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Kuan Yin:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
BACKGROUND: Historical Background
The Six Dynasties Period in China was a time of unrelenting warfare and upheaval. Although termed "six" dynasties, no less than thirty royal lineages rose and fell all over China. Invasions from the north and west effectively split the country in half, with the south ruled by a series of Chinese dynasties, and the north by non-Chinese royalty.

The strife and economic stress of the period caused people to question the old Confucian ideals of everyone serving their role in society and peace emerging from these roles. This long-held theory was not working. This questioning of the Confucian way created a deep cynicism among the ranks of government bureaucrats who were Confucian-trained. These intellectuals that had achieved prominence under the Han Dynasty had little to do in the anarchy of this new period. For them, Buddhism offered a viable alternative. Its speculative philosophy and moral justification of the renunciation of worldly ties appealed to this educated class, who were now often reluctant to take on the perilous responsibilities of office.

Buddhism came into China by way of traders and missionaries from India and Central Asia. There is some Buddhist art from the Han dynasty, but it is rare and fairly insignificant. We know that there were flourishing Buddhist communities in north China by the end of the Han dynasty, but they had very little impact on China's art.

In the Six Dynasties Period, Buddhism grew into a vast popular religion in all of China. The loss of faith in the traditional order, and the desire to escape from the troubles of the times all contributed to a wave of remarkable religious enthusiasm, as the new doctrine spread to every corner of the empire. The new faith must have been an effective consolation judging by the records of the vast sums spent on the building of monasteries and temples and their adornment.

Location of Buddhist Art
Although southern China was the cultural and political center of "free" China, attracting traders and Buddhist missionaries, very few art objects remain from this area, due to its almost complete devastation by later wars. Thus, most of the artwork from this time period comes from the north, which was ruled by the Toba Turks, who invaded China in 386. Under them Buddhism enjoyed tremendous popularity and patronage.

The sculpture is dated 571 A.D. by the inscriptions on its base. This was a period of conflict between the followers of Buddhism, a religion relatively new to China, and the two traditional schools of thought, Taoism and Confucianism. Shortly after it was commissioned, government policy changed, favoring Confucianism and prohibiting Buddhism and Taoism. During persecution of these sects, many images were destroyed and temples converted to secular use. In this conflict, our sculpture lost its background halo, arm, and two of its attendant lion figures.

A succeeding emperor launched a major campaign for the restoration of Buddhist establishments, and a second inscription on the base records that the sculpture was restored and rededicated in 581.

The first inscription offers a miniature sermon; the second stresses the institutional aspects of Buddhism and its relations with the current dynasty. Both reveal not only Buddhist thought, but make reference to Confucian and Taoist thought. This shows the Chinese tendency to combine religious or philosophical systems rather than to stress sectarian differences.

First Inscription (571 A.D.)
The Void of Buddhism is totally calm, empty, unaffected and abstract in nature. When observed, its appearance is not seen; when listened to, its sound is not heard. Lacking form, it is, nevertheless, the form of all laws; lacking sound, it remains the title of all laws. Therefore, its form takes the shape of formlessness and its name is the title of the nameless. Like the spiritual pearl that is eternally luminous, it accepts in turn the reflection of all things without changing its own character. Wishing to dwell in Nirvana, 41 residents of the village community have, by depriving themselves of part of their personal wealth in order to worship the ancient sage and pay tribute to the emperor, erected this statue to Sakya (Buddha) in thanks for the peace in the four quarters (of the Kingdom), the abundance of the five crops and the happiness of the people.

It is also (our) devout wish, as those who observe the (Buddha's) Law, that grace be bestowed upon (our) parents of the past seven generations and the parents of their previous existences.

The fifth year of the Tien Ho reign of the Northern Chou Dynasty (571 A.D.).

Second Inscription (581 A.D.)
Buddhahood must be attained through meditation. The divine doctrine of the Void cannot be comprehended by the materialist. The attainment of Nirvana requires the accumulation of charitable acts and the denial of worldly desires. The striving to possess the Three Treasures (the Buddha, the Law, and the Congregation) can only be achieved through the cooperation of all (believers). Thereupon, the country will gain blessings and righteousness while the people of all places will be virtuous and faithful.
Whereas these 45 members of the community now perceive that the Three Treasures are based on truth, that the seven ages of suffering no longer exist, that the virtues of the Emperor are all-encompassing and profound, and in honor of the great sage (Buddha), they now plant the precious root in the ground of virtue that it may blossom the highest spirituality. They thus sow the seed of truth in the heart that it may nourish the soul. Wholeheartedly promoting good, may they attain the Six Supernatural Facilities (attributes of the enlightened.)
Motivated by a deep reverence for Sakya and a wish to obtain the remaining Sutras, the community has gathered and each citizen, with the honor of the village in mind, has given up part of his wealth. So it is with these collected treasures, that the statue of Sakya (Kuan-yin) can be restored. This is enacted for the Emperor, for all sentient beings under the Law, and for the parents of the seven generations that they may all receive (the Buddha's) blessings.

