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Buddhist sculpture

      The development of Chinese Buddhist art reflects periods of sinicization and Indian influence parallel to similar phase in the adoption of the religion itself. The earliest known Chinese Buddhist art is found in the decoration of mirrors of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The Buddhist deities represented show a strong similarity to their indigenous Taoist counter counterparts. Few bronze images are known to date before the 5th century, when images were still primitive and iconographic ally limited.

      The Yungang cave temple built near Datong, Shanxi Province, the first capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, are representative of early, archaic Chinese Buddist stone sculpture. They date from AD 460 until well into the 6th century, but mostly from before 494, when the capital was moved to Luoyang. These and other northern Chinese cave temple has their cultural origins in India, transmitted along the Central Asian trade routes. Indian and Central Asian iconographic and stylistic influence is also evident at Yungang in five huge sandstone images of the Buddha, representing the Buddha of the present age flanked by the two Buddha of the past and the two of the features. The fluid, linear folds of the thin robes, Western in style, follow the round contours of the body. However, images in later caves show a Chinese style, more rigid and flat with more angular face, and heavier robes which conceal the narrow, sloping shoulders and body. The linear, geometric style folds are pulled out to an arranged pattern of pleats and points along the border.

      The Longmen cave temple is carved in limestone cliffs near Luoyang and became the centre of Buddhist sculpture when the Northern Wei moved their capital there in AD 494. Here the flatter Chinese style became fully developed, more elegant and refined. Sculpture in bas-relief show the natural culmination of this style. Many of the images have dated inscriptions, with prayers to be reborn in the Western Paradise of Amitabha or the Pure Land of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. In the contemporary caves at Gongxian , near the Yellow River, the images show a slightly mounded treatment.

      The Tianlongshan and Xiangtangshan cave temples represent the “transition” style that predominated in Chinese Buddhist sculpture between the falls of the Wei in the mid-6th century and the emergency of the fully fledged Tang style. The influence of Indian Gupta sculpture on the Northern Qi sculptures caused a return to rounder, more sensuous forms, with the robes again following the contours of the body. The ornament of lotuses and flying Apsaras on the walls and ceilings also show Indian and Sassanian influence. However, the contemporary equivalents at Maijishan of Northern Zhou show less of this influence.

         The profusion of Buddhist sculpture in stone, marble, gilt bronze and other materials in accounted for by the Chinese preference for the Mahayana doctrine. This taught that one gained great merit by making holy images and provided for salvation through the intercession of Bodhisattva of Buddha, Bodhisattvas such as Maitreya, and the layman Vimalakirti, and the later colossal statues of Buddha Vairocana indicate the aspects of Buddhism that most attracted the Chinese. The many dated examples provide documents for tracing the evolution of styles. By the end of the period Western influence appear to have been almost completely absorbed and the images have a more Chinese appearance.

          Almost all surviving Tang dynasty Buddhist sculpture is of stone. In Japan some contemporary pieces of bronze, wood, clay, and dry lacquer are preserved. The images show the pronounced influence of the renewed contact with the West. The figures are fleshier; robes reveal the more relaxed well-proportioned limbs. The faces are more naturalistic, with a serene expression replacing the stiff spirituality of the earlier images. The bejeweled Bodhisattvs have an almost secular appearance, and the muscular guardian figures affirm the renewed inspiration from the West.

       This early Tang style is represented by the additions to the caves at Tianlong mountain, now pillaged and parts of which are scattered all over the world. It is already well advanced from the stiffer, more solid and static images of the short-lived Sui dynasty. By the 8th century, however. Tang Buddhist sculpture had reached its peak.




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