Two Chinese Buddhist Stele

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  • Two Chinese Buddhist SteleAuthor(s): Osvald SirnSource: Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America, Vol. 13 (1959), pp. 8-21Published by: University of Hawai'i Press for the Asia SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 18/06/2014 02:02

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  • Two Chinese Buddhist Stele

    Osvald Siren

    Stockholm, Sweden


    The two Buddhist stele which form the subject of the present article have re

    mained almost unknown or very little known to students of Chinese sculpture, with the possible exception of the few who have visited the National Museum of

    Stockholm. Both sculptures have now been on exhibition in the Museum for several years ?one as a deposition of Mr. Ernest Ericson of New York, the other as a part of the perma

    nent Museum collection?although owing to the somewhat crowded conditions of dis

    play, neither of them can be completely examined or fully appreciated in their present

    position. But since we have reasons to hope that a special museum for Far Eastern art will be established in Stockholm within a year or two, these sculptures will, no doubt, then become better known. In the meantime some notes on these two monuments of early Chinese sculpture may not be unwelcome, and it is to be hoped that they may lead to a more general appreciation of their historical significance and artistic beauty.

    The larger of the two monuments has, to my knowledge, never been reproduced or described; whereas the smaller stele (Figs. 1-2) is included in the compendium known as Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century (London 1925), where it is reproduced on plates 120-21 and described as follows:

    "Votive Stele, front. Sakyamuni Buddha

    standing with his right hand lifted in the

    abhaya mudra (the left pointing downward). On his left is Maitreya, on his right Kuanyin

    (Padmapani), both standing on lotus pedestals. In the halo of the main figure are several small

    Buddhas and soaring apsaras. The nimbus is

    decorated with flame ornaments along the

    borders. Weathered dark grey limestone; height 4 ft. 3 in.

    "The reverse of the same stele. At the top three seated Buddhas (engraved in low relief), below this (in the middle section) Sakyamuni and Prabutharatna seated in a draped pavilion, and further towards the sides adoring donors.

    The bottom section is occupied by an inscription

    containing the date Ching-ming 3rd year, 11th

    month, 11th day, i.e., December 25, 502."

    The above description giving the main facts

    concerning the date and general character of

    the stele may now be complemented by a trans

    lation of the whole inscription, which proves to contain historical references of some interest;

    these have been revealed by Professor Etienne

    Balazs in Paris, to whom I rest under great

    obligation for active assistance in deciphering the inscription, and they will be further noted

    presently. The text (which contains a few

    incomplete characters) may be translated as


    "On the eleventh day of the eleventh month

    of the third year of Ching-ming the (Buddha-) disciples Liu Wei, Liu Tui, Liu Chi and Liu Hai, four persons, (have) had this statue of Maitreya

    made primarily for the benefit of the emperor

    and the dynasty, but also for the fathers and


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  • Fig. 1. Front of a Votive Stele, dated 502. Grey limestone;

    height 4 feet 3 inches. Deposited in the National

    Museum, Stockholm, by Mr. Ernest Ericson.

    Fig. 2. Reverse of the Ericson Stele. Detail, lower portion.

    mothers of seven generations, for all their parents

    and villages and communities, whether small or

    large. They beseech the Buddha constantly, to

    the end that they may be reborn among the

    gods above and among men below, that they

    may occupy important positions, that their

    family property may grow richer, their wishes

    be granted and that the whole empire may

    remain in peace, so that the harvest of the five

    kinds of grain may be ample and the population may be contented and joyful and forever pro

    tected from every kind of suffering."

    This dedicatory inscription is accompanied

    by more than twenty names, mostly of members

    of the Liu family, but also of monks. They have

    been inserted wherever there was some empty

    space and in addition to the names there are

    a few engraved silhouettes or low reliefs repre

    senting donors in the act of adoring the Buddha

    images, but the engravings are not all suffi

    ciently well preserved to make them legible, nor

    do they contain any references to events or

    personalities of historical importance. Yet

    through the comparative study of the engraved

    inscription and the printed reproduction of it,

    which is included in the Tuan-fang publication known as Tfao-chai Ts'ang-sbih chi (vol. 6, 6b

    8a) under the title "A Record of Buddha made

    by Liu Wei and Others," Professor Balazs has been able to identify at least seven of the most

    prominent members of the Liu family who all held important government positions at certain

    places in the southern and central sections of

    the present Hopei province.1

    The names of the ancestors of the Liu family,

    together with their official titles and the indi cations of the places where they lived and exer

    cised their authority, may be said to form a

    kind of social or local background to the family monument here under discussion. The text makes

    no reference to major historical events or per

    sonalities, yet in leading us to the various locali

    ties to which prominent members of the Liu

    family were attached by official appointments and tradition, it may provide some valuable


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  • indications concerning the most probable origin

    of the family stele.

    These place names lead more or less towards

    the southwestern section of the present province

    of Hopei and beyond its borders into the adjoin

    ing provinces of Shansi and Honan, i.e., to parts

    of northern China which at the time formed

    important sections of the Northern Wei state

    with its capital at Ta-t'ung in Shansi. The

    extraordinary importance of this foreign dynasty

    for the spread of the Buddhist religion and Buddhist art in northern China is too well known to require further comment; students

    who have paid some attention to sculpture in

    particular will no doubt readily admit that the

    great majority of the most significant early

    examples were made under the Northern Wei

    rule, as there are numerous inscriptions to

    testify. It should furthermore be remembered,

    that the general appreciation of these archaic

    sculptures of the Northern Wei period is due not only to their stylistic refinement and intrin

    sic beauty, but also to the distinctive place which they occupy in the general flow of

    religious sculpture in China, both from an

    artistic and an historical point of view, as signifi cant links between Central Asia and the Far

    East. They were made in China for the new

    Buddhist converts, but in close adherence to

    types and models which had been developed further west at centers of Buddhist learning and art which were already flourishing in the fourth and fifth centuries in the western oases

    such as Khotan, Kyzil, Kutcha, Turfan, Bami

    yan and elsewhere along the roads from India

    to China.