The first year of the Kai Huang reign of the Sui Dynasty (581 A.D.).

KUAN YIN: Bodhisattva
In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who has achieved great moral and spiritual wisdom and is a potential Buddha, but who rejects Nirvana in order to assist suffering mankind. Kuan Yin is the most famous and popular bodhisattva, a compassionate helper of those in distress, devoted to the salvation of mankind. Because Kuan Yin is Indian in origin (called Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit), the figure is generally represented as a typical Indian prince, dressed in dhoti and adorned with scarves and costly jewelry. This dress symbolizes the bodhisattva's ties to the material world. In Chinese art, the type became increasingly feminine. However, bodhisattvas are theoretically sexless.

Buddhist Attributes
Buddhist attributes are represented symbolically:

  • Lowered eyelids refer to Buddhist meditation.
  • Lotus bud in hand is the Buddhist symbol of purity as it grows up through the mud of the world into a pure, beautiful flower. Kuan Yin also is standing on a lotus pedestal.
  • Lions on the base are mythical beasts who guard the Buddha.
After the middle of the 6th century, an enormous change took place in the style of Chinese Buddhist art. Previously, the sculpture, as exemplified by the MIA's Lungmen Maitreya 45.3, showed the native Chinese preference for a linear style. The figural proportions in this linear style were all elongated into flat attenuated bodies. The Lungmen Maitreya has a narrow face with a pointed nose, a long neck, sloping shoulders, concave chest, and long, pointed fingers. The drapery is a series of patterned lines stretched over the thin body. This denial of the body was meant to symbolize the god's ineffable transcendence.

By contrast, the sensual Kuan Yin is meant to make the presence of the bodhisattva as real as possible. Missionaries, traders, and pilgrims spread the stylistic influence from Gupta India throughout China. The Gupta style radically affected Chinese Buddhist art, so that figures such as the Kuan Yin were now carved as free-standing monumental figures. The body swaying sensually, no longer shrinks into itself, instead expands to fill the robes. This relaxed pose is created by a gentle forward thrust of the hips. There is also a fuller and more sensuous rendering of the full face with rose bud lips and round body.

This new sensuality, seen in the fleshy modelling of the hands, feet, and face and the svelte handling of contours, reflects both the influence of Indian sculpture and a more complete understanding of a monumental image on the part of the Chinese. Certainly, the sensuous depiction of the body was an Indian ideal, one which was available to earlier Chinese artists but which was rejected by them. It was not until the end of the 6th century that the Chinese sculptor was ready to combine this Indian concept with his greater ability to realize the body itself.

There is an interest in contrasts of texture, such as the plain, smooth surface of the body versus the heavy jewelry and the decorative scarfs. Although this figure has a new three-dimensionality, the garments are not rendered in a naturalistic manner. The draperies and jewelry still fall in a symmetrical and rhythmic linear pattern. Originally, the body was gilded and the scarves and jewelry polychromed in bright colors. The jeweled figure relates to Indian Bodhisattvas, but the jewelry style itself is Sassanian.

The expression is one of serene absorption, revealing a deep spiritual content. Interest in a direct appeal was also influenced by the development of Pure land Buddhist art in China at this time. The figure has a direct and sympathetic appeal to the viewer.

Use on the following tours:
  • Religion and Art
  • Chinese Art
  • Asian Art
  • Highlights of the Collection
  • How People Lived
  • Heroes and Heroines in Art
  • Sculpture

Compare the compassionate purpose and sensuous image of the Kuan Yin to a Gothic madonna.

Compare the image of a bodhisattva with the Japanese image of Buddha, the Amida Nyorai. Also, contrast the materials and techniques.

Compare Kuan Yin to other heroines, both religious (Mary, Judith, and Esther) and secular (such as Herminia).

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Source: Docent Manual entry for Chinese, Six Dynasties Period, <i>Kuan Yin</i> (571-581), The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009