Medieval Chinese Buddhist Art. Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture.
Buddhist teachings & practices spread to China from India via trade routes along both land and sea. Some of the most visible traces of this spread are found along the famous “silk road” that ran from the Roman & Islamic empires of West Asia all the way to China, with important side branches descending to North India. The icons shown here were created primarily in cave monasteries that sprang up & flourished at important points along China’s portion of the silk road, from the 5th century CE onward. Although such sculptural styles clearly originated in Northern India, they had evolved there only a few centuries earlier in the 2nd century CE when Roman artisans were hired to work for North Indian patrons. Once settled in China, Buddhist institutions developed primarily during the period of North/South division from the 3rd-6th centuries CE, and then consolidated their power during the subsequent unification brought about in the 7th century by the Tang dynasty.
After a brief period of disunity following the fall of the Tang in 906 CE, the Sung dynasty restored order to the Chinese empire in 960 CE. Over the next few centuries, Neo-Confucians increasingly criticized the emperors of this dynasty for their policy of appeasing potential northern invaders rather than confronting them with military force. Yet there can be no doubt that Song sponsorship of the arts led to a period of brilliant intellectual & artistic activity, with talented painters and craftspeople (many of whom developed a keen interest in realism during this period) being richly rewarded by the imperial court, and art academies ranking artists according to their achievements. With the gradual weakening of this dynasty in the 13th century, however, Mongolian invaders under Kubla Khan easily invaded and took over the centers of power, installing themselves as the new “Yuan” dynasty after reportedly killing half of the population in their merciless raids. Surviving artists, who tended to resent the military weakness of the Song emperors for which the Chinese had suffered to intensely, developed new and distinct styles to distinguish themselves from their Song predecessors. Kublai Khan’s court, for its part, continued to sponsor the arts, inviting new painters from South China who likewise initiated new trends. The sculptures and paintings of this section illustrate the ongoing evolution of styles during both periods, and also reflect the dominance of Pure Land & Chan Buddhist movements.
Developments in Buddhist art & architecture were preceded, for almost a thousand years, by important developments in Confucian tradition, which beginning in the 2nd century BCE became the official ideology of the Chinese empire, a position which it retained until the early 20th CE. As in considering the impact of Islamic art on Indian culture previously dominated by Buddhist & Hindu influences, it is important to look at a few examples of the way Confucian art (and especially the neo-Confucian forms that became increasingly influential in the 11th & 12th centuries CE) differed from Buddhist art. Like Muslims, Confucians almost without exception avoided iconic depictions, though for slightly different reasons: Confucians regarded popular iconic representations of divine powers as distractions, which kept people from seeking the cultivation of jen (“human-heartedness”) within themselves. This section presents a few striking examples of Neo-Confucian art & architecture, which reflect the central place of written classics and honoring human ancestors in Confucian tradition.