5th century painting of Monk Ajnatakaundinya from Kizil Caves

As Buddhism, took root in China, it became a major cultural force, inspiring some of China's most brilliant paintings and sculptures. The periods of Chinese Buddhist art closely parallel the phases the Buddhist religion was going through in China . Works that appeared in the 5th and 6th centuries were very free and individualistic. In the Tang period the art became more mature and robust, with Buddhist figures featuring graceful lines and curves. In the 10th to 13th century it became more refined. After that it was rooted in tradition and lacked innovation.

Buddhists filled caves throughout China with sculptures and murals. In the cliffs of the Tian Shan mountains in the Kumtura and Kizil regions of Xinjiang province in western China, for example, there are hundreds of caves adorned with Buddhist painting that date as far back as the A.D. 5th century. Scholars believe the paintings — many depicting episodes from the lives of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, painted using paint made from ground minerals such as malachite for green and iron oxide for red — were commissioned by lay people and painted by local artists

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Buddhism brought to China a large range of divine beings, all of whom came to be depicted in images at temples, either on their walls or as free standing statues. The earliest Buddhist images in China owed much to traditions developed in Central Asia, but over time Chinese artists developed their own styles. Here we look separately at the evolution of the different divine beings in the Buddhist pantheon, then look briefly at groupings of deities.” [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism in China Buddhist Studies buddhanet.net ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in China Wikipedia Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Buddhist Art: Digital Dunhuang e-dunhuang.com; Dunhuang Academy, public.dha.ac.cn ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ;Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu; Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; Mahayana Buddhism: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) studybuddhism.com ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis nirvanasutra.net ; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism cttbusa.org ; Chinese Religion and Philosophy: Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu

History of Chinese Buddhist Art

Denise Leidy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ Long-lasting encounters between Indian and Chinese Buddhism and the beliefs, practices, and imagery associated with their respective traditions remains one of the most fascinating in world history... Over time, Buddhism expanded from its initial focus on the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni to include numerous celestial Buddhas as well as bodhisattvas and other teachers and protectors. Buddhas are understood as beings that have achieved a state of complete spiritual enlightenment and are no longer constrained by the phenomenal world. Bodhisattvas, who are also enlightened, choose to remain accessible to others. In China, two of the most important bodhisattvas are Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), the embodiment of the virtue of compassion, and Manjushri (Wenshu), the personification of profound spiritual wisdom. By the tenth century, both were understood to be able to manifest in a range of forms; Avalokiteshvara sometimes took the form of a woman, which helps to explain the early Western perception of this divinity as female. [Source:Denise Leidy, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

5th century Buddha at Mt. Xumi

“Buddhism may have been known in China as early as the second century B.C., and centers with foreign monks, who served as teachers and translators, were established in China by the second century A.D. Early representations of Buddhas are sometimes found in tombs dating to the second and third century; however, there is little evidence for widespread production and use of images until the fourth century, when a divided China, particularly the north, was often under the control of non–Han Chinese individuals from Central Asia. In addition to freestanding sculptures, numerous images were also carved in cave-temples at sites such as Dunhuang, Yungang, and Longmen. Also found in India and Central Asia, these man-made cave-temples range from simple chambers to enormous complexes that include living quarters for monks and visitors. \^/

“The period from the fourth to the tenth century was marked by the development and flowering of Chinese traditions such as Pure Land, which focuses on the Buddha Amitabha and the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and Chan (or Zen). Pure Land practices stress devotion and faith as a means to enlightenment, while Chan features meditation and mindfulness during daily activities; both traditions are also prevalent in Korea and Japan. In addition, after the eight century, new Indic and Central Asian practices were also found in China. These included devotion to the celestial Buddha Vairocana, new and powerful manifestations of bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, and the use of cosmic diagrams such as mandalas. Many of these practices (best known today in some Japanese traditions and in Tibet) were intended to protect the nation and offer tangible benefits, such as health and wealth, to the ruling elite. Others involved complex rituals and forms of devotion designed for advanced practitioners. \^/

“Chinese Buddhist sculpture frequently illustrates interchanges between China and other Buddhist centers. Works with powerful physiques and thin clothing derive from Indian prototypes, while sculptures that feature thin bodies with thick clothing evince a Chinese idiom. Many mix these visual traditions. After the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when Buddhism disappeared from India, China and related centers in Korea and Japan, as well as those in the Himalayas, served as focal points for the continuing development of practices and imagery.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Along with the growing secularization of Buddhism in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), its relation to the imperial court became increasingly distant. From this period is a large figure of Sakyamuni wearing a flowing robe with a gentle and kind expression. A fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism flourished in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), at which time the Ch'an and Pure Land Schools came to rise. A Ming figure of the Amitabha Buddha on display is remarkably straight and symmetrical, the folds in the robe are precise and conceptualized.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Buddhas in Chinese Art

Tang-era clay Buddha statue from Bingling Temple in Gansu Province

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ Literally, the term "Buddha" means "enlightened one." According to Buddhist beliefs, however, there have been innumerable Buddhas over the eons. This section will look primarily at Sakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism. Sakyamuni was born around 500 B.C. in north India. As a young man, unsatisfied with his life of comfort and troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he left home to pursue spiritual goals. After trying a life of extreme asceticism, he found enlightenment while meditating under a tree. For the next forty-five years, he traveled through north India, preaching, attracting followers, and refuting adversaries. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

