What is the significance of cross-cultural exchanges in Chinese Buddhist art?
Post on 08-Nov-2014
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DESCRIPTIONBuddhism reached China a few centuries after Budas death, when Daoism andConfucianism where the two dominant philosophies in the country. At first Buddhism didnot have a lot of followers but over time it gained quite a lot of followers. There are a lot ofreasons for this sudden popularity, the two most important ones being the simplistic yetdynamic and appealing message and certain similarities between Daoism and Confucianism.Due to these similarities between Buddhism and the local religious practices, severalChinese variations of Buddhism emerged. In this essay I intend to examine a couple ofexamples of the most important features of Buddhist art in China and discuss the features ofBuddhist art in China and which features can be traced down to other cultures.
What is the significance of cross-cultural exchanges in Chinese Buddhist art?
Buddhism reached China a few centuries after Budas death, when Daoism and Confucianism where the two dominant philosophies in the country. At first Buddhism did not have a lot of followers but over time it gained quite a lot of followers. There are a lot of reasons for this sudden popularity, the two most important ones being the simplistic yet dynamic and appealing message and certain similarities between Daoism and Confucianism. Due to these similarities between Buddhism and the local religious practices, several Chinese variations of Buddhism emerged. In this essay I intend to examine a couple of examples of the most important features of Buddhist art in China and discuss the features of Buddhist art in China and which features can be traced down to other cultures. According to legend Emperor Ming of the eastern Han dynasty dreamt of Buddha and sent emissaries to India to bring back his wisdom. They returned with copies of sacred scripture and a standing Buddha statue. This statue was later copied and installed in the palace. While this may only be a legend it does show how the Chinese respected Buddhism as a foreign religion and how interconnected Buddhist art was. Buddhism was initially an aniconic religion, using symbols rather than fully fledged images to evoke the figures central to its beliefs. 1 There are several possible examples but the best known ones are: the wheel (a symbol of Buddhas enlightenment and his first teachings), his footprints of the stupa 2(a symbol of his conquest of his mind) just to name a few. Sculptures play a major role in Chinese Buddhist art especially of the Liao dynasty. The art of this period is primarily Buddhist.3 For example, some clay sculptures in Yun-kung appear to have features usually reserved for bodhisattvas4, like the cloud collar. Another notable sculpture is of a meditating bodhisattva from the Northern Qui Dynasty. The pose of the figure and drape of the cloth indicate a Chinese Buddhist character, while the facial expression and natural shape of the torso reflect the softening influence of the Indian Guptan style. 5 Of course other art forms were influenced by other cultures as well. For example, the oldest wooden pagoda 6in china is the Mu-ta pagoda. This pagoda and the Buddha and bodhivistta statues within also appear to have 11th century Buddhist features like the soft appearance of the sculptures or the cloud collars. These examples show how the Chinese Buddhists understood and respected the origin of their own religion and how Indian Buddhist art influenced the development of Chinese Buddhist art.
