The Chinese sculpture of the 2e in the 6th century

Wednesday 28 November 2009

Report of the conference "Chinese sculpture of the 2e the 6e century ”, by Gilles Béguin, General Curator of the Cernuschi Museum.

Our dear Gilles has again succeeded in making this part of the history of China and its art simple, which is all the same complicated.



Probably introduced at the beginning of our era by merchants from Central Asia, Buddhism is considered a foreign and exotic religion despite some analogies with Taoism and its rise will be very slow.

Emperor Mingdi (58-75) of the Han would have sponsored the foundation of the first temple, Baimasi (the monastery of the white horse) in Luoyang.

The second century sees a weakening of central power and consequently a weakening of official Confucianism.

Emperor Huandi (146-167) would have presided in 166 a ceremony in honor of

Sakyamuni, Huangdi (the legendary yellow emperor) and Laozi.

The first missionary, the Khotanais Lokaksema arrives in the capital in 150 and translates several texts Mahayana. But to translate Indian themes into Chinese language and thought was problematic. As Taoism shares with Buddhism the breathing exercises, asceticism and the absence of sacrifices, we will use Taoist themes to transmit this new religion, which will cause some confusion. Both religions will experience persecution in turn and adopt a cross-strategy of survival.

The collapse of the dynasty and the ensuing disturbances will provoke the search for individual salvation and favor Buddhism.

In 259, the first Chinese pilgrim goes to India and crosses the Tarim Basin which, at that time, is a major translation center.

At the end of 3e century, Buddhism touches all layers of society.

After the invasion of northern China by the Tuoba, China will be divided in two during the period of the Six Dynasties (386-589).

The “barbarian” kingdom of the Northern Wei or Bei Wei (386-534) will promote the expansion of Buddhism which will experience significant imperial patronage.

In the north, kingdoms such as the Wei and Qi build many temples and monasteries (Songshan pagoda and Simenta pagoda in Jinan) and have caves excavated and decorated (Yungang, Dunhuang and Longmen) while in the South there are few traces of patronage also very important.

It was during this time that Kumārajiva (to 344 – 413), a monk Buddhist Kuchean multilingual and scholar directed to Chang'an the Chinese translation of at least twenty-four works which exerted considerable influence on the Chinese Buddhism.

It is also the beginning of the polemic with the Taoists.


If from the 2e century, the image of the Buddha appears, it remains anecdotal: the base of a "sapec tree" from the 2e s. (Nanjin Museum) updated in Sichuan, bears a representation of the Buddha in meditation between two attendants, a funeral urn of 3e s. from Nanjin, presents a buddha sitting on the throne with lions and in a Sichuan grave (2e s.), the lintel of the access door has, at its center, a seated Buddha figure.

We can successively distinguish three styles:

- The first style or "pseudo-Gandhārian":

o The Buddha seated on the lion throne, in gilded bronze (Sackler Collection, Harvard University) from 3rd s. still has all the characteristics of the art of Gandhāra: the hairstyle, the mustache, the folds of the garment. The flames that seem to be escaping from his shoulders may be a reference to mirrasvati's miracle.

o The seated Buddha, in gilded bronze, dated 338 (San Francisco Museum of Oriental Art), although using the Gandhārian canon is more sinic and the folds of the garment are stylized. (Fig.1)

o The great standing Buddha Maitreya, in gilded bronze, falsely dated 486 (Metropolitan Museum, NY) bears the influence of Central Asian models such as can be seen in Qyzyl. (Fig.2)

o The caves of Binglingsi (Gansu) are decorated with paintings where one can admire buddha et Bodhisattva still imbued with Qyzyl's aesthetics.

o In Dunhuang (Gansu), cave 275 houses a seated Maitreya, legs dangling and crossed. Here the torso no longer has neat musculature and the misunderstood wet drape is stylized to the extreme.

Fig 1                         Fig 2

Under the Wei of the North, Taoism and Buddhism prosper in turn. Emperor Wenchengdi (452-465) digs the Yungang (Shanxi) sanctuary caves inspired by Central Asian caves. The big Buddha sitting between two Bodhisattva evokes both the art of Gandhāra and Mathurā by the treatment of the drapery. (Fig.3) In the cave N ° 8 one can even see a Shiva treated in a very fanciful way. In cave No. 7, a sculpture of Avalokiteśvara seated presents draperies from wet parthenic draperies, just as the curtains that open above are an echo to the art of late antiquity. (Fig.4)

Fig 3     Fig 4

- In 480, appears the second style, very graphic:

The Wei want to sin and Emperor Xiaowendi (467-499) orders the use of Chinese clothing at the court, the use of the Chinese language and marriages between Xianbei and Han. He moves in 494 the capital of Datong (Shanxi) in Luoyang (Henan) which is in the center of the natural wealth of the country.