By the time Buddhism reached China, images of the Buddha played a major role in devotional practices. As you will see, the Buddha is usually depicted as austere in stature, pose, and dress. Otherworldly features are highlighted while human characteristics are de-emphasized. Mudras, or gestures performed with the hand, convey various actions. /=\

Common mudras found in Chinese art: 1) Mudra which grants absence of fear; 2) Mudra of appeasement; 3) Mudra of the knowledge fist; 4) Mudra of touching the ground; 5) Diamond handclasp mudra; 6) Mudra of concentration; 7) Mudra of the fulfilling of the vow; 8) Mudra of turning the wheel of the law. /=\

“In addition to the mudras, the Buddha is often depicted with other common conventions such as the lotus blossom, elongated ears, usnisa (the protrusion on the top of the head), and the urna (the raised dot in the middle of the forehead). These features refer to the life story of the historical Buddha. For example, the long earlobes remind one of the heavy ear ornaments the Buddha would have worn while still living in the palace. /=\

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Buddha was originally distinguished by thirty-two special marks of perfection (mah purusa laksana) including a golden body. Therefore, images made of wood, molded clay, and stone are all customarily gold gilt, whereby the Buddha's perfection is compared to infinite rays of light. According to the Buddhist sutras, "A gold-colored body is one of the thirty-two favorable marks of the Buddha- The golden rays shine upon the Twenty Eight Heavens, the Eighteen Hells, and the world of the Buddhist deities (from T'ai-tzu jui-ying pen-ch'i ching). The Buddha's golden hue is marvelous, ethereal (from The Sutra of Cause and Effect, Past and Present).” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Early Buddhist bronzes preserve distinctive foreign characteristics, such as the emaciated face and deep-set features of a seated Buddha from the fifth century. Early examples of Buddhist sculpture in China showed a greater Central Asian influence. Examples of this are seated Buddhas carved into stone cliff during the Northern Wei period (A.D. 386 to 534) and standing stone Buddhas in the cave temple complex at Maijishan, which dates to the Western Wei period (A.D. 535 to 556).

Bodhisattvas in Chinese Art

5th century stone Bodhisattva from Maijishan

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have put off entering paradise in order to help others attain enlightenment. There are many different Bodhisattvas, but the most famous in China is Avalokitesvara, known in Chinese as Guanyin. Bodhisattvas are usually depicted as less austere or inward than the Buddha. Renouncing their own salvation and immediate entrance into nirvana, they devote all their power and energy to saving suffering beings in this world. As the deity of compassion, Bodhisattvas are typically represented with precious jewelry, elegant garments and graceful postures. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Hui-hsia Chen of the National Palace Museum, Taipei wrote: “Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings embodying compassion. While possessing the wisdom of the Buddha, the bodhisattva postpones attainment of nirvana in order to assist mortals in need. Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, seated upon a lion, often appears with Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence, who has an elephant as a mount. [Source: Chen, Hui-hsia, National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Early examples of bodhisattvas in Chinese art include a 142-centimeter-tall, 5th century clay statue from Maijishan from the Northern Wei period and a 127-centimeter-tall, 5th century stone relief of Bodhisattva from Yungang. The Tang dynasty ushered in a period of growth and prosperity, during which Buddhism flourished. Buddhist beliefs, temples, and art permeated almost all levels of Tang life. Surviving Buddhist sculpture reflects the wealth of the great Buddhist monasteries. Many of these sculptures were decorated with rich, painted colors, which have faded with time. /=\

Guanyin is a bodhisattva featured in many artworks. The image of Guanyin was traditionally depicted as a young Indian prince, but during the Tang the feminine characteristics of Guanyin became more prominent. After the Tang, the cult of Guanyin grew in popularity largely due to popular literature, folk stories, and artistic images. By the sixteenth century Guanyin had become a Chinese goddess figure. In some folk religions she had become independent from her Buddhist origins. /=\

Chen of the National Palace Museum, Taipei wrote: “ The most beloved and worshipped bodhisattva in China is Avalokitesvara (Chinese: Kuan-yin). In the Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589), Kuan-yin is depicted carrying a lotus flower in one hand, signifying purification. Kuan-yin's other common attributes include a holy water bottle (kadika), a whisk, and a willow branch. The water bottle, an indispensable item in the tropical climate of India, symbolizes cleansing of the human heart and Kuan-yin's compassion bestowed upon all sentient beings. The whisk represents Kuan-yin's ability to disperse worries and trouble, while the willow symbolizes Kuan-yin's gentle nature. Kuan-yin of the High T'ang adopts feminine features. In the Middle and Late T'ang, Kuan-yin figures appear free and easy, sitting in a meditative pose with one leg folded and the other relaxed. The facial features of Sung Dynasty (960-1279) bodhisattva figures from the Ta-li Kingdom (Yunnan) reflect strong regional influences. Moreover, in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) a large variety of images emerged reflecting Kuan-yin's strong popular appeal. The image of Kuan-yin holding a child, widely-worshipped in supplication for children, is one example of the bodhisattva's deep penetration into the popular religious tradition.” \=/

