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: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture: A Figure of Kuan-Shih-Yin


Dr. Robert J. Poor



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Shortly before the settlement of the First World War The Minneapolis Institute of Arts acquired a remarkable stone image of the bodhisattva Kuan-Yin.1 Although it may seem strange to associate the acquisition of this work with the context of troubled political times, it is very much in keeping with the previous history of this image. There are two lengthy inscriptions on the base of the sculpture.2 The first records its original dedication in the fifth year of the T'ien-ho era of the Northern Chou Dynasty (i.e. 570 A.D.). The regnal title T'ien-ho, “Heavenly Harmony,” could not possibly be a more inaccurate description of the times. The Northern Chou had just emerged as victors over the Northern Wei and were still at odds with the Northern Ch'i. The Northern Chou Dynasty itself would last only thirty-two years. The unsettled period from the fall of the Later Han Dynasty earlier in the third century A.D. is characterized by murder, rebellion, the total breakdown of centralized government and the rise of Buddhism.Buddhism and the ever increasing pressure from “barbarian” tribes contributed to the breakdown of imperial authority. At times these two forces, political and cultural, worked hand in hand. A tribe, most likely of Mongol origin known as the Hsien-pie, moved into northeast China and soon ruled that part of the country. They are known also as the T'o-pa or more commonly under their sinicized name, the Wei. They were among the earliest of the great patrons of Buddhism. Perhaps because they were “barbarians” and not the original sons of the Han, they were able to accept the foreign Indian religion which was in so many respects antagonistic to traditional Chinese ideas and ideals. For whatever reason Buddhism flourished in these troubled times but always in conflict with two native systems of thought, Taoism and Confucianism, and something of the history of that conflict is reflected in the history of this image.Wu Ti, the Warrior Emperor, was on the throne when the statue of Kuan-yin was dedicated. Just the year before he had initiated a grand convocation where the Confucianists, the Taoists, and the Buddhists appeared to plead their case for the imperial favor. Five years later the imperial decree made manifest the new government policy. Confucianism would be tolerated; it prompted social order and was concerned with the arts of governing. Buddhism and Taoism were prohibited and a major persecution of these two sects was begun. If we may believe the records, more than three million priests were forced to return to secular life. Their names were placed upon the civil and military registers. Thousands of temples were converted to secular use and unnumbered images were destroyed, some simply burned, metal ones melted down and their raw materials converted to other uses. Wu Ti was not the only emperor to persecute the Buddhists and the charges that they withdrew from military and civic responsibilities were not original to him, but Wu was certainly responsible for one of the most systematic and drastic of all of the persecutions of this religion on Chinese soil. In 577 A.D. Wu conquered his rivals, the Northern Ch'i, and the proscription against Buddhism was expanded to cover the newly won territories in the next year. The decision to extend the persecution was announced at another convention and on this occasion the emperor made explicit his charges against Buddhism. Gods were beyond representation images and the temples that housed them were a sham that deluded the people and deprived them of their wealth. One priest argued eloquently for the Buddhist cause, and, according to the Buddhist accounts, was able to confound the Emperor. Yet, Wu was not to be swayed and finally in an angry outburst declared that theirs was a foreign religion which the country did not need and he went on to imply that Confucian shrines might well suffer the same fate in the near future. The threat was never fulfilled. In fact, Buddhism had survived its darkest hour. Wu, whose post-humous portrait appears in the famous Thirteen Emperor Scroll along with the notation that he “destroyed the Buddha's Law,” was succeeded in 581 A.D. by one who was more sympathetic to the organized religions. The new monarch was only a child. Power was in the hands of his prime minister Yang Chien, the Duke of Sui. In fact, the Duke ruled the kingdom and in 581 A.D. he usurped the imperial title and changed the dynastic name to Sui. He was an avid patron of Buddhism, as devoted to its revitalization a Wu Ti had been to its suppression.The new emperor, whose title was Wen Ti—the “Literary Emperor,”—is supposed to have launched a major campaign for the restoration of the Buddhist establishments, repairing nearly four thousand temples, making over a hundred thousand new images and ordering the repair of more than a million older ones. The second inscription on the base of the figure of Kuan-yin records that it was restored and rededicated in 581 A.D., the first year of the new and more sympathetic dynasty. Thus, the inscriptions on this image place it in this troubled decade which saw the reluctant toleration of Buddhism at the time of its original dedication and the re-emergence of the religion under the protection of the state at the time of its rededication. Some reflection of the violence of the persecution itself may be seen in the present condition of the statue.The earliest reports of this image indicate that it was standing in the grounds of the Ku Shih Po Ssu temple outside the northern gate of the city of Hsi-an in 1906 A.D. Hsi-an, in the Western province of Shensi, is the modern name of the old capital of the T'ang Dynasty, which was then called Ch'ang-an, and the capital of the Sue when it was known as Ta-hsing-ch'eng, the “City of Great Prosperity.” It was an ancient and cosmopolitan site, a bustling university center at the time that our image was originally dedicated. Incidentally, another famous statue of