Remembering Tang Dynasty, China’s Cradle of Innovation

Legend of the Demon Cat, Chen Kaige’s historical fantasy film based on Yoneyama Mineo’s Samana Kukai, transports viewers to the luxurious Tang capital of Chang’an, modern Xi’an.

The story is narrated through the eyes of a Japanese monk who crosses the sea in search of “ultimate truth.” What impresses him first is a performance of Huxuan dance,where prostitutes and military officers are drinking at opposite ends of the table. Soon after, tens of thousands flood the streets for a glimpse of Imperial Consort Yang Yuhan, the era’s most beautiful woman and the emperor’s favorite concubine.

Huxuan dance in Legend of the Demon Cat

History recalls Tang Dynasty as an age of unprecedented openness.

Chang’an was the world’s most populous city in the 8th century, and its cosmopolitan appeal drew more foreigners than anywhere. It was the epicenter of China’s most powerful and prosperous period, during which literature, art and technological innovation flourished. As with the Renaissance in the West, such advances were made possible by economic strength, political stability and an open foreign policy.

To understand a city, one must first understand its history. That search begins in the museum, and at the Shaanxi History Museum every cultural relic is accompanied by a story.

Perfume Inspires Navigation

“The imperial consort’s flesh is decayed, but her perfume box remains,” the chief eunuch wrote when he was tasked with finding the body of Yang Yufei, who was strangled and buried in the Village of Mawei during a military coup.

Yang’s perfume box presented at the Shaanxi History Museum

Yang’s famed perfume box is a spherical container made of silver. The hollowed out metal is split into two hemispheres by a horizontal line across the middle and a snap fastener. Outside that are two layers of biaxially connected concentric circular rings: the outer ring is connected to the outer wall of the ball and the inner ring is connected to the outer ring and a small semicircular golden bowl.

internal structure of the perfume box
internal structure of the perfume box

No matter how the container sways with its wearer, the golden fragrance bowl can maintain balance and avoid spillage. The principle was only much later on applied to aviation and navigation technology in Europe and the Americas.

To some extent, Yang’s delicate perfume container can be seen as the mother of the gimbal, which European scientist Girolamo Cardano described in 1551. In the 16th century, with the development of navigation in Europe, gimbals became widely used in navigation compasses, as well as the magnetic compasses and gyrocompass used in aeronautical navigation and autopiloting today.

Gunpowder and Magic

China is the birthplace for gunpowder, and black powder appeared in the late Tang Dynasty (late 9th century). From the Warring States to the early Han Dynasty, emperors and nobles were obsessed with the search for immortality, encouraging alchemists to concoct pills from all manner of materials. It was one such alchemist who gradually worked out the formula of gunpowder.

Black powder is a mixture of specific portions of saltpeter, carbon and sulfur. As one of the four great inventions of ancient China, black powder embodies the peak of wisdom together with paper making, printing and the compass. It was used both for military and entertainment purpose, and from China spread to Europe, and to the world at large.

Without Chinese alchemists, there wouldn’t have been gunpowder treason in England in 1605.

The invention of gunpowder also gave birth to illusionary performance. Fascinating visual effects such as flashes and mist enabled people or things transform and disappear. In the fantastic Legend of the Demon Cat, boys transform into white cranes and spread their wings into the sky and flowers blossom in the blink of an eye. The magic is dazzling and unreal.

the “white crane” boy in the film

For modern magic shows, visitors shouldn’t miss the high-tech entertainment of Mount Li, a renowned mountain in Lintong District of Xi’an. Its performance is based on “Everlasting Regret”, a narrative poem by Bai Juyi that tells the tragic love story of Emperor Xuanzong and Consort Yang.

“Once on the seventh night of the seventh moon in the Hall of Eternity,
When no one was around they whispered words of love in the depth of night.
In heaven above let us be one-winged birds and only in pairs fly,
On earth let us be neighbouring trees with our branches intertwined.”

As the above lines are read, the lights of Mount Li brighten against the night sky in a marvelous scene.

performance of “Everlasting Regret”

Digital Museum

Visitors can better experience the Shaanxi History Museum with tour apps on their smartphones.

The tour guide app of Shaanxi History Museum provides users with multiple services, including indoor and outdoor positioning and an audio tour guide. The audio tour guide supports Chinese, English, Japanese, Uighur, Tibetan and other languages, and offers a more informative tour of the museum.

Audio tours free visitors from having to worry about losing their tour guide or lacking the time to appreciate a particular work as their group shuffles off to another exhibition hall.

The digital museum became available on May 18, 2018, and it is the first such app in China. The exhibition hall of the digital museum has four parts: a screen projection and interaction area, VR experience area, the cultural relics data query area and the recording area for online radio and cultural relics. Virtual reality and augmented reality display reconstruction historical scenes, putting the Xi’an museum at the forefront of China’s smart museum trend.

To see a virtual reproduction of history, all it takes is a visit to Xi’an!