Other Divinities in Chinese Buddhist Art

5th century stone apsara from Yungang

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ Within Buddhist temples, in addition to the Bodhisattvas, groups of other divine figures help to complete the Buddha's entourage. They venerate, protect, and support the Buddha in a hierarchical structure. In this section you will be introduced to some of the more common figures. These include divine kings, gods of strength, and apsaras. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

In Buddhist tradition, the divine kings were responsible for protecting the Buddha and his Law, the sanctuary, and the Buddhist congregation from dangers and threats of evil forces arising from the four cardinal directions of the compass. The Gods of Strength are wrathful deities who are often depicted as hyper masculine beings. Subordinate to the Divine Kings, they are responsible for fighting the evil forces of the world. /=\

Hui-hsia Chen of the National Palace Museum, Taipei wrote: “Lokapala and Mahakala are the Guardian Deities of Buddhism. Gazing angrily, and wielding weapons, these menacing figures appear perpetually ready to engage in battle to protect the dharma. The guardian deities are often positioned at the entrances of front halls of temples, in order to protect the temple. [Source: Chen, Hui-hsia, National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

In Buddhist traditions, apsaras are heavenly beings. In depictions of paradise they hover above the Buddha. Apsaras are often depicted as female. When they are depicted in three-dimensional forms they are almost always done in shallow relief and not as a free standing sculpture. Apsaras are most often depicted in shallow relief while the other divinities are more often produced as free standing three-dimensional figures. /=\

Most of the time, people viewed Buddhist images not individually, but in assemblages. This was true both on the altars of temples and in the shrines people had in their homes. In looking at assemblages of Buddhist figures, it is important to notice differences in size and relative placement. A typical grouping include two Buddhas flanked by two Bodhisattvas with two apsaras floating above and a teaching Buddha surrounded by similar figures. /=\

Images in Chinese Buddhist Temples

Buddha image in Fayuan temple's main altar

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Most Chinese encountered Buddhist images within Buddhist temples, which came to be constructed by the hundreds and thousands across China as Buddhism gained followers. Before the end of the fifth century there were reportedly more than 10,000 temples in China, north and south. Some were undoubtedly small, modest temples, but in the cities many were huge complexes with pagodas, Buddha halls, lecture halls, and eating and sleeping quarters for monks, all within walled compounds. These temple complexes provided a place for the faithful to come to pay homage to images of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and meet with clergy. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

The best evidence of the interior decoration of early temples is found in the surviving cave temples. Although only a few wooden buildings have survived from the Tang period or earlier, hundreds of cave temples have survived. Here we offer glimpses of the three most famous cave temple complexes, Dunhuang in Gansu Province, Yungang in Shanxi Province, and Longmen in Henan Province.

Stupas are another feature of Buddhist temples. Often they are relatively undecorated but sometimes they contain art work. Hui-hsia Chen of the National Palace Museum, Taipei wrote: “The stupa originated from the Indian funeral mound. In Buddhism the stupa is used to hold the reliquary remains of the Sakyamuni Buddha, and symbolizes Sakyamuni's attainment of ultimate extinction. Of the objects on display there is a T'ang stupa dating to 905 which is similar in style to the Stupa of Asoka. The four sides of the body illustrate the story of the past lives of the Buddha kyamuni, and giving (dana) on behalf of the enlightenment of all beings. The eave-type pagoda is a distinctively Chinese architecture form. On display is a Ming Dynasty stupa dating to 1631 which is in fine condition, with traces of painting remaining. Rising from the square body is a conical tower which slowly tapers to the top. The piece conveys a feeling of great height; the layers of brackets are thick and heavy without losing their subtle beauty. [Source: Chen, Hui-hsia, National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Buddhist Sculpture in China

20080221-buddha eraly tang u wash.jpg
Early Tang sculpture

The most well known sculptures to come out of China are the images of Buddhas found in caves and sculptures unearthed from tombs. According to the Shanghai Museum:“The most attractive sculptures are Buddha statues with different styles, such as simple and delicate Buddha statues of the Northern Wei, elegant and vivid Buddha statues of the Northern Qi and the Sui dynasties, gorgeously shaped and full-bodied Buddha statues of the Tang dynasty, and novel and secular Bodhisattva of the Song dynasty.” Viewers can watch “a process how Buddhism, a foreign culture, was merging into Chinese traditional culture. [Source: Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum-net /+]

“Sculptures were popular during the Shang and Zhou dynasties and matured during the Qin and Han dynasties- The representatives of this period were terracotta army near the mausoleum of the First Emperor of the Qin and stone sculptures and wooden and earthen figurine from royal and elite tombs during the Han. Generally, pottery figurines of the Western Han showed simple technology and unadorned beauty. Those of the Eastern Han period exhibited more realistic in style and more vivid in facial expression and gesture. /+\

