By Stephen F. Beiner

It is quite remarkable that the most notable archaeological discoveries made in China during the last century were found by sheer accident. No trip to China today would be complete without visiting the Terracotta army built to guard the third century BCE tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, near present-day Xi’an. The several thousand life-size "soldiers" grouped in battle order were discovered in Lintong county in 1974 by farmers digging for a well.

Six years ago a hoard of some four hundred stunning Chinese Buddhist sculptures, which had lain buried for over nine hundred years, was discovered accidentally in the city of Qingzhou, in the northeastern province of Shandong. Workers leveling a school playground in 1996 uncovered a large pit containing magnificent figures of Buddha (one who has attained enlightenment) and bodhisattvas (beings who have delayed enlightenment to assist others in their quest for salvation). Sculpted in the local limestone, many still contain their original coloration and gilding. The statues were found in what is now believed to be the ancient site of the Longxing Temple, a monastery thought to have been established prior to 425 and destroyed in 1461. Since the sculptures were unearthed, they have been painstakingly repaired, cleaned and conserved. A small group of these statues was exhibited in the United States in 1999. Now for the first time since their discovery, thirty-five of these hauntingly beautiful pieces have been allowed temporarily to leave China, and have been exhibited in Berlin, Zurich, and most recently in London at the Royal Academy of Art, where I had the opportunity to view them in May. After this tour, the sculptures will be permanently housed in a special museum built for them in Qingzhou, near where they were discovered.

Buddhism originated in India in the fifth century BCE. Its founder was the chieftain Siddharta (his given name) Gautama (his clan name), the son of the chief of the Shakya tribe, the ruling family of the area that comprises the present-day India-Nepal border; he is therefore also known as Shakyamuni – the sage of the Shakyas. He abandoned the life of privilege after being moved by the suffering of all life forms trapped in the cycle of life, death and re-birth, to seek the true meaning of life. After years of asceticism and meditation, sitting in yogic meditation beneath a banyan tree, he achieved nirvana, spiritual enlightenment, the release from the cycle of existence by "blowing out the fires of longing and attachment," and was thereafter known as the Buddha, "the awakened one." He then spent the next forty years converting vast numbers to his faith: the belief in repeated lives on earth with the opportunity to improve the condition of the next birth by performing good deeds in this life.

In the earliest Buddhist art of India, the Buddha was not represented in human form; rather his presence was depicted by a "trace" such as a footprint or an empty seat. By the first century, the Buddha, who had never claimed to be anything but a human being who had found a path to truth, became deified by his followers, who introduced for the first time the artistic rendering of the Buddha as a human figure. The new image, clad in a monastic robe, displayed the two signs of his superhuman perfection: the ushnisha (the cranial bump often disguised by the ancient sculptor as a top knot), representing his omniscience; and the urna, the dot or curl of the hair on the forehead, symbolizing his renunciation of earthly pleasures. During the first century, varying types of Buddha images appeared. In ancient Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan), sculptures combined Greek and Roman forms with Indian Buddhist elements to create a unique blend of eastern and western art: Buddhas wearing monastic robes reminiscent of toga-clad Roman figures.

Buddhism came to China as a foreign religion, and was subsequently assimilated into Chinese culture and transformed by it. Buddhism was known in China as early as the second century BCE, but became established only in the first century BCE. Coming to China by way of the caravans that transported goods along the "Silk Road," Central Asian painting and sculpture strongly influenced the first Buddhist art produced in China. Buddhism only began to flower in China during the fifth and sixth centuries CE, during a period of endless wars, deportations, famine, floods and droughts. The religion’s emphasis on personal salvation and renunciation of worldly ties, coupled with monk-sponsored welfare projects, made it equally attractive to devotees from many social strata. In subsequent years, Buddhism sometimes thrived under imperial patronage, while in other periods its foreign origin led other rulers to persecute its followers.