Kuan-yin, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, came from the same site.3 When the Minneapolis piece was seen by Professor Hayasaki in 1906, the pedestal was at least partially below ground, and he was not aware of the two important inscriptions. Nonetheless he placed it in the latter part of the sixth century on the basis of its style. As it stands now, the figure is nearly complete, lacking only the aureole which would appear behind the head, the right hand, and the lower part of the scarf which hangs at the right side. The left forearm was once broken but has been repaired with some tinted plaster at the point of fracture. The pedestal of the image, which is separate from the statue itself, was more badly damaged. Two of the four lions which appear at the corners of the base are missing, chiseled away rather than broken, and a major fracture (now filled with plaster) runs around the entire perimeter of the inverted lotus which supports the figure. There is considerable chipping of the inscribed surfaces but not so extensive as to obscure the texts. Such extensive damage to the durable stone material suggests deliberate vandalism rather than chance accident and one wonders if any of this breakage may have occurred during the time of the Buddhist persecution. The fracture at the base of this heavy work suggests that it may have been deliberately thrown down. The second inscription, specifically refers to the restoration of this piece but whether it was completely restored at the time of the second inscription or simply repaired, involving only the reassembly of broken parts, cannot be known. Perhaps the hand and aureole were missing at the time of the repair and were for some reason not replaced. We may be certain however that the image was repainted, and traces of blue, red and gilt pigment are still visible in the more sheltered parts of the sculpture.This figure of Kuan-yin is especially significant since it provides the only dated example of a regional sub-style that is but little known from other monumental works. It illustrates as well a turning point in the development of Buddhist sculpture in China. Earlier works, like the diminutive figure of Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future) which dates from the earlier part of the sixth century, illustrate the naive initial attempts of the Chinese sculptor to represent the Buddha in anthropomorphic form.4 Lacking a tradition of free standing monumental sculpture, the Chinese artist in this archaic period was little prepared to depict the body but sought refuge instead in a style which was almost exclusively concerned with the garments and the accouterments of the image. It is not even the garment, some real fabric with a definite texture that is represented, but rather a garment pattern, an ideal configuration which is superimposed on the shell of the icon. Every detail—arching eye-brow, the oval face, the gentle flutter of a scarf—is cast in the same rhythmic mould and paced to a common tempo. Unity is achieved through the symmetrical rhythmic linearity of all forms, and the style is one which does not appeal especially to the haptic sense. Rather, such images always seem light and airy and are as pleasing in a relief or painting as they are in the full round.A somewhat later style, still within the sixth century, demonstrates an interest in more truly plastic values.5 Draperies are more sedate and evoke a feeling for texture, and the pace has changed. The fall of a scarf or garment fold is at a slower tempo, more solemn and monumental. What is more, the sculptor has turned his attention to the construction of the superstructure—not yet the body but rather the more abstract core which supports the accessory detail. A new canon has been created which is most obvious in the way of shaping the head which is somewhat squarish and more appealing in sensuous detail. There is as well a slight indication of some interest in the portrayal of facial expression and psychological condition. The archaic smile of the Maitreya has given way to a slight pout in the mouth of the Bodhisattva which only emphasized the physicality of the facial features.A subtle, yet substantive interest in the greater sensuosity of the Bodhisattva figure is apparent in the image of Kuan-yin. The pose is for the first time more relaxed, the weight on one foot with head and hip slightly bent in the pose which is in India called tribhanga (“thrice broken”). The pose is not the true dehanchement nor is this a systematic application of this kind of relaxed pose which is so familiar in the art of other cultures. Yet it is a marked departure from the rigid frontality which marked the sculpture of earlier generations. Seen in profile the pose is remarkable fluid and appealing.6 The figure leans forward at a precarious angle and form is surprisingly tenuous. Yet seen from the proper angle, that is the front, there is a new feeling for some more monumental form. A latent interest in the body begins to manifest itself, and there is an elaboration and enrichment of the garment and its ornaments, as though through the mere incrustation of jewelry and necklace the sculptor could somehow increase the weight of the image and appeal to the plastic sense. The feeling for texture and the slower fall of draperies is in the same vein as is the fuller and more sensuous rendition of the face. In the face we find a few new details: the chin is marked by a semi-lunar line and the throat is marked by three incise lines which were canonical in Indian representations of the Bodhisattva but never represented in Chinese works until this period. The possibility of some more general and profound Indian influence enters in any discussion of this work. Some would see in the pronounced sensuality of the figure and in its pose the immediate impact and the direct influence of Indian images. Yet this is an argument that is difficult to sustain and impossible to prove. From the outset the Chinese sculptor, if he was aware of any actual examples of Indian Buddhist sculpture, would have had images at his disposal which were concerned with the depiction of the body and its sensual aspects. Yet these traits are entirely