emperors,Taizong (reigned 627 - 649 AD), military conquests extended Chinese domination as far as the Parmirs.

This was a remarkable time when poetry, dance, painting, music and crafts flourished in a rich and powerful empire.

This was also a period of tolerance both in religious and social matters where elite and middle-class Chinese women enjoyed almost total freedom. Never before had the female so closely rivalled traditional male superiority in Chinese society.

Merchants and travellers returning from long journies along the silk roads brought back new fashions, hairstyles and social traditions, many of which were quickly embraced by the Royal Court. Keen to gain the favour of the Emperor, courtiers, officials and their families would adopt these new trends with relish.

As in the previous Sui dynasty, the style of female Mingqi statues in the early Tang reflected the fashions of the time. Tight, high collared tops were abandoned in favour of garments with wider collars and even revealing necklines, inspiring many erotic references to the barely covered snow-white breasts in the poems of the day.

The trend towards greater exposure could also be seen in hats and veils, originally worn for modesty's sake, which gave way to headgear that showed more of the wearer's face.

Hairstyles were another important feature of the female statues. As people of ancient China believed that some part of the essence and life force of a human being was contained in the hair, Chinese ladies grew their hair long and in the Tang dynasty they wore it in a multitude of different styles, most of them involving plaiting or coiling and piling up the tresses in towering edifices on top of the head.

No matter what the dress or hairstyle was, the statues had one indisputable common factor; almost without exception, they were all slim with no visible signs of over indulgence.

This was how the Emperor prefered his female companions.

The golden age is regarded as the forty years governed by the Emperor Xuanzong (Illustrious August - 712 - 755 AD).

For the first twenty years he was a vigorous and conscientious ruler and highly respected by officials and commoners alike however, as in many tragic love stories, later years were to be less than acceptable to the court.

He became obsessed with one of his sons wives. In 740 AD he ordered a eunuch to sieze the women from the prince's mansion and placed her in a Taoist temple where, some time later, he ordained her as a priestess. Soon after he moved her to his palace and four years later he stripped her of her religious title leaving the door open for him to legally accept her into his court.

Yang Gufei, as she is known to history, was a plump beauty accomplished in dance and music and, out of the hundreds of concubines, the emperors favourite.

Her "mature"figure demanded clothes that were stylish but that also concealed her ample charms so now, for the first time, long, loose fitting robes with high necklines became court fashion accompanied by elaborate hairstyles.

One pariticular hairstyle is often seen on fat lady statues.

Returning from a hunting trip one day Yang fell off her horse and the high arrangement of her hair came loose on one side. If anything, the delightfully dishevelled state of her hair made her look even more beautiful, so it was not surprising that the other palace ladies rushed to copy her Duo Maji or, "just fallen off the horse look".

The height of these (and other) fat lady statues were controlled; Royalty and the elite could have examples up to about 1 meter whereas less important people had to contend with smaller, more modest statues.

When the Emperor died he wanted to be accompanied to the next world with the tallest, most beautiful fat ladies.

Xuanzong spent so much time with Yang Gufei that he ignored matters of state just to be with her. His Chief Minister, Yang, a cousin of Yang Gufei plotted to remove the Emperor from the throne but was thwarted by a powerful lord, An Lushan who had raised an army of 150,000 troops and marched on the capital to confront Minister Yang.

In the summer of 756 AD, Xuanzong made a disastrous decision. He ordered the imperial forces to confront the rebel forces but was soundly defeated leaving the path clear for An to enter the capital.

On 14 July, Xuanzong, the Chief Minister, Yang Gufei and a small escort of troops slipped out of the capital and made their way to a rapid relay station to the west of the capital. Here the escort rebelled, killed the Chief Minister and demanded the life of Yang Gufei who they blamed for the dynasty's destruction.

The Emperor had no choice but to order his most trusted eunuch to strangle the love of his life with a horse whip.

Although the Tang dynasty continued under various Emperors, the golden age had come to an end. Fat lady statues were still used as Minqi for the elite until the end of the dynasty but when it eventually fell to what is known as the Five Dynasties in 907 AD, they ceased to be produced.

Related links:
For more examples of "Fat Ladies" see also:

- Mingqi - Chinese tomb figurines by Willem Claessen


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