The History of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

Buddhism is a religion that spans India, Japan, Vietnam, China, and everywhere between. As a result, Buddhist sculpture is dynamic and has a rich history across Asia. 

Chinese Buddhist sculpture differs from other strains because of China's long history of Buddhism. Archeologists and historians have all been piecing together the story to understand Chinese Buddhism. Understanding this religion helps understand its effect on art through the centuries.

By glancing at ancient Chinese art you'll enjoy extraordinary shapes and colors. You won't understand their importance or meaning without a firm grasp of early Chinese ancient art and Buddhist sculpture.

In this article, you'll get a brief overview of Buddhism. Then, you'll learn about its effects on Chinese sculpture so that it informs your enjoyment on your next art perusal.

Chinese Buddhism

It's difficult to encapsulate Chinese Buddhism in a short overview. Its roots dig deep into China's history. Buddhism has been a key factor in shaping Chinese culture and society.

Buddhism originated in a section of India now known as Nepal around 563-483 B.C.E. Siddhartha Gautama believed that human beings could reach spiritual enlightenment. Buddhists believe Siddartha did just that.

According to Buddhism, people who reach spiritual enlightenment become Buddhas. They are no longer subject to the constraints of the physical world.

The original version of Buddhism taught that one must live many lives to gain merit before becoming enlightened. Siddhartha believed he lived several lives before obtaining enlightenment. After this accomplishment, he set out to teach others.

As time went on, Buddhism evolved and expanded. Followers added more Buddhas as teachers to achieve their own spiritual enlightenment. Bodhisattvas, the enlightened who choose to remain among the public, were also added.

How is Chinese Buddhism Different?

Historians believe Buddhism entered China in the second century. Foreign monks traveled the Silk Road and taught Buddhism during the Han Dynasty.

Bodhisattvas are very important to the Chinese strain of Buddhism. There are two very important bodhisattvas. These are Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri, who embody compassion and spiritual wisdom respectively. By the tenth century, China believed Buddhas and bodhisattvas could manifest in different forms. 

Chinese Buddhists follow a combination of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. This mixture of religions has created a hybrid with many different sects. 

Mahayana Buddhist influence causes one of the core differences of Chinese Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, followers believe that enlightenment does not need several lifetimes -- it only needs one. This belief originated in the Kushan Empire and spread across China before traveling to other Asian countries.

Another significant difference is that when China adopted Buddhism, the Buddha became a god. Chinese Buddhists pray to the Buddha for salvation and help. In the original Buddhist practice, followers saw the Buddha as a man who reached enlightenment and taught them the ways of life.

China retained its Taoist beliefs while adopting Buddhism, which means that followers pray to gods from both religions. Chinese Buddhists have kept many traditions from Taoism, such as paying their respects to ancestors.

Finally, Chinese Buddhists put a heavy emphasis on happiness as the goal of life. These differences of religious sects have caused some of the biggest rifts. Historians can now separate Chinese Buddhist sculpture from other Buddhist sculpture traditions.

Ancient Chinese Sculpture

Unfortunately, China has such a long history that much of its sculpture has not survived. There are, however, many examples that we can study to get an idea of different periods' tendencies for sculpture. For the most part, sculpting was done through casting and moulds, and figures were static.

Dated around 675 CE, a monumental Buddhist sculpture was cut out of the rock face at the Longmen Caves. It represents a Buddhist Heavenly King who has demon guardians.

Shi Huanti's "Terracotta Army" is another famous example. It depicts 7,000 life-size warriors and 600 horses that guard the tomb of the Qin emperor of 3rd-century BCE. Despite the massive size of the project, each individual figure has unique characteristics. While the main body parts were molds, their faces and hair differ.

The Shang Dynasty, which reigned between 1600 and 1046 BCE, is known for cast bronze work. Vessels such as three-legged cauldrons were a notable addition to this work. Many had animal features and sharp relief decoration like repeating patterns and scroll motifs. 

In the Han period, the most common art came in the form of relief sculpting into bricks and stones. They would often depict famous figures and battles. These artworks helped historians to piece together Chinese history.
Also popular were earthenware figurines of individuals. Additionally, many artists cast bronze horse sculptures in full gallop.

Despite a full history of sculpture covering many different subjects, a majority of later periods' sculpture work related to Buddhist subjects.

Early Chinese Buddhist Art

Archeologists and art historians have worked together to find representations of Buddhism in Chinese art. The earliest representations found to date were from the second and third centuries. Some tombs from that period were enclosed with Buddhist art.

These early representations were very isolated. With little evidence otherwise, Buddhism in art seems to have not spread until the fourth century.

We can attribute this to the political history of China. In this period, China was a divided region often jolted and controlled by non-Han Central Asian individuals. 

From the fourth to the tenth century, Chinese traditions and Buddhist devotion began to flourish. Pure Land, a landmark Chinese tradition of devotion and faith as a means for enlightenment, focused on Buddha Amitabha and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Chan (Zen), an important practice in Korea and Japan, was also strengthened hand-in-hand with Buddhism in China.

By the 8th century, new Indian and Central Asian practices made their way to China. The Buddha Vairocana, new manifestations of old bodhisattvas, and cosmic diagrams all became prevalent in Chinese practice. 