missing in early Chinese works and one suspects that such forms must have seemed intrinsically alien to the Chinese sculptor. Inexperienced in monumental sculpture and trained in a tradition which was not concerned with the details of anatomy, he could only reject any possible Indian prototypes which demonstrated this interest in the body until he had created for himself a suitable “archaic type” better suited to satisfy Chinese taste. That accomplished, he came, as did the artists of so many cultures, to an interest which went beyond the simple and materialist concentration on the surface of the image to a greater interest in its supporting core and finally to a realization of the body itself. The pattern is a familiar one, reiterated frequently by the gestalt psychologists and not limited to the history of early Chinese sculpture. In short, the stylistic innovations which are evident in this remarkable sculpture are not the result of any particular and special Indian influence but the natural result of the greater artistic maturity of the Chinese sculpture. Another indication of that maturity is seen in the concern for the characterization of the benign aspect of Kuan-yin.In India the Bodhisattva was known as Avalokitesvara and are modeled after a male figure. In China and the Far East in general the type became increasingly feminine and an appealing sympathetic figure. This is not a new definition of iconography—from the outset Kuan-yin was understood as a compassionate being—but of style. Earlier in the century all portrayals of Kuan-yin were psychologically neutral, aloof icons which expressed a sentimental ideal entirely in the abstract. Here for the first time we see a direct appeal to the laity in preeminently human terms, and appeal which must have been even more attractive in those troubled times. Something of that appeal is reflected in the two dedicatory inscriptions although they for the most part follow more formal lines and a challenge the intellect rather than human feelings. The first inscription offers a miniature sermon on the Buddhist void.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 turns the reflections 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 paying homage to the Emperor, erected this statue to Sakya, 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.The second inscription is more prosaic, stressing the institutional aspects of Buddhism and its relations with the current dynasty:To attain Buddhahood, it must be by 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. The aspiration to possess the Three Precious Things can only be realized by the co-operation of all. Then blessings and righteousness will accrue to the country, and among the people in the different places there 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 honour is given to the great sage. They, therefore, plant the precious root in the foundation of virtue, so that it may blossom forth in the highest spirituality. They sow the seeds of truth in the heart, so that it may bring forth fruit in 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 honour of the village in mind gives part of his wealth. So collecting these treasures, the statue of Sakya is restored, for the Emperor, all the living beings in the region of law, and the parents of the seven generations, so that they all may receive blessings.Both inscriptions reveal not only Buddhist thought but the intervention of rival ideals as well. The concern for the blessings of their parents for seven generations is very Confucian (and Chinese), and there are Taoist overtones in some of the metaphysical references. This only serves to underline the fact that the Chinese were at that time, and even more so in a later period, less inclined to stress sectarian differences than to find a syncretic response to the several religious or philosophical systems which were available to them. Yet, in the final analysis these are Buddhist tests and one cannot but be struck by the pious optimism of those who dedicated this image just before the reign of terror, a laity that sought by “doing good with all their power” to provide a brighter future for their Emperor, their ancestors, and themselves.Robert Poor, Consultant in Oriental Art to the Institute, is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota. His recent publications include “A Note on the ‘Mo-tzu-yu,’” a piece from the Pillsbury Collection which will appear in a forthcoming issue of Oriental Art and “A Note on Some Shang and Chou Bronzes” in the National Palace Museum Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 3.Endnotes
  1. 18.5. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund. Black stone, 6’4” (h.).
  2. The two inscriptions run around the entire base, the earlier one at what is now the back face and the later one on the front.
  3. Published in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, Vol. XIII, No. 78 (August, 1915).
  4. 45.3. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund. Grey Limestone, 17 5/8” (h.).
  5. 42.4.1. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. L. Searle. White marble, 27” (h.)
  6. A profile view of the figure was published in The Bulletin of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Vol. VII, No. 2 (February, 1918).
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Standing Figure: Kuan-Yin, 570 A.D. Northern Chou Dynasty. Black stone with traces of gold and color, 6’4” (h.). The William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 18.5.
  2. The two inscriptions on the base of the Kuan-Yin dated 570 and 581 A.D.
  3. Maitreya. Early 6th century A.D. Grey limestone, 17 5/8” (h.). The William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 45.3.
  4. Standing Bodhisattva. Later 6th century A.D. White marble, 27” (h.). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. L. Searle, 42.4.1.
  5. Detail of Standing Kuan-Yin.
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Source: Robert J. Poor, "Chinese Buddhist Sculpture: A Figure of Kuan-Shih-Yin," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 58 (1969): 19-28.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009