Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

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  • Long-lasting encounters between Indian and Chinese Buddhism and the beliefs, practices, and imagery associated with their respective traditions remains one of the most fascinating in world history. 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.


    Buddhism may have been known in China as early as the second century B.C., and centers with foreign monks, who served as teachers and translators, were established in China by the second century A.D. Early representations of Buddhas are sometimes found in tombs dating to the second and third century; however, there is little evidence for widespread production and use of images until the fourth century, when a divided China, particularly the north, was often under the control of non–Han Chinese individuals from Central Asia. In addition to freestanding sculptures, numerous images were also carved in cave-temples at sites such as Dunhuang, Yungang, and Longmen. Also found in India and Central Asia, these man-made cave-temples range from simple chambers to enormous complexes that include living quarters for monks and visitors.


    The period from the fourth to the tenth century was marked by the development and flowering of Chinese traditions such as Pure Land, which focuses on the Buddha Amitabha and the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and Chan (or Zen). Pure Land practices stress devotion and faith as a means to enlightenment, while Chan features meditation and mindfulness during daily activities; both traditions are also prevalent in Korea and Japan. In addition, after the eight century, new Indic and Central Asian practices were also found in China. These included devotion to the celestial Buddha Vairocana, new and powerful manifestations of bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, and the use of cosmic diagrams such as mandalas. Many of these practices (best known today in some Japanese traditions and in Tibet) were intended to protect the nation and offer tangible benefits, such as health and wealth, to the ruling elite. Others involved complex rituals and forms of devotion designed for advanced practitioners.


    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.

    Denise Leidy
    Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art