“Buddhism spread to China from India and Central Asia during the Han period. In the early Northern Wei period, Buddhist sculptures showed significant influence from Gandhara (northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan). Statues gave an appearance of westerners. Then, elegantly flowing robes and girdles appeared. Buddhist statues of the Western Wei exhibited strong bodies, round faces and full and intricately pleated robes. In the Northern Qi dynasty, statues became slim and graceful, with delicate garments and sharp linear details. Thoughtful facial expression was a typical style during the Northern Qi, which persisted into the Sui dynasty...Buddhist sculptures during the Song period emphasized the beautiful build of the human body. The development of sculptures during the Southern Song period was slow. Sculptures of the Yuan and Ming dynasties became formalized and routine, lacking creative works.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Among single Buddhist sculptures, one often finds sculptures of the Buddha, Buddhist monks, Bodhisattvas and guardian deities. The Buddha is at the core of the belief and represents the attainment of enlightenment. Disciples rendered in the form of monks transmitted his teachings after his death. Bodhisattvas were made in the image of a secular, royal prince—having reached Buddhahood, they chose to stay in this world in order to assist those who have not. Guardian deities look ferocious, but they avert physical enemies and internal demons. Then there are stupas, representing Nirvana. All these come together to compose the fundamental elements of Buddhist art. Besides the religious content of Buddhist sculptures, these objects also possess their independent artistic merit. Northern Wei sculptures tend to be modest and simple. T'ang sculptures are often rotund and lively. Starting from the Sung era, sculptures became more closely associated with ordinary people. In addition to revealing the technical development of each period, they also reflect their makers' standards of beauty. Thus, appreciating religious sculpture not only imparts their ideological ideals, but also conveys universal concepts of beauty. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei ]

Some of the most exquisite Chinese sculpture was discovered at Qingzhou in Shandong in 1996 by workers leveling a sports field at a school. First the stone head of a Buddha was uncovered. Underneath that was a pit with 188 heads and 200 virtually intact torsos, and some monumental steles with Buddhist triads, and clay figures that were once brightly painted, some of them with “ash and burnt bones." The pieces were quickly excavated and stored in a museum without serious archeological work being done. They were of varying styles and time periods, and seemed like someone's private collection.

Types of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures

Hui-hsia Chen of the National Palace Museum, Taipei wrote: “The Chinese used two major methods to cast bronze images: the piece-mold method and the lost-wax method. Using the piece-mold technique, a clay or sandstone model is covered with a layer of clay, which is cut and removed in two or more pieces to form an outer mold assembly. The outer mold is carved with decor and the outer surface of the model is scraped away; molten bronze is then poured between the model and outer molds. Decoration appears cast inversely on the object's surface. During the Six Dynasties period (317-587), the nimbus behind the head or body of many Buddhist images was cast separately using the piece-mold technique. [Source: Chen, Hui-hsia, National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The lost-wax casting method involves the use of a wax model which is packed with clay. The wax model melts when the object is heated, escaping through a hole in the clay, to be replaced with molten bronze. Once the bronze has cooled, the clay layer is removed. Exceedingly complex designs can be produced through lost wax casting. By the Sui Dynasty (581-618) piece-mold casting was gradually replaced in favor of lost-wax casting, which has been used consistently thereafter. During the gilding process, a mixture of gold powder and mercury is applied to the surface of the bronze; the mercury evaporates when heated, and the gilding is polished, resulting in an indurate coat. Other details are also added, such as the vivid lines of the Buddha's eyes or the flowing folds in his monastic robe. \=/

“Collected works of stone and wood sculpture are typically large-scaled. Historical sources record the existence of abundant lifesize gilt-bronze Buddha images. Nevertheless, throughout periods of Buddhist persecution from the Northern Wei to the T'ang Dynasty, war, and economic decline, many pieces were destroyed or melted down so that the bronze might be reused for other purposes. Consequently, most surviving Buddhist bronzes are less than twenty to thirty centimeters in height. Large-scaled bronzes from the more recent Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911) Dynasties still found in Chinese temples are rarer than gilded wood and stone objects which were considerably more economical. \=/

“Given the difficulty of transporting large-scaled objects, few are to be found in local or international collections, therefore this exhibition of two sets of four large bronzes marks a particularly rare event. Small Buddhist bronze figures were easily carried on one's person as a talisman to provide self-protection during a journey or were placed upon a household altar to worship the Buddha. Unfortunately, many attachments have been lost, such as the throne, nimbus, and canopy, and the original assemblages of figures have long since been separated and dispersed among various collections. One can only imagine the magnificent and august atmosphere of the original Buddhist altars, furnished with splendid assemblies of Buddhist images, each over thirty centimeters high.” \=/

Early Buddhist Art in China

4th century gilded bronze seated Buddha

Early Buddhist art from the A.D. 5th century was influenced by the Hellenized Central Asian cultures of Kushen and Ganden and embellished with Chinese ornamentation. This art was mostly in form of Buddha statues and stelae, some of them dated and inscribed with their donor's name, carved out of rocks in caves such as those in Yungang near the Great Wall.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Emperors of the Northern Dynasties [A.D. 420-589] were Buddhists and used the religion as a system for unifying their rule. At the same time, they engaged in such religious activities as erecting temples and producing sculptures. Under the court's influence, the aristocracy and the rest of the people followed suit, believing that by performing these good deeds, they could gain more merit. Religious art became the essence of artistic creation at the time. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Buddhism of the Northern Dynasties mainly followed the Lotus Sutra, Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra and Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Sculptures often depict stout Shakyamuni Buddha, Maitreya or Avalokitesvara figures. From the strong figures of the early period, those of the middle period became more delicate. Along with the complex ones of the late period and serene ones of the Eastern Wei and Northern Ch'i, these sculptures reflect not only the artistic sensibilities of the particular periods, but also the religious views. ‘ \=/

