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: A Notable Acquisition in Chinese Sculpture


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts has just purchased, out of the Dunwoody Fund, an exceedingly impressive example of Chinese sculpture of the Sixth Dynasty, to which an interesting history is attached.Outside the northern gate of the old walled town of Shih-An in the Province of Shan-his, in the midst of a great compound, there existed, in the sixth century of the Christian era, the Buddhist temple of Ku-Shih-po-Ssu. As the century was drawing to a close, inasmuch as the people, after a more or less extended period of peace, had been able to till their lands uninterrupted by incursions from their restless and often turbulent neighbors, and had been blessed with abundant crops, the district-chief, one Meng-jen, and the head official of the village, Meng Sung-hsun, together with forty-one members of the community, determined to erect at the temple a thank-offering which should serve both as a votive gift to the Lord Buddha, and also as an expression of filial devotion to their ancestors, near and remote.As is well known, Siddhartha, or Gautama, the founder of the Buddhist cult, was of the tribe of Sakya. At the age of twenty-nine he left his family and lived as a recluse, in meditation for seven years, at the end of which time he believed himself the possessor of perfect truth, and, therefore, assumed the name of Buddha, "the enlightened." His special concern was salvation from the pains and sorrows of the world, a problem which he believed could be solved only through the extinction of individual existence by its merger in the universal life—the attainment of Nirvana. Humility, purity, renunciation of all worldly desires, and right purpose towards one's fellows were the mean of acquiring merit, more and more, through man's various incarnations, until existence should cease, as "the dewdrop slips into the shining sea."One of the thirty-two forms of incarnation through which Buddha passed was that of Kuan-yin (the Kwannon of the Japanese, the Avalokitesevara of India), the Deity of Everlasting Mercy, who, with Amida, presided over the Paradise of the West, and it was a statue of this manifestation of their Lord which our humble group of devotees decided upon for their memorial. By a singular confusion of Kuan-yin with the deified daughter of a semi-legendary king of the Chou dynasty to whom miraculous powers were attributed, the Chinese always represented this deity as feminine. With a wisdom which unhappily seems no longer to actuate those similarly disposed, these presumably untutored citizens of a rural hamlet employed, to produce their statue, one whose name is utterly unknown, but who may be reckoned among the great artists of all time. It is interesting to remember that, at this period, the rest of the world was immersed in the gloom of the Dark Ages, and that the gleaming torch of Art which Egypt, first in the records of history, had lighted, and which had been handed down the centuries from nation to nation, passing through Assyria and Greece and Persia and India, was now kept aglow, a precious charge for future ages, by the sculptors, painters and artificers of the Celestial Kingdom. Not only was it kept aglow, but it burned with exceeding brilliancy, and its keepers, though in large part unnamed, rank with the world's master spirits of the graphic and plastic arts.And, so, out of the native black marble of the region, a standing figure of Kuan-yin was carved, showing the goddess standing on a lotus flower resting, in turn, upon another, inverted, beneath which was placed a square base. And, in the fifth year of Tien Ho of the Northern Chou dynasty (A.D. 571)—as the legend cut in the stone informs us—the gift was duly set up in the temple grounds. How little could its donors have dreamed that, nearly fifteen hundred years afterward, their pious offering would be treasured, as a surpassing work of art, in a land separated from theirs by the whole diameter of the earth, of the existence of which they and all other peoples of the world were ignorant, and that their own humble names would, by it, be perpetuated for the edification and interest of a race, as yet non-existent, that was to develop from the rude barbarians of the continent to their west!The base of the statue bears two inscriptions. The first was composed by a mendicant Buddhist priest at the time of the dedication of the gift, and contains a brief dissertation upon The Void, the cardinal doctrine of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, peculiarly given to transcendental speculation and abstract contemplation. This is followed by the true dedicatory portion of the composition, the whole reading as follows:"The Void of the Buddhist is something that is utterly still, empty, impressionless and abstract. When looked at, its appearance is not seen; when listened to, its sound is not heard. Without appearance, it is yet the form of all laws; without sound, it is, nevertheless, the name of all laws. So form is the form of the formless, and name is the name of the nameless. It is like the spiritual pearl that is ever luminous, taking in turn the reflection of things without changing its own nature."Hoping to dwell in Nirvana, forty-one members of the village community have, by depriving themselves in part of their personal wealth, and for the worship of the ancient Sage, and to pay homage to the Emperor, erected this statue to Sakya, inasmuch as now the countries on the four sides are submissive, the five esculents are abundant and ripe, and all the people live in