Buddhist Sculpture: Design and Influence

Buddhism arrived in China during the Han dynasty with a pantheon of figural representations. They included the Buddha, bodhisattva, monk (Iohan) guardian figure and auspicious emblems. When Buddhism in China was still in its early stages, votive images were small in size, such as a gilt bronze Buddha, dated 338, in the Brundage Collection.1 But as Buddhism became more widespread, larger sculptures emerged and eventually, enormous images were carved into mountains and caves.

The first Buddhist sculptures were serious, austere, distant, massive, and imposing even in small sizes. The Wei dynasty marble stele of a standing Bodhisattva (number 4) and (number 8) the standing marble Buddha, both reflect the Gandharan Indian tradition. The limestone relief sculpture of Buddha (number 1), polychrome limestone stele of Sakyamuni (number 3), stone relief of a horse and Bodhisattva (number 5), and the Northern Qi / Sui limestone Guanyin (number II), all display an ethereal Chinese style in which the shapeless body is concealed under loose-fitting robes.

Changes in the sculptural style from the Six Dynasties to the Tang dynasty occurred gradually. The large votive stele of a seated Buddha (number 9), depicts a figure still concealed under Gandharan style robes. This stele is embellished with musicians, dancers, donors, lions and caryatid figures, all carved around the foot of Buddha. Other motifs such as lotus petals and flames decorate the mandorla and surround the central image. Later, the seated marble Buddha on a pedestal (number 15), dated to 704, sits in a similar posture with Gandharan style robes draping over a more noticeably muscular physique. The limestone torso of a Bodhisattva, (number 14), which has been exhibited in several American museums, displays even more realism.

Large standing wooden figure of Guanyin

This realistic style was carried through to the Song dynasty, as the large standing wooden figure of Guanyin (number 21) demonstrates. This superb example, from the C.K. Chan Collection, and formerly exhibited in the National Museum of History, Taiwan, is a revival of the earlier Tang tradition. Later in the Jin, Yuan, and early Ming dynasties, the figures become less restrained and more ornately embellished. Catalogue entries number 24 to 28 demonstrate
this move toward ornamentation in the treatment of the robes, jewelry and crowns.

Development and reincarnation of styles can also be seen in the series of stone and wood heads represented in this exhibition. From different areas of China, they span a period of 900 years, from the 5th to the 15th century. Buddhist motifs are represented in stone, wood and gilt bronze figures, and are transferred to the more secular objects. At first, many of these objects maintained a religious significance because they were found in tombs. For example, the dragon handles on the glazed stoneware amphora (number 31) are reminiscent of the dragons on the mandorlas on 6th/ 7th century steles 2. A stone demon figure, one of three in the Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C., of Northern Qi date, has a face bearing an uncanny resemblance to the masks on the packs of the large painted pottery camel with monster masks (number 32). Jade beads or plaques are made with religious faces (number 29), and are sculpted softly to promote the tactile quality, as are the small jade beasts derived from Buddhist mythology (numbers 33, 34, 40, 41).

Ceramics continued the use of designs from Buddhism and probably the most frequently used motif was the lotus. Lotus flowers meander around the 14th yingqing jar (number 36) and celadon-glazed dish (number 37). The lotus, although derived from Buddhism, does not always have a religious significance when used as a decorative motif. The large celadon-glazed stoneware dish (number 39) shows the decorative quality of the lotus with an incised bouquet.

The bouquet of lotus design and other lotus motifs also decorated blue and white porcelain of the Ming and Qing dynasties.3 Although used purely as decoration, the lotus flowers on the imperial taste Daoguang bowl (number 56) appear in their traditional form along with the Eight Buddhist Emblems. This blue and white bowl also bears non-Buddhist, auspicious Chinese characters, demonstrating further the assimilation of Buddhist designs.

The lotus also appears on the cloisonné tripod censer (number 55) with a dragon handle on the cover and fo-dog heads on the legs. The rectangular cloisonné censer with cover (number 53) displays a mixture of lotus and other floral designs. An elephant, bearing fruit on its back, surmounts the cover. The elephant, dragon and fo-dog are animals sacred to Buddhism. Carved in jade, a single lotus flower is held by a phoenix with wings concealing its use as a waterpot (number 45) and number 51 depicts a fish bearing a lotus branch in his mouth. A female fo-dog and two cubs appear as a fanciful Ming incense burner (number 41 more fo-dogs frolic with "cash" symbols on the wucai jar and cover (number 47) and amongst lotus flowers on the rectangular lacquer box (number 54). These playful creatures no longer appear like the earlier incarnations of the Buddhist lion.

Horses originated early in Buddhist lore as seen in number 5, the very rare limestone relief of horse and attendant which is probably from the Longmen caves, and continued to be a favorite subject of the later jade carver, as the jade horse (number 34) and the jade horse and monkey (number 41) demonstrate.

Paintings began depicting Buddhist subjects almost immediately upon the importation of the religion. Buddhist caves were carved and painted, and frescos decorated temples. Later, paintings on silk or paper depicted images for temples, shrines or homes. The Ming dynasty Painting Of an Ox (number 44) was displayed, perhaps, when its owner had some auspicious need. Becoming the Buddha (number 59) most likely expresses a yearning rather than a reality,
and Zhu Qizhan's Lotus (number 60) is a modern interpretation of the Buddhist motif in a Zen style of the late Ming, early Qing dynasties.

The second half of the exhibition has two ceramic Buddhist representations both most impressive and yet, very different. The massive glazed stoneware guardian beast (number 38), which presumably guarded a temple with a ferocious friend, is an early Ming dynasty product. These large animals, although rarely seen, carry on a tradition of guardian lions, as depicted on stele number 9, and are found in larger forms guarding the cave temples from the Six Dynasties period 4. In the Ming dynasty, large Buddhist lions are produced in stoneware5, gilt bronze 6 and cloisonné 7. Qing dynasty decorative versions were produced in porcelain, including the 19th century pair of blanc de chine fo-dogs (number 57).

Although some ceramics feature a mark reflecting the period of manufacture, a shop mark, or an apocryphal mark, very rarely is a porcelain figure signed by the potter. The sage-like enameled porcelain Lohan (number 48), sitting in his harlequin robe on a wood throne decorated with dragons, Buddhist and other precious emblems, is a most striking, early Qing  example of a long-favored subject. The figure was previously exhibited in the Berlin exhibition in 1929. A brilliant decorative ensemble, the seated Lohan is based on a design originating in a foreign religion, Buddhism, which has been domesticated and assimilated into Chinese mythology and folklore.

Through the ages, Chinese artisans drew on many themes in crafting their spectacular legacy and Buddhism was one of the most preferred. The objects in this exhibition illustrate the evolution of Buddhism in China and its design and influence on Chinese art.


1. d'Argence, Rene-Yvon, Editor in Charge, Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture, The Avery Brundage Collection, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Japan: Kodansha International, 1974, number 19.

2. Michael B. Weisbrod, Inc., Religion and Ritual in Chinese Art, New York: 1987, number 17.

3. Jenyns, Soame, Ming Pottery, Porcelain, London: Faber and Faber 1953, numbers 15a: 15th century, 15b: 18th century.

4. Akiyama, Tarukazu, Matsubara, Sabaro, Arts of China, Buddhist Cave Temples, New Researches, Japan: Kodansha International, 1969, plate 1.

5. Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture, The Avery Brundage Collection, plate 171.

6. Williams. C.A.S., Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, New York: Dover Publications, 1976, front cover.

7. Gardner, Sir Harry, Chinese and Japanese Cloisonné Enamels, London: Faber and Faber, 1970, number 73.