“With an expanding empire and increasing royal patronage of Buddhism, contact with India was strengthened during the Sui and T'ang periods. T'ang monks went westward to India, and Indian monks made the reciprocal journey eastward, bring scriptures and injecting new life into Buddhism. With the emergence of educated monks and their ponderings on the nature of Chinese Buddhism, there emerged many different sects as Buddhism was gradually assimilated into Chinese culture. Buddhist art reached a new peak during the Sui and T'ang dynasties.

Tang Buddhist Sculpture

The periods of Chinese Buddhist art closely parallel the phases the Buddhist religion went through in China. Works that appeared in the 5th and 6th centuries were very free and individualistic. In the Tang period the art became more mature and robust, with Buddhist figures featuring graceful lines and curves. In the 10th to 13th century Buddhist art became more refined. After that it was rooted in tradition and lacked innovation.

Tang Bodhisattva

According to the Shanghai Museum: “The Tang dynasty was one of the most brilliant epochs in Chinese ancient civilization. Sculptures of this period emphasized realism. Thus, various human figurines showed well- proportioned build and accurate appearance. Buddhist sculptures were given more perfect images in order to express the spirit of rescuing all living creatures.[Source: Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum-net /+\ ]

Hui-hsia Chen of the National Palace Museum, Taipei wrote: “ During the T'ang Dynasty, an indigenous religious tradition developed while Buddhism continued to flourish; hence, these pieces manifest characteristics of the T'ang style... Models brought back from India inspired new decorative motifs and aesthetic concepts. The volumetric and aesthetic concerns of Indian sculpture were skillfully incorporated into the unique flowing lines of Chinese sculpture. In the spirit of realism, sculptors revealed not only the Buddhist inner spirit, but also physical appearances through full bodies, flowing drapery lines, and soft movements. The dignified spirit of the Buddha was eloquently integrated into the midst of human nature and expressed through beautiful art forms.” A seated Buddha with representative voluptuous features dating to the High T'ang is small in size, yet conveys strength and vigor. [Source: Chen, Hui-hsia, National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Wonderful 6th and 7th century Buddhist sculptures have been unearthed in northern China along the Silk Road in Gansu and Ningxia. This include a big-nosed clay representation of a Buddha disciple; a granite carving of Avalokitesvara, a popular Buddhist deity; and a bronze figure of a dancing Sogidian. Many of the work bears influences from Persia and Central Asia. The Sogdians were a Persian culture centered around Samarkand

A relief a Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas and a life-size bodhisattva feature extraordinary detail and expression. Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “A seated Buddha that was once enthroned represents a classical moment of its art. The perfect proportions project a sense of harmony and the expression of imperious illumination speaks of a powerful, self confident art. A figure in motion is unique in the art of China, with its knees very slightly flexed lifting the light drape adhering to the body."

Tang-Era Buddha

Among the works of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York collection is a Tang-era Buddha, probably Amitabha (Amituofo), dated to the early 7th century. It is made of hollow dry lacquer and contains traces of gilt and polychrome pigment and gilding. The image is 96.5 centimeters (38 inches) tall; 68.6 centimeters (27 inches) wide and 57.1 centimeters (22.5 inches) deep. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Buddhist images executed in dry lacquer were highly valued by the Chinese because of their costly and time-consuming process of production. There are so few surviving examples that this seated Buddha is especially precious. To fashion the body of the image, the craftsman made a rough form of the sculpture in clay and then applied at least three layers of hemp cloth, each secured with a paste made of raw lacquer (the sap from the lac tree, Rhus verniciflua) and a fine powder of bone, horn, shell, ceramic, stone, or carbon. Each layer had to dry thoroughly before the next could be added. The clay core was then removed from the lacquered image. The head and hands were likely modeled separately, using the same technique as that used for the body, and then attached to the sculpture. The surface was finished with several coatings of pure lacquer and then painted. \^/

“Portrayed as a youthful figure, the Buddha sits in the full lotus position, with his legs tightly interlocked, though the lower part of the sculpture is missing. The position of the damaged arms suggests that the hands performed the gesture of contemplation. The columnar form and lean gracefulness of the figure recall the style of Buddhist sculpture of the late Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386–589), but the attempt to render anatomical differentiation and, in particular, the emotional impact of the Buddha's expression are distinguishing features of early Tang style. The traces of brilliant red and blue, vividly combined to form a stylized floral pattern in the hem of the undergarment crossing the chest, and the remains of shimmering gilt on the surface are evidence of the sumptuous effect of this once colorful figure.” \^/

Buddhist Printing in China

Buddhist monasteries were instrumental in the development of the world's first block printing in China in the A.D. 7th century. Buddhists believe that a person can earn merit by duplicating images of Buddha and sacred Buddhist texts. The more images and texts one makes the more merit one earns. Small wooden stamps — the most primitive form of printing — as well as rubbings from stones, seals, and stencils were used to make images over and over. In this way printing developed because it was "the easiest, most efficient and most cost effective way" to earn merit.

