Assimilation and Development of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

Through trade routes coming from Central Asia, Buddhism was introduced to China sometime during the first century of the Han Dynasty. By the second century, according to literary evidence, Buddhist communities and temples were established in the northern regions of China. While Confucianism and Taoism were reigning systems of philosophical thought during the Han Dynasty, Buddhism gradually became assimilated into the Chinese belief system. The Chinese, however, did not readily embrace the imported religion, as their native creeds were already well rooted. A variety of political and social circumstances facilitated the adoption of Buddhism. The faltering successors of the great Han emperor Wudi towards the end of the empire resulted in political chaos and a sense of disenchantment with Confucianism. The Chinese were also attracted to Buddhist practices for increasing longevity comparing them to their traditional Taoist elixirs of immortality. Thus, the breakdown of the empire as well as an open mind for new ideology provided fuel for the eventual adoption of Buddhism as a religion.

During the Six Dynasties period (317-589), northern China was ruled by non-Chinese using Buddhism to legitimize their rule, while the fleeting elite class ruled the south. Imperial patronage of monuments enforced the stronghold of Buddhism in northern China. Translations of texts from the official language of scriptures, Sanskrit, were also supported. The commission of statues in large rock-cut caves such as the caves at Yungang and Longmer are testimonies of the ardent support of their sponsors.

As the Buddhist faith became absorbed, deities that once took on Indian, or non-Chinese appearances gradually began to change. Inevitably, the faces of the figures and their bodies were transformed to take on a Chinese interpretation. It was during the Wei Dynasty where fully sinicized models are seen, and the Longmen grottoes came to represent the style of late Northern Wei sculpture. In the late fifth - early sixth century, the massive bodied, Greco-Roman derived sculptural qualities gave way to a more willowy, flowing, and refined style of figures. As seen in the Maitreya Buddha (cat. no. 8), the body becomes sharpened and elongated with sloping shoulders. The figure is no longer seen wearing an Indian cassock but a robe with long sleeves and a sash around the waist in the manner of Chinese scholars.The robes and sashes become abstract flaring waves that flow across the body. The face is sculpted with raised eyebrows, narrow eyelids, an archaic smile, and high cheekbones. The crown and usnisa are prominent and high. Figures from the Northern Wei period are permeated by a sense of linear rhythm and elegance.

Around the late 6th century, figures started to change and bodies began to expand more. There was a breakthrough in realism and an emphasis on solidity and mass of the body rather than fluttering ethereal drapery. As seen in the seated stone dated figure of a bodhisattva (cat. no. 9), the center of gravity rests firmly on both feet, the frontality affirming a solid and motionless stance. The columnar form is complemented by ornate details such as long trailing jeweled necklaces. The richness in detail coupled with austerity in body form and expression are highlights of the Zhou (557-581) and Sui (581-618) dynasties, which set the foundation for the next phase of Buddhist figural style.

In the Tang Dynasty (618-906), the Buddhist community reached an apogee of power. Monks were patronized to make pilgrimages to India who brought back with them texts as well as iconographic drawings. For example, the famous pilgrim Xuanzang (602-664) traveled to Nalanda, an important center for Buddhist studies, and in 648, Wang Xuanci (died c. 675) recorded Indian images. With fresh influences, there was a renewed interest in the fullness and roundness of Indian forms. Tang sculptors began to depart from the stylistic guidelines under the Sui in the second half of the seventh century. There was increasing attention to the structure of the body underneath the drapery and the smoothly flowing contour of line. No longer were sculptures rigid and expressions stern; there was a passion for soft fleshiness and sublimity in countenance. The marble head of a Iuohan (cat, no. 10) is a fine example of the pinnacle of achievement and aesthetic beauty that was reached in the Tang Dynasty.

The implementation of wood in creating sculptures probably existed before the Song Dynasty, but very few examples are extant. We do know, however, that carved wood Buddhist sculptures flourished especially during the tenth century onwards.

There was also growing enthusiasm for deities other than the Buddha, for example bodhisattvas, in particular Guanyin (Sanskrit: Avalokitesvara). Guanyin, taken from the Lotus sutra and the Pure Land sutra, was a deity that people were able to relate to, comparable to the saint in the Catholic religion. Relaxed and in informal pose, Guanyin was accessible to the masses whose compassion and grace toward women and children embued the deity with a feminine air. The secularization of Buddhist deities led to perhaps a more earthly appearance of Tang style figures, for example the large seated wood figure of Guanyin (cat. no. 11). While Liao (907-1125) and Song (960-1279) period sculptures maintain the Tang tendency of realism and dignity, they are also noted for their slightly more slender proportions and a variety of individualistic expressions.

In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, though Buddhist temples continued to spread throughout China, the religion declined in fervor and zeal with which it had once taken on the hearts of the Chinese. The production of large sculptures gave way to smaller, more portable statues in a variety of media. These types of personal shrines were created for the home or for people to earry. Guanyin continued to be the favored goddess, a subject that was embraced in porcelain, bronze, stone, and even lacquer. For example, a rare and beautifully lacquered wood figure of Guanyin dated 1475 is in our exhibition (cat. no. 12).

Today we are able to enjoy the Buddhist images that reflect the religious ardor with which the Chinese people welcomed a foreign religion as early as the first century and continued through a grand history. Each sculpture in this exhibition is a triumph of technical virtuosity and visionary inventiveness. Whether the sculptors were conscious of a native style seems almost irrelevant when one sees the spirituality embedded in the expressions produced with such an economy of means. These sculptures then perhaps become monuments of Buddhism and of the Chinese spirit of beauty and art.


Originally written by Helen Shin for Weisbrod Collection (Adapted).