Buddhist Sculpture from China

All Grades, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Resource Collection
  • Colossal Buddha at Bamiyan in present-day Afghanistan (West Buddha surrounded by caves, c. 6th-7th c C.E., stone, stucco, paint, 175 feet high, Bamiyan, Afghanistan, destroyed 2001)

Selections from the Xi’an Beilin Museum Fifth Through Ninth Centuries

Introduction

To the northeast of the royal city there is a mountain, on the side of which is placed the stone figure of Buddha standing, in height one hundred or one hundred and fifty feet. Its golden colors sparkle on every side and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes with their brightness (Beal 1969: 121).

So wrote the monk Xuanzang (c. 596-664), China’s most famous Buddhist pilgrim. He was talking about the colossal Buddha at Bamiyan in present-day Afghanistan, a sight which awed travelers from all over Asia until its destruction by the Taliban in 2001. Its iconography and style were a model for sculpture both in China and Japan. As a universal faith transcending barriers of culture and language.

Images were central to carrying the Mahayana Buddhist message of universal salvation to China: “In the first centuries of its introduction into China, Buddhism was known as ‘the religion of images’” (Lopez 2002: 92).

The religion of images became part of Chinese culture during one of the most turbulent periods in its long history: the era of division between the fall of the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) and reunification under the Sui (581-618). From the early fourth century on, China was divided in two, the north ruled by a succession of nomad peoples and the south governed by Chinese émigrés who had fled the north. The violence and uncertainty of these times was fertile soil for the establishment and growth of Buddhism, a foreign religion, and Daoism, China’s indigenous faith.

Buddhist Sculpture from China focuses on objects from the late fifth through the ninth centuries, that is to say, Northern Wei (386-534), Western Wei (535-556), Northern Zhou (557-581), Sui (581-618), and Tang (618-907).

The institutions established by Northern Wei and subsequent dynasties marked the beginning of transition from political fragmentation to a unified empire under the short-lived Sui and its successor, the Tang dynasty (618-907). The Wei rulers, Tuoba people from what is today Manchuria and eastern Mongolia, were ardent supporters of Buddhism.

The Beilin (“Forest of Stone Steles”) in Xi’an houses one of the most important collections of stone artifacts in China. Xi’an was formerly known as Chang’an. It was a capital city for more than a thousand years and a center of Buddhism since the fifth century. It was also the eastern terminus of the Silk Roads, the caravan routes that were a main conduit for the entry of Buddhism into China.

The exhibition consists of seventy-three pieces, some excavated from burial sites within the last twenty-five years. They provide a unique look at the relation between Buddhist art and Chinese society during these centuries.

The period covered by Buddhist Sculpture from China fits within Era 4 of the National History Standards, “Expanding Zones of Exchange and Encounter, 300-1000 CE”: Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu Traditions: Not only Islam but other major religions also spread widely during this 700-year era. Wherever these faiths were introduced, they carried with them a variety of cultural traditions, aesthetic ideas, and ways of organizing human endeavor. Each of them also embraced peoples of all classes and diverse languages in common worship and moral commitment.

The entry of Buddhism into China and East Asia at the beginning of the Common Era is central to any perception of cultural exchange as playing “a crucial role in human history, being perhaps the most important external stimuli to change, leaving aside military conquest” (Curtin 1984: 1).

This web-companion provides a variety of background material on Buddhism. It will be useful to educators who either visit Buddhist Sculpture from China with their students or for anyone interested in gaining a deeper appreciation of Buddhism.

Buddhist art is a powerful lens for multidisciplinary inquiry into Chinese history and culture. In pre-modern China, Buddhism touched the daily lives of all classes of society. Also, over the last fifty years it has experienced a major resurgence in the Chinese-speaking world.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Resource Collection

Author

Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.