The world's oldest surviving book, the Diamond Sutra, was printed in China in A.D. 868. It consists of Buddhist scriptures printed on 2½-foot-long, one-foot-wide sheets of paper pasted together on one 16-foot-long scroll. Because virtually all original Indian scriptures have been lost Chinese translations of Indian scriptures have been invaluable in trying to figure out what the original Indian texts said.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “It is definitely known that actual books were printed in China during the ninth century, and probably such printing goes back considerably earlier. The world's oldest existing printed book is a Buddhist sacred text, dated in the year A.D. 868, and beautifully printed in Chinese characters. It was recovered some forty years ago from a cave in Northwest China, just at the point where the great Silk Road leaves China proper to plunge into the deserts of Central Asia. This book was not folded into pages like our modern books, but was a single roll of paper 16 feet long. Its dedication states that it was printed by a certain Wang Chieh "for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents." [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu]

Over the years, printing displayed changes in Chinese Buddhist art. According to a National Palace Museum, Taipei description of a Yuan-era “The Buddha Preaching the Law”: “This woodblock print reflects the new "Tibetan-Chinese" style of the Yuan dynasty. The main figures (the Buddha and bodhisattvas) are Tibetan in style, but the others (disciples, donors, etc.) are all Chinese in manner. Two major changes are also seen in terms of composition. First, the main Buddha is not placed in the center, but rather off to one side preaching the Buddhist law. Second, before the frontal Tibetan style pedestal is a diagonal donor table. It indicates that the Chinese printing of the south (which originally reflected Tibetan influences) is gradually returning to Southern Sung Chinese traditions. The sketchy manner of carving suggests that this print dates from the late Yuan. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

Diamond sutra

Later Chinese Buddhist Art

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Since the 10th century, intellectuals became the main advocates of culture, gradually replacing the aristocracy. Buddhist stories also increasingly became the basis for folk tales and a part of history. Buddhism completely permeated people's daily lives in China. Sung religious sculptures became more secular and closer to ordinary people. With the rise in importance of painting, sculptures also became more painterly in effect. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Buddhist practices performed in religious devotion occurred frequently in the imperial clan during the Liao dynasty. The aristocracy and commoners alike sponsored the printing of scriptures, constructing of temples, and production of sculptures. Departing from the T'ang style inherited previously, a more independent style developed in Liao sculpture during the 11th century, where figures had strict, unsmiling visages and upright, stout torsos—expressing the unique power of the Khitan tribe. \=/

“The Ta-li rulers in Yünnan were devout Buddhists as well. In fact, 9 of the 22 kings became monks. Buddhist monks also took part in the civil service exams and became officials, reflecting the spread of the religion. Esoteric theology was the major sect. Influenced by Chinese beliefs, Taoism and local religions, it gained in complexity. Avalokitesvara was especially revered and many sculptures of this bodhisattva of compassion (known as Kuan-yin in Chinese) were carved. With myriad influences from neighboring Southeast Asia, a great regional style developed. \=/

“With the economic expansion of the Ming and Ch'ing, the spread of Buddhism no longer needed support from the court or the aristocracy. Believers focused their energy on producing copies of the scriptures, expanding further the reach of Buddhism. Though Buddhist theology did not experience major breakthroughs in this period, through religious occasions and activities, its basic beliefs permeated the lives of people and became an inseparable part of Chinese culture. Ming and Ch'ing sculptures, reflecting the pursuit of longevity, having sons, and gaining wealth and prosperity, leaned toward more earthly goals, often representing the familiar motherly figure of Avalokitesvara or the large-bellied Maitreya. Sculptural forms became more uniform and static, with an emphasis on outer appearances and often stripped of spiritual context. The court also had some Tibetan sculptures, characteristically detailed and elaborately decorated with colors pleasing to the eye, yet without dedication to the inner spirit of the Buddha.” \=/

Song Dynasty Buddhist Paintings

Song-era stone Guanyin

Most existing examples of Chinese Buddhist painting that date to the Tamg Dynasty or before are found in cave temples in northern and western China (See Separate Article on Buddhist cave art). The oldest and most exquisite examples of Buddhist painting on paper and silk date mostly to the Song Dynasty.