Helmut Brinker, Early Buddhist art in China pg.2 Stupa - a symbol of Buddhas conquest of illusions, his mind 3 Mercedes Beaudry, Buddhist art in China 4 Bodhisattva - a person who seeks enlightenment or a personification of enlightenment 5 Mercedes Beaudry, Buddhist art in China 6 Pagoda - a tiered tower with multiple eaves
Chinese Painting is one of the oldest forms of artistic expression in the world. While at first this style of painting was not representational over time the artists practicing this method began to represent things around them. For example, the largest collection of Chinese Buddhist art can be found in the caves of Dunhuang. These caves hide thousands of frescoes and statues. The most intriguing parts of it are from the seventh to the ninth centuries also known as the golden age. The frescoes are reprehensive of various stories and Buddhist theologies. Most of the frescoes are of the famous flying Apsaras. The girls in the frescoes are flying with no wings, but with the help of long waving scarves. Many of the beautiful figures are plucking the pipa for playing Buddhist music. Some are slim and pretty and others are full and round. All the girls in the frescoes are flying and dancing and showering flowers with a fairly graceful and handsome posture, showing beauty of motion, which was instillling the prospect of freedom, kindness and happiness to the ancient people. It is also noted that the different images, although originating in India, begin to depart from the Indian influences and gradually begin to show aesthetic form of their own. These often reflect daily life in China in the age the frescoes were painted. 7 Buddhism and the traditionally Chinese religions appear to have certain links. It took a little while for Buddhism to take off in china but this does not mean the people were unaware of the existence of Buddhism. One the contrary, people like Xiang Kai show that people were interested in Buddhism. For example, Xiang Kai once wrote that the belief seems to have widespread that Buddha was the deified form of laozi, who, over time, had merged with huanglao.8 one of the first Buddhist temples was built by Ze Rong, a second century supervisor of grain transport. He installed in the buildings gilt bronze statues of human shape, clothed in precious brocade. The grounds of the temple could accommodate some three thousand people. () Ze Rong is said to have organized a great feast with ample supplies of food and drink.9 Given some consideration it becomes apparent how rich and great in number these Buddhist communities were. Buddhist art assimilated with Chinese culture fairly easily, most notably Buddha due to the fact that the Chinese compared him and even considered him to be a reincarnation of Laozi, an ancient Chinese mystic philosopher and the founder of Daoism, who over time began to be revered as a deity himself. During the formative phase of Buddhist culture and art in china, the Buddha was generally depicted standing or seated in contexts to deriving from indigenous system of belief. Chinese artists and craftsmen employed models of representation, styles and techniques with which they were familiar from Han tomb art. Hence, the Chinese versions of Indian prototypes often appear like foreign bodies embedded in Confucian and Daoist surroundings. 10 There a several other reasons for the connections between Daoism and Buddhism besides the one mentioned already. The first Buddhist texts were translated using Daoist terminology with which the Chinese had other associations and certain metaphors were borrowed from Confucianism, the visual language was no exception since China had so many cultures surrounding it. Trade routes crossed its territory from the Roman Empire, Mesopotamia and Persia in the west all lands from India to China to the7 8
Mercedes Beaudry, Buddhist art in China Helmut Brinker, Early Buddhist art in China pg . 6 9 Helmut Brinker, Early Buddhist art in China pg .7 10 Helmut Brinker, Early Buddhist art in China pg .8
east, bringing it great wealth Its culture, religion and art were therefore cosmopolitan from the outlet. 11 For example, four rings from the eastern Jin dynasty with a tinny Buddha figure seated cross-legged on a lotus throne in from of triangular backgrounds reminiscent of mountain peaks or stylized leaves.12 The very fact that an undoubtedly wealthy Jin dynasty aristocrat was buried with Buddhist jewelry shows how influential Buddhism was at the time. In the third and fourth centuries Buddhism became more independent from Indian Buddhism. This is also the time sculptors are started being documented. One of them is Dai Kui he was said to be very faithful and a brilliant artist. The beauty and artistic power of these works were felt to testify to their creators inventiveness and technical skill. 13 Some sculptors of that time may have been associated with Buddhism in one way or another. While other sculptors devoted most of their time to being professional artisans. The practice of sculpting was passed down from generation to generation. In conclusion, Chinese Buddhist art had several outside influences, most of them from India. The reason for this is Chinas unique geographical position on the Silk Road, the similarities between traditionally Chinese religious philosophies, like Confucianism and Daoism, and Buddhism. What makes these cross-cultural traditions of Buddhism significant is the fact that Chinese Buddhist art managed to form its own practices, combining Indian and Chinese symbolism and techniques.
Helmut Brinker, Early Buddhist art in China pg .8 Helmut Brinker, Early Buddhist art in China pg .9 13 Helmut Brinker, Early Buddhist art in China pg .9
Bibliography Helmut Brinker, Early Buddhist art in China Mercedes Beaudry, Buddhist art in China Robert E. Fisher The subject-matter of Buddhist art