Every Piece Tells a Story

A Chinese painting from ca. 8th century

Some of the most interesting traces of human history are broken pieces or fragments of an artifact. They may be a bit knocked about, but these hardy survivors can tell us much about the original object and the cultural world from which it emerged.

Take, for example, this fragment of silk with the image of a seated woman. This delicate scrap of silk, measuring about 60 cm square or roughly 2 feet.

The fragment was originally part of a much larger painted screen. In 1972 when the tomb was excavated, archaeologists discovered the remains of the crushed screen among the grave furnishings. You can see an example of a large screen painting in this complete image.

Based on inscriptions found in the tomb, they identified its owner/occupant as a government official who served the Tang Dynasty (610-906 AD).

Returning to the painted fragment, we see that the woman is luxuriously dressed. Her bright and finely patterned gown, high-piled hairdo, and bold rouge and powdered makeup suggest she was very much “on trend” for her time, and especially for her remote home in a border town. Her plump face and ample figure also reflect 8th century (Tang era) fashions and conventions of female beauty, as seen in this sculpture from the same time period. Similar examples were found in tombs close to the imperial capital of Chang’an — which established the styles in fashion, food, music, and dance among other entertainments.

This painting fragment tells quite a bit about the cosmopolitan culture even in border areas of the empire, including the popular entertainments. The finely dressed woman is also playing Weiqi, an ancient Chinese game of strategy, kind of like chess with small black and white pieces. Take a closer look at the game board and you can see them positioned at the intersections of the grid lines (rather than inside the squares).

Her opponent’s reaction is impossible to guess, but we can deduce her gender based on the flowered garment concealing the curve of her bent knee in the lower left corner.

This screen image of two fashionable ladies playing Weiqi perhaps formed the backdrop of an actual game in the home of the official. But could it also have been intended to create the right environment for a match in the afterlife?

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