    This kind of religious sculpture is nowadays known through numerous examples scattered

    all over the western world. Its main foothold in

    China proper from the beginning of the fifth

    century onwards seems to have been close to

    the cave-temples at Y?n-kang near Ta-t'ung, where the Northern Wei dynasty held its sway between 386 and 494, when the capital of the

    dynasty was moved to old Loyang. The sculp

    tural activity was resumed with great zeal at

    the Yiin-kang caves after the Buddhist persecu

    tion of 446-450, when the place became the

    largest and most eastern center of that Buddhist

    art which stretched all through Central Asia

    and which seems to have had its main source in

    northern India (as illustrated by Mathura sculp tures of the Kushana period), although at the

    same time it received important tributaries from

    Iranian art. And beside the very large, not to

    say monumental, statues modelled in the rela

    tively soft sandstone rocks at Yiin-kang there

    were created in the same neighbourhood, or

    further south, quantities of minor things in stone

    as well as in metal and clay which reflect the same stylistic features, though with individual variations.

    It is hardly necessary to dwell here on special examples from the Yiin-kang cave-temples or

    from the extensive series of minor bronze statu

    ettes of the fifth century scattered in private

    and public collections in Japan and America, because their characteristic features have been

    repeatedly described by various authorities. But

    for the sake of illustration and comparison, I

    would like to recall two remarkable sculptures which now both belong to the Metropolitan Museum, one in stone and the other in gilt bronze.

    The former (Fig. 3) is a stele more than seven

    feet high, carved in light grey friable sandstone, which is common in the Yiin-kang area, and

    probably the largest of its kind still preserved. According to the inscription it was made in 495

    and meant to represent Maitreya, though ren

    dered exactly in the same fashion and position

    (with the now missing hand in abhaya mudra) as Sakyamuni. He stands upright, almost in full

    round against the very broad leaf-shaped nim

    bus, accompanied by a dozen donors arranged in rows on the one side, while the halo is deco

    rated with the seven Buddhas of the past and an outer border of flame patterns. The enormous


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  • Fig. 3. Front of a Votive Stele, dated 495. Greyish sand

    stone; height (approximately) 7 feet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, N. Y.

    square head is almost detached from the back

    ground; it forms the center, and attracts the

    main attention not only on account of its

    monumental dimensions but also through the

    expression of blissful serenity radiating from the

    smiling mouth and the half-closed eyes. The

    mantle which clings almost like an outer coat

    of skin to the well-rounded limbs and torso,

    is laid in pleated folds which form an orna

    mental pattern around the figure. It corresponds in this respect quite closely to some of the

    Yiin-kang sculptures which, however, show

    different variations of the schematic fold-design.

    Finally a freer transformation of the same pat tern may also be observed on the Ericson stele

    here under discussion, which is a more distant

    relative of the Yiin-kang sculptures executed in

    Fig. 4. Large Gilt-Bronze Statue, dated 477 (or 486).

    Height 4 feet 7 inches. Metropolitan Museum

    of Art, N. Y.

    a harder material and reflecting, particularly in

    the long curving lobes, influences from models

    in metal.

    The bronze statue, (Fig. 4) on the other

    hand, (also in the Metropolitan Museum) illus trates a different variation of the early Buddha

    type and fold-design, though one no less clearly

    derived from Central Asian prototypes. Accord

    ing to an acceptable tradition this statue once

    decorated one of the temples on Wu-t'ai shan

    in eastern Shansi, then an important centre of

    Buddhist pilgrimage closely linked to India by religious tradition. The inscription on the pedes

    tal of the statue has been variously interpreted?

    the date being read either 477 or 486?i.e., with

    a difference of nine years, which does not alter


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  • F?g. ,5. Stucco Relief of a Seated Buddha from Aktarek.

    Height 12 inches.

    its position at the beginning of the stylistic tradition.

    The figure, which measures 5 5 inches in

    height, is the largest of all surviving archaic

    bronze statues from China, and must, indeed,

    have been far more impressive in its original state than it now appears deprived of its large nimbus. The relative importance of the two

    main portions of the composition?the figure and the nimbus?can best be appreciated if we

    recall certain minor statuettes of this kind on

    which the large nimbus, engraved with apsaras

    and flames, may be said to represent or reflect

    the luminous atmosphere in which the Buddha

    appears to his devotees. But even as it stands

    today, shorn of the celestial aura, this statue is

    a most striking example of the kind of votive

    icon which enjoyed the greatest popularity in China during the latter part of the fifth century.

    Equally, it must be regarded as an outstanding link in the stylistic chain which connects the

    early Buddhist sculptures of China with the

    figurative art of Central Asia. This raises a

    fundamental problem which cannot be discussed here at any length, but one or two examples of

    the kind of art produced among the oases of the


    Fig. 6. Front of a Votive Stele, dated 500. Limestone;

    height 3 feet 1V4 inches. Cleveland Museum of Art,

    gift of Mr. and Mrs. Severance A. Millikin.

    so-called "Western lands" (i.e., the Gobi region), as made known through the publications of

    Aurel Stein and von le Coq, may not be without


    The stucco relief of a seated Buddha from

    the Aktarek site at Khotan (cf. Serindia, vol.

    IV, pi. VIII) is an excellent example of this...