National Palace Museum, Taipei description of “Lohan”, a Buddhist painting attributed to Li Sung 1190-1230, (Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 104-x-19.5 centimeters): “Lohan is the Chinese term for arhat, which is used to describe a disciple of Buddhism who achieved a certain level of cultivation and escaped from the cycle of birth and rebirth. The lohan shown here is leaning on a bamboo cane with both hands and is sitting on a meditation seat. He has two attendants--one holds an incense holder and the other prepares a basket of flowers. His hair has turned white and he stares forward with a solemn expression. The drapery lines flow with grace yet strength. The use of brushwork in this painting is exceptionally refined, as seen in the clusters of drooping willow leaves above and the decoration of the seat and stand next to the lohan, making this is one of the masterpieces of Buddhist and Taoist figure paintings in the Museum collection. Although this painting bears no signature or seal of the artist, it has been attributed in the title slip to Li Sung, who served as a Painter-in-Attendance at the Southern Sung court between 1190 and 1230 and specialized in Buddhist and Taoist figures as well as the ruled-line style of painting. However, judging from style, this work probably came from the hand of a Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) artist. \=/ [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

National Palace Museum, Taipei description of “Guanyin of a Thousand Arms and Eyes,” Anonymous (Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 176.8 x 76.2 centimeters): “Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion stands on a lotus pedestal supported by four Guardian Kings. Above are seated Buddhas on auspicious clouds and below are eight Deva Kings in two rows. Guan-yin here has a moustache, but also an elegant face and delicate figure, clearly revealing feminine characteristics. Guanyin with many heads and arms comes from esoteric Buddhism, which entered T'ang China under Kao-tsu (r. 618-626). The top of Guanyin's head has 26 heads of bodhisattvas and one of a Buddha. Guanyin has 1,000 hands, each of which has an eye in the palm. A visualization of Guanyin's ability to see and assist all, this work reflects the deity's compassionate nature. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Against the background of a myriad billowing waves and auspicious clouds spewing forth, stands a majestic Guanshiyin (or Guanyin) Bodhisattva of a Thousand Hands and Eyes supported by the Four Heavenly Kings holding up a bejeweled lotus pedestal. On Two attendant bodhisattvas clasp their hands in reverence on either side of Guanyin, and next to them are two others in attendance holding Buddhist implements. The Guanyin here appears with facial hair, indicating a manifestation in male form, but the eyes and eyebrows are delicate and elegant. Combined with the warm and gentle look, the figure already reveals the manner of a female deity. Although this scroll bears neither seal nor signature of the artist, the outlining of the figures and lines of the drapery patterns were all done using strokes from a centered brush. The brushwork is fluid and spirited, the necklace decoration and gems inlaid onto the bejeweled lotus pedestal painted with exceptional detail. The coloring is beautiful but not vulgar, making this a masterpiece of Southern Song Buddhist painting. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Yuan Buddhist Art

Guanyin acolytes

By the Yuan period (1271–1368) Tibetan Buddhist influences were common in Chinese court art. National Palace Museum, Taipei description of Hevajra, (originally ascribed as a Yuan Mahakala tapestry): “Hevajra is one of the five main deities in Tibetan Buddhism. A believer could choose any Buddha, bodhisattva, or protector as a "principal deity" of worship and practice throughout life. The popularity of Hevajra was mainly due to the faith of Kublai Khan. It was in 1253 that Kublai Khan and his consort Chabi were converted to Buddhism by Tibetan high monk Phagspa. They received the tantric baptism of Hevajra as practiced in the Sakya sect of Phagspa. In the personification of Buddhist ideals and practices, Hevajra stood for wisdom and compassion as well as the overriding power of Buddhism. Thus, Hevajra is shown here trampling on four figures to symbolize overcoming one's difficulties. \=/ [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

National Palace Museum, Taipei description of a thanka of Onpo Lama Rimpoche, (Fourth Abbot of the Taklung Monastery), 13th century: The Taklung Monastery, the main monastery of the Taklung Sect, is situated 65 kilometers north of Llasa. In 1240, the Mongol general Godan sent To-ta to Tibet in preparation for an assault. To-ta returned and informed him that "Monks of the Taklung monastery are of the highest morals." Indeed, the two Taklung thankas in this exhibit have inscriptions on the reverse that emphasize the importance of the virtues of "restraint" and "perseverance" for monks. For this reason, Taklung clergy were respected by the Yuan imperial precept Phagspa and received the patronage of Kublai Khan. Buddhists revere the "Three Treasures" of the Buddha, the Law, and the clergy. Most of the surviving portraits from the Yuan dynasty are from the Taklung Monastery, which established a norm and a didactic model for posterity. \=/

Indian influences were also found in Yuan-era court art. National Palace Museum, Taipei description of “Amitabha Buddha, Sung to Yuan Dynasty: “In the 13th century, as Genghis Khan was commanding his armies to the north, the Buddhist holy land of India came under the control of Muslim leaders. The last classic phase of Indian Buddhist art from the Palas dynasty (750-1200) reveals the classic elegance and introversion of Gupta (5th century) art with the decorative and delicate esoteric features of East Indian art. Fortunately, the Palas tradition was preserved in Nepal and Tibet. But what exactly is the East Indian Palas style? The figure in this work is elegant and the coloring clear. This work is representative of a thanka from the Kadam sect of central Tibet.” \=/

Giant Buddha-Building Craze in China

Zhou Mingqi wrote in Sixth Tone: “Is there such a thing as too many Buddhas? China may be about to find out. “For the past few decades, the country has been in the midst of a Buddha-building craze. Just last year, for example, it was reported that a wealthy businessman had nearly completed “the world’s largest copper sitting Buddha” in a remote county in the northern province of Shanxi. The 22-story structure supposedly took 8 years to build and cost 380 million yuan ($57 million) — a relative pittance in the world of big Buddhas. [Source: Zhou Mingqi, Sixth Tone, October 23, 2018. Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell]

“Travelers looking for the world’s largest Buddha statue, however, must make the trip to the neighboring province of Henan. Opened in 2008, the Spring Temple Buddha is located in Lushan County — one of the poorest counties in all of China, in which residents’ average annual discretionary income is just 12,800 yuan. In stark contrast to the poverty of the surrounding countryside, the Spring Temple Buddha, which took 11 years to complete, stands more than 208 meters tall, is plated with 108 kilograms of gold, and cost an eye-popping 1.2 billion yuan to build.

“Every few years, there are reports in Chinese media of another mammoth statue being unveiled. Cloaked in shining golden robes, massive Buddhas have become a fixture of China’s tourism industry, adorning temples, mountaintops, and lakes — wherever builders can find a spot with favorable feng shui. This obsession with monumental statuary isn’t limited to giant Buddhas, either. In recent years, numerous legendary and historical figures have been immortalized in larger-than-life forms, including Guan Yu, Laozi, Confucius, Huang Di, Yan Di, and Mazu. One village even built a giant, gold-plated statue of Mao Zedong.

“Wang Zuo’an, director of China’s National Religious Affairs Administration, admits that some Buddha builders are perhaps placing an undue emphasis on size. He describes their mindset as: “If someone else has the largest standing Buddha, then I’ll build the largest sitting Buddha. And if someone has already built the largest sitting Buddha, then I’ll build the largest reclining Buddha.”

“Those familiar with the Communist Party’s official stance on atheism may find it perplexing that local governments across China would approve the construction of enormous religious idols. Yet while these statues may be aimed at the country’s religious believers, their real purpose is far more worldly: making money. Put simply: If an area without any notable natural scenery or historical landmarks wants to attract tourists, it needs a gimmick — and giant Buddhas fit the bill nicely. They are also well-suited to China’s entrance fee-centric tourism industry: By the time visitors are in the gate and realize that, actually, one giant statue of the Buddha is much like the next, park authorities have already made all the money they expect to make.

Forces Behind the Buddha Building Craze in China

Zhou Mingqi wrote in Sixth Tone:“Buddhism in China has a long history.” Over the centuries” Buddhist statues, temples, and grottoes have sprouted up all over; and today, these heritage sites — including the 71-meter tall Leshan Giant Buddha, the Mogao Caves, and the Longmen Grottoes — are some of the country’s most well-known and popular tourism destinations. In an effort to compete with these sites, which have deep historical connections to the Buddhist tradition, officials and businessmen elsewhere have tried to one-up them with their own “world’s greatest” and “world’s largest” Buddha statues. [Source: Zhou Mingqi, Sixth Tone, October 23, 2018. Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell]

“The craze has its roots in the 1990s, in the success of some of the earliest monumental Buddha statues. In 1997, local officials in the eastern city of Wuxi unveiled the Lingshan Buddha. Standing 88 meters tall, it was then the world’s tallest Buddha statue — a title that was then still a novelty. It inaugurated a building frenzy.

“Perhaps sensing what was coming, in 1994 Zhao Puchu — the then president of the Buddhist Association of China — tried to head matters off by noting that the still-under-construction Lingshan Buddha gave China one giant Buddha for each cardinal direction: north, south, east, west, and center. “That's enough,” Zhao declared. “From now on, there is no need to build any more outdoor Buddha statues.”

Alas, his words fell on deaf ears. As did similar words from the State Council — China’s Cabinet — which that same year felt compelled to issue a “Notice to Stop the Overbuilding of Outdoor Buddha Statues.” The National Religious Affairs Administration and other departments also joined in, and have since spent the past few decades repeatedly stressing that regional Party and government leaders should not be supporting or involved in the building of unapproved temples or outdoor Buddha statues for any reason. Work has nonetheless continued around the country, and given that each statue takes years to build — and none of them are designed to be inconspicuous — it seems some local officials remain willing to look the other way.

“Yet the copycats all utterly fail to understand what made Lingshan so successful in the first place. Sure, it had a big Buddha, but those in charge also realized that the country’s increasingly discerning tourists cared about more than just size. In the years since the Lingshan Buddha was built, the park in which it resides has been expanded to include the Brahma Palace — a Buddhist art museum featuring the work of craftsmen from around the country that won the 2009 Luban Prize for architecture and engineering — and Nianhua Bay, a popular Buddhist-themed imitation ancient village that draws on elements of Tang Dynasty design and combines them with local styles.

“This additional work paid off, and now Lingshan draws more than 4 million tourists a year. It has also held the 2015 World Buddhist Forum. But imagine if local officials had been content with the Buddha statue alone. Would it still be such a draw, even after larger Buddha statues were built elsewhere? The success of the Lingshan Buddha has much to do with its location in the economically prosperous Yangtze River Delta and park officials’ willingness to try new ideas, not just its size. Meanwhile, Lushan has been home to the tallest Buddha statue in the world for a decade now, but many of the county’s residents remain mired in poverty.

Image Sources: Tang sculpture, University of Washington; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei ; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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