The Importance of the Fat Lady in Chinese Tang Art
The Tang Era of Chinese history is heralded as a golden age, witnessing the prosperity of culture, economy, diplomacy and politics under a centralized government. Stability within China had led to an expansion of foreigners entering and habituating within the country, bringing with them their own cultural and social habits. Where political prosperity flourished, so too did culture. A new movement was ushered in, with a new outlook that was sensitive and yet bold, open to new ideas partly influenced by the surge in foreign integration. As such, normal class and social boundaries were dispelled with. The emergence of the ‘Court Fat Lady’ as a popular image of Chinese identity first made its appearance with the Empress Wu Zetian, who named her empire Zhou. Women were romanticized and heroised. They were liberated in all sense of the word. Previously the taste for women, especially concubines, had steered towards the slim and slight woman. The new fashion preferred the more buxom figure, as indulgent as the new liberties women enjoyed. Plump women of the high court were enjoying their heyday, represented in art and poetry, popular in the royal household. It is said that the most famous of Court lady, Yang Guifei, the consort of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-756) set the fashion for ladies of ample form. Clothing and fashions accommodated Yang’s more mature figure and for the first time, long, loose fitting robes with high necklines became court fashion accompanied by elaborate hairstyles. One particular hairstyle is often seen on fat lady statues, made famous by the following story.
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 disheveled state of her hair made her look even more beautiful, so it was not surprising that the other palace ladies rushed to copy her style, with her bedraggled appearance. Yang’s influence was to last for generations with the Chinese idiom 'Yanshou Huanfei' ('Plump Yang, Slender Fei') referring to the range of types of beauty celebrated in Chinese culture. The Fat Lady is the sculptural embodiment of celebrated beauty.
Our own examples of a ‘Fat Court Lady’ beautifully exemplify the typical Tang style, with her ample form clearly on display with rounded, rosy cheeks and curved stomach. She strikes a mature, demure and elegant figure. Her hands are delicately placed, resting in front of her stomach or raised in varying styles. Her hair often resembles the unconfined nature described in the Yang story above, shaken free from its constraints due to her horse-tumbling escapade.