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 Chinese Buddhism

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture
(Online Jan. 2014)

Buddhism began with the life of one man, Siddhartha Gautama, who died around 400 B.C.

Now revered as Buddha Shakyamuni, Siddhartha was born in the northeastern reaches of the Indian subcontinent (present-day Nepal) during a time of great economic, social, and cultural turmoil. According to a world view prevalent at the time, he had already lived numerous lives, during which he acquired enough merit to be reborn one last time, to attain enlightenment (or become a Buddha), and to teach others the understanding he had gained.

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.

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.
Wikipedia: Buddhist Art
(Online Jan. 2014)

Anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha started to emerge from the 1st century AD in Northern India.

The two main centers of creation have been identified as Gandhara in today’s North West Frontier Province, in Pakistan, and the region of Mathura, in central northern India.

The art of Gandhara benefited from centuries of interaction with Greek culture since the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 BC and the subsequent establishment of the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Kingdoms, leading to the development of Greco-Buddhist art. Gandharan Buddhist sculpture displays Greek artistic influence, and it has been suggested that the concept of the "man-god" was essentially inspired by Greek mythological culture. Artistically, the Gandharan school of sculpture is said to have contributed wavy hair, drapery covering both shoulders, shoes and sandals, acanthus leaf decorations, etc.

The art of Mathura tends to be based on a strong Indian tradition, exemplified by the anthropomorphic representation of divinities such as the Yaksas, although in a style rather archaic compared to the later representations of the Buddha. The Mathuran school contributed clothes covering the left shoulder of thin muslin, the wheel on the palm, the lotus seat, etc.

Mathura and Gandhara also strongly influenced each other. This iconic art [1st century AD-present] was characterized from the start by a realistic idealism, combining realistic human features, proportions, attitudes and attributes, together with a sense of perfection and serenity reaching to the divine. This expression of the Buddha as both man and God became the iconographic canon for subsequent Buddhist art.


Tang Dynasty: Following a transition under the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist sculpture of the Tang evolved towards a markedly lifelike expression.

Qing Dynasty: During the Qing Dynasty, Manchu emperors supported Buddhist practices. Works of art produced during this period are characterized by a unique fusion of Tibetan and Chinese artistic approaches. They combine a characteristically Tibetan attention to iconographic detail with Chinese-inspired decorative elements ... paintings are frequently rendered in vibrant colors.

After 300 years of division and fragmentation following the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 A.D., China was once again unified under the Sui dynasty (581–618). The political and governmental institutions established during this brief period lay the foundation for the growth and prosperity of the succeeding Tang dynasty.

Marked by strong and benevolent rule, successful diplomatic relationships, economic expansion, and a cultural efflorescence of cosmopolitan style, Tang China emerged as one of the greatest empires in the medieval world. Merchants, clerics, and envoys from India, Persia, Arabia, Syria, Korea, and Japan thronged the streets of Chang'an, the capital, and foreign tongues were a common part of daily life.
(Online Jan. 2014)

During the Tang dynasty, China had one of the greatest empires in the medieval world; an empire that extended along the Silk Road trade route to Persia and into Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The capital of this empire was Chang’an (today Xi’an), the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan city in the world. This sophisticated metropolis also had numerous religions coexisting harmoniously, such as Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Confucianism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam.

It was during the Tang dynasty that the tomb sculpture tradition reached its zenith and these sculptures provide a remarkable insight into life during this time.

The Chinese believe there is a close relationship between the earthly world and the afterlife. They consider the next world is just a continuation of this one.

This certainty in life after death meant tombs were regarded as the homes of the dead and so the dead were buried with everything they would need in the afterlife.

... this practice of sacrifice changed through time and the custom of using pottery facsimiles of people and animals was established.

Popular Tang burial items were guardian figures or lokapalas [Example]. These figures, which adopted typically aggressive and threatening poses, had the task of warding off any evil spirits that might infect the tomb. It was usual for pairs of guardian figures to be placed near the entrance or in the corners of the burial chamber.

One such pair of Tang dynasty tomb guardian figures from the 7th century is in the Art Gallery of NSW collection in Sydney. These meticulously detailed figures are made of earthenware and you can notice traces of red and orange pigment over white slip. With their human-like bodies, they have fierce bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, ornate headdress, opulent armour and originally held weapons.

Guardian figures such as these also became assimilated into the popular concept of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism, the four guardian gods who watched over the four compass directions. These Buddhist guardians of the north, south, east and west integrated easily with the Daoist Heavenly Kings, who were also guardians of the four directions. As guardians they could call on the spirits of the next world to help them protect the tomb.

Liu says. “The facial features and elaborate costumes are realised with a convincing naturalism combined with iconographic stylisation.

“Their dynamic and dramatic poses are characteristic of figures that would have been placed in two corners of the tomb chamber, together with a pair of less ferocious civilian images placed in the other two corners.

“Militaristic and semi-mythical, the demonic appearance of the Tang guardian figures is heightened by their flamboyant armour with its flaring epaulettes and prominent breastplates.
Excerpts from
Lark Mason, Buddhist Deities: A Primer
(online Jan. 2014)

The most important and common figure depicts Buddha, a person who has reached an understanding of the world and universe in which we live, and who exists to lead others to the same state of understanding.

Some figures depict the historical Buddha, a prince who lived in the 5th/6th century B.C.E., but others represent an idealized Buddha.

Most figures of Buddha are seated with legs crossed on a raised base. Images of Buddha usually wear a double robe, often with an incised foliate decorated border and have long, pendulous ears and a cranial bump, called an ushnisha.

The hair is tightly coiled and often has a raised bump above the eyes in the center of the forehead, called the urna, and the hands are raised in a mudra.


Photos and their arrangement 2013 Chuck LaChiusa
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