As a result, early Chinese Buddhist art ranges from free-standing sculptures to carvings in temple sites. This region's art showcases a rich blend of Buddhist practices from all over Asia. Analyzing this art helps us better understand the flow of foreign influences in China throughout history.

Buddhism has a history full of war and persecution, so its influence has died off in some areas. At the same time, it still flourishes today in others in other regions. While the religion was extinguished from much of India, it is still in practice and evolving now in China, Korea, Japan, and within the Himalayas.

The Golden Age of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

Buddhism had not always been immortalized widely by artists across the globe. In fact, it took quite some time before its influence spread far enough and deep enough to inspire a wealth of artwork. By the Tang dynasty's rule, however, most Buddhist monasteries allowed religious art to be produced in full swing and decorate the temples.

From the early days, artists mainly focused on the Buddha as a subject. They included many bodhisattvas as well. From small figurines to life-size monuments, enlightened figures began to decorate China.

The most appealing art period in Chinese Buddhist sculpture is most likely the art created in the 6th through 8th centuries. During this period, Buddhist sculpture took over. Grand temples, cave sites, huge stone figures, and even small works like those on altars were everywhere.

Although 5th and 6th-century Buddhist sculpture was individualistic, the practice matured throughout the Tang period. Unlike early Chinese art, Tang dynasty art started to show life in its figures.

Depicted subjects showed movement and vivacity. Stoic and stern religious figures appear more like enthusiastic dancers.

As a result Buddhist figures became graceful and refined well into the 10th and 13th centuries. After this "golden age" of Chinese Buddhist sculpture, the creation of art lost its innovative drive. Following art became more traditional.

Depictions of the Buddha

If you've ever explored Buddhist sculpture, you might have wondered why the Buddha looks so different in various pieces. There are several reasons why the Buddha is depicted in different ways. Region, religious sects, art trends of the period, and other factors cause differences.

Buddhist art only began much after Siddharta's death, too. Depictions of him are only guesses rather than portraits. These differences are easily seen in sculpture, but also extend to all Buddhist art.

Similarities in Depiction

Even though artists have depicted Buddha differently, there are a few things that almost all Buddhist art includes. By looking for these signs, you can pick out the Buddha no matter how unrecognizable he may be.

To begin, Buddhist art always depicts the Buddha with some symbol of radiance. This usually comes in the form of a halo or a flame above the head. If nothing else, he may be depicted on a golden surface or covered in gold himself.

He is also said to have superhuman physical characteristics. In response, artists have depicted him with physical mutations. These include a lump on the top of the head, special markings on the hands and feet, and fingers that are exactly the same length.

The most historically accurate addition to his image, however, are his long earlobes. During his time before enlightenment, Siddharta was a prince who wore heavy jewelry. Therefore, his lobes are shown as stretched from the earrings.

Common Gestures or Positions

Along with key identifiers, you'll also see the Buddha in specific positions and making certain gestures. You'll most likely come across Buddhist sculptures with the Buddha sitting with his legs interlocked or crossed.

He'll also be holding his hands in a certain way. These hand positions symbolize something about the Buddha, including:

  • Symbols of reassurance shown with the right palm held up towards you
  • Symbols of preaching including hands held against the chest with fingers turning "the wheel of doctrine"
  • Symbols of Buddha's call to the Earth as witness to his victory shown by setting the right hand over the right knee

Beyond positions and key symbolism, however, Buddhist depictions vary greatly throughout history and regions.

Earliest Depictions of the Buddha

There is a lot of controversy over the earliest art that depicts Siddharta as Buddha. It is widely accepted that the earliest Buddhist art came about during the Kushana period in Gandhara and Mathura, India.

Hellenistic colonies influenced Gandhara during this period. Buddhist sculpture in this area depicted Buddha with Hellenistic properties.

In Mathura, Buddhist sculpture had a much more indigenous style. There is less realism in the human form. Instead, there is more concern with symbolic traits that mark a religious figure.

The differences don't end there, either. In many Buddhist countries throughout history, artists have depicted Buddha according to the belief that he reached Enlightenment through fasting. As a result, their Buddhas are gaunt figures meditating.

For Central Asian Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha is a strong and healthy figure. This Greek god-like Buddha figure has appeared in statues carved along the Silk Road, dated before Tang Dynasty's end.

How Chinese Buddha Depiction Differs

Other cultures and time periods have depicted the Buddha as skinny or god-like in fitness. Chinese Buddhists see a much different Buddha. In fact, the "Laughing Buddha" is a key indicator that Buddhist art is Chinese.
Because Chinese Buddhists prioritize happiness, their enlightened leader smiles and laughs in sculptures.

Further, Chinese Buddhists see happiness fulfilled in overweight figures. Despite reaching the fasting, Chinese Buddhists depict the Buddha as a fat figure.

Learn More About Chinese Art

Now you understand Chinese Buddhism and art history. In turn, you can enjoy Chinese Buddhist sculpture more fully. The differences in Buddhist depictions and art across regions and periods are vast and interesting. 

Interested in learning more about Chinese art throughout history? The Weisbrod Collection website has a wealth of resources and knowledge. Browse our blog or read our scholarly articles to learn more.