Initially, both Buddhist doctrine and temple art in China were based on the prototypes brought to China from India and central Asia. But as Buddhism was absorbed into Chinese life, it was altered by indigenous cultural and philosophical values. When Buddhism first arrived in China, there were no organized religions, scriptures, monasteries or clerics. Rather there were sophisticated philosophies which only later evolved into formal religions. In the first century CE, China’s primary belief system centered around ancestor worship: through the intervention of one’s ancestors, the gods and spirits could be appeased. The philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism existed together with these beliefs. Confucius, a contemporary of the historical Buddha, emphasized the need for cosmic order as well as a structured society: if everyone performed their "assigned" roles, societal order would be maintained. Dao means "the path"; its main philosophical text Dao De Jing, attributed to Lao Tzu, promotes a philosophy of pacifism, action by inaction. Daoism teaches its adherents to accept without struggle the experiences of life.

As Buddhism became more Chinese, it was greatly altered by these native philosophies. For example, the Indian Buddhist’s encouragement of individual salvation through a celibate monastic life was tempered in China by the Confucian stress on family cohesion and ancestor worship. Styles in Chinese Buddhist Art, originally based on traditions from India, Central Asia, and Tibet, soon promoted native aesthetics. As Buddhism took root in China, it became a major cultural force that inspired some of China’s most brilliant paintings and sculptures.

The thirty-five limestone sculptures that were on display at the Royal Academy were all made during the fifty-year period between 529 and 577 CE. They comprise two groups: those made during the periods of the Northern Wei (368 – 534 CE) and Eastern Wei (534 – 550 CE); and those made after 550 CE during the Northern Qi (550 – 577 CE) period. They include figures of Buddha, figures of bodhisattvas, and figural triads, a central Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas. Their variation in size, quality and style illustrates both the artistic transformation during these periods, as well as the donor’s wealth and the artist’s skill. The Sinocistatian (Chinesification) during the Northern Wei period is reflected in the clothing of the statues: the Indian clothes are replaced with Chinese robes. The most important stylistic elements of the Northern Wei period are the highly pronounced protuberance on the top of the head (the ushnisha), large open eyes, a gentle smile, and decorative garments with stylized folds that conceal the shape of the body. This dramatically changed after the Qi conquest. The Qi aristocracy was led by military troops of foreign, nomadic origin, who were hostile to the Chinese tradition and favored foreign artistic expressions. This led to a style influenced by Greek art: the bodies are shown in motion, clad in thin robes which naturally cling to the bodies, which is closer to the Ghandaran style.

These treasures illustrate the great growth of Buddhist religious fervor in China during its peak in the sixth century and how the spread of Buddhism gave rise to an entirely new sensibility, introducing to China figural religious iconography and sumptuous ornamentation, exemplified by these statues covered with gold, precious stones, and silks.

The ever-growing interest in Asian Art is reflected in numerous exhibits throughout Europe and the U.S. this fall. In London, besides the thirty-five Qingzhou figures at the Royal Academy, the Albert and Victoria Museum features an extensive collection of Chinese art dating from 3000 BCE to the present, including magnificent textiles, exquisite porcelain and elegant furniture. The A & V’s gold, bronze, silver, ivory and terracotta art from India, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka represents the rich and complex cultures of this region. The British Museum’s exhibit "Discovering Ancient Afghanistan," which opened September 12th, highlights pieces of Ghandaran art dating from the first century CE.

In Washington, the Smithsonian Freer Gallery’s unique exhibition will explore issues of authenticity and attribution of Chinese Buddhist sculpture, in addition to its continuing collection of ancient Chinese, Buddhist and Indian pottery and statuary. The neighboring Sackler Gallery will be displaying over two dozen large photographs of sacred sites along the Silk Road. In New York, the Asia Society, in its newly constructed Park Avenue site, reopened its small, intimate permanent exhibition of the John D. Rockefeller 3rd collection of