Empress Regent Feng (442-490) puts starched gauze coats in fashion, which will translate into sculpture by a treaty of coats of Bodhisattva very stylized, stiff with two symmetrical sides in "swallow's wings". If the painting, as in Dunhuang (cave 285), gains in expressiveness despite the great schematization of a nervous drawing, the corporeality of the sculpture disappears in favor of a greater spirituality.

Emperor Xuanwudi (499-515) patronizes the creation of cave-sanctuaries in Longmen.

o The Guyang cave, dug between 500 and 523, presents a set of small ex-votos on the walls and some large statues. The angular style reaches its peak here. The drapes are flattened and symmetrical in "swallow's wings". We find the system of curtains which are raised at the top of the niches to emphasize the central subject.

In Binyang Cave in the center were two large bas-reliefs representing the procession of the Emperor and the Empress (detached in 1935 and today at the Metropolitan Museum, NY and the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City). The Cernuschi Museum holds two old stampings of these reliefs in the conference room.

o A theme that will experience great popularity at this time is the performance of Śākyamuni and Prabhutāratna. A gilded bronze from the Musée Guimet (Paris) shows them seated symmetrically, as if in great discussion. The drapes are angular and stiff, the silhouettes very slender and the faces emaciated. (Fig.5)

o In Dunhuang the painters treat the bodies in a schematic way with broad dark lines for the outlines but a liveliness which makes the scenes very lively. (Fig.6)

Fig 5      Fig 6

- A third style will impose itself slowly, characterized by the progressive rejection of the graphic style and a return to a certain corporality.

In North China, there is a split between the Sinise elites and the army still rooted in the Xianbei tradition. A succession of kingdoms in the West, Wei of the West (535-557), then Zhou of the North (557-581), will allow a synthesis of the Turkish and Chinese influences, while in the East, the Wei Eastern (534-550) and Northern Qi (550-577) will remain more faithful to Tuoba traditions.

o A small gilded bronze depicting Maitreya dated 536 (University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia) shows a rounder face and a more naturalistic treatise on the neck.

o On a stele dated 536 (Rietberg Museum, Zurich), the figures are treated in a more naturalistic way with a renewed Indian influence (Gupta Empire in India) but assimilated.

o Caves N ° 10 and N ° 16 of Tianlongshan (Shanxi) dug between 551 and 561 are masterpieces of Chinese sculpture.

Under the Zhou of the North, the silhouettes are more stocky, the prominent belly and an extreme camber, as this Bodhisattva monumental (Metropolitan Museum, NY) covered with a heap of jewelry.

The Qi of the North will protect Amidist Buddhism and regional styles will be created.

o A stele depicting a Bodhisattva in meditation (Freer Gallery, Washington), c. 560, illustrates the Hebei style well: white marble, short and chubby figure, openwork halo. (Fig.7)

o A stele depicting Amitābha preaching in the Pure Land of Sukhavāti, circa 570, (Freer Gallery, Washington) shows one of the oldest representations of Amitābha's paradise.

  Fig 7

In 1996, more than four hundred broken sculptures were unearthed in Qingzhou (Shandong) on ​​the site of the Longxing Temple. These works form a continuous panorama of Chinese statuary from the Northern Wei to the beginning of the Northern Song.

o The triad representing a buddha between two Bodhisattva (inv.1.0008) from the end of the Wei of the North, still bears traces of paint and the halo is decorated in its upper part with a delicate decoration engraved with flying genies.

o The monumental triad depicting Śakyāmuni between two Bodhisattva, (inv.1.0018) of the Eastern Wei, evokes the sermon of the Vulture Peak, identified by the exalted stūpa in the upper part of the stele. The faces are geometrically treated but found flesh density. The hieratism of the three deities contrasts with the virtuosity of the treatment of dragons and celestial musicians.

o The head of buddha (inv.1.0453) of the Eastern Wei presents a golden complexion and a hair painted blue. It seems that in Qingzhou, theurnaa tuft of hair swirling between the two eyes (one of the main signs of Śakyāmuni), rarely seen.

o The Bodhisattva sitting in reverse position of the attitude of the relaxation, (inv.1.0080) of the North Qi, is carved in true round-bump. Its diadem, decorated with pearl medallions indicates Indian or Persian influences. (Fig.8)

o The buddha standing, (inv.1.0267) of the Northern Qi, shows a very naturalistic treatment both in the drapes and the body, while the buddha standing (inv.1.0147) from the same period evokes the pure art of the Gupta style. (Fig.9)

o The Bodhisattva standing, (inv.1.0078) of the Qi of the North, is one of the most accomplished statues of Qingzhou: a certain realism in the treatment of the flesh is harmonized perfectly with an elegant stylization to create a phantasmal being.

In 589, Emperor Sui Wendi of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) unifies China again. The sculpture will perpetuate the geometric aesthetic of the Northern Qi while sometimes announcing the majestic and decorative art of the Tang.

  Fig 8           Fig 9


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