happiness."It is also the devout wish of those who observe the law that grace be given to their parents of the past seven generations, and the parents and relatives of their previous existence."What nobler motives, what finer expression of lofty sentiment, could be demanded? The statue and its inscriptions are convincing evidence of the high civilization and culture of the Chinese at a time when elsewhere civilization and culture were dead.By some misfortune of which we have no explanation, the statue seems, soon afterward, to have been thrown down or removed, and the monastery connected with the temple to have been injured or destroyed, perhaps by a hostile invasion from one of "the countries on the four sides." At any rate, a second inscription cut in the stone recites that, in the first year of Kai Huang, of the Sui dynasty (A.D. 581), the people of the village, this time forty-five in number, restored the monastery, and re-erected the statue before the temple. In the course of the inscription, mention is made of the Three Precious Things and the Six Supernatural Faculties. The Three Precious Things are, a belief in Buddha; the Law, and the Congregation. The Six Supernatural Faculties are, (1) The divine eye—vision extending to the remotest regions; (2) The divine ear—hearing unobstructed by any intervening barrier; (3) The untrammeled body—power to move at will through space; (4) Perception of the thoughts of others; (5) Knowledge of the destinies of the past; (6) Knowledge concerning all future ages.The second inscription in translation reads as follows:"To attain Buddhahood, it must be the result of spiritual works. The divine doctrine of The Void cannot be appreciated by the worldly. To enter into Nirvana, it must be through the accumulation of charity and by mortification of worldly desires. The aspiration to possess the Three Precious Things can only be realized by the cooperation of all. Then blessings and righteousness will accrue to the country, and among the people in the different places will be virtue and faith."The forty-five members of the village community now see that the Three Things are lodged in truth, the seven ages of suffering are no more, the virtues of the Emperor are all-embracing and profound, and honor is given to the great Sage. They, therefore, plant the precious root in the ground of virtue, so that it may blossom forth in the highest spirituality. They sow the seed of truth in the heart, so that it may bring forth fruit to the soul. Doing good with all their power, they may acquire the Six Supernatural Faculties."Actuated by a profound reverence for the heritage left by Sakya, and with a desire to obtain the remaining Sutras, all the community is gathered together; each member, bearing the honor of the village in mind, gives part of his wealth. So, collecting these treasures, the statue of Sakya is restored, for the Emperor, for all the living things in the region of Law, and for the parents of the seven generations, so that they all may receive blessings."The statue was discovered at Shih-An in the fall of 1909, and is in a remarkable state of preservation. With its base it is 6 feet and 4 inches in height. The figure itself is 4 feet and 8 inches high. The right hand is missing, and the goddess holds a lotus bud, or a peach, the symbol of longevity, in her left hand, from which the tips of the first and fourth fingers have been broken. The figure is gracefully proportioned and molded with great suavity, disclosing strongly the Greco-Bachtrian influence which had penetrated China at the north. It is profusely decorated with necklaces and festoons of beadlike garnitures charming and refined in design and meticulously rendered. A long scarf, gracefully disposed over the extended arms, falls from the shoulders of the goddess to her feet, which are bare. The draperies hang in finely rhythmic lines, and, unlike many Chinese sculptures, the back of the figure, though simpler in design, is executed with the same care as the front, and presents a most interesting mode. The edges of the scarf at the back have been slightly broken.On the head is an elaborate and handsome crown and superimposed ornament; in the back of the head is a dowel hole which probably originally held in place an aureole. The poise of the head and contour of the face are delightfully dignified and lovely, the features being finely, but characteristically, modeled. The expression is calm and benignant. Large and ornate earrings adorn the ears. The girdle, with its bosses and central ornaments in front and behind, is especially striking in detail executed in high relief.Originally, there was, at each corner of the base, a figure of a reclining Shisi, or lion, the two in front being intact. Those at the rear have been cut away. A very pleasing grayish patina has developed upon the surface of the statue which gives warmth and softness to the marble and adds to the charm of its effect. The statue was at one time painted in polychrome enriched with gold leaf, traces of which, especially at the back, are very distinct.The accession is one which will give distinction to the Institute and materially increase the attractiveness of the Chinese gallery. We know of few pieces of sculpture of this period that equal it in importance or appeal.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Kuan-Yin, Deity of Compassion, Chinese, VI century
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Source: "A Notable Acquisition in Chinese Sculpture," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 7, no. 2 (February, 1918): 10-12.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009