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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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".
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
For more examples of "Fat Ladies" see also:
- Mingqi - Chinese tomb figurines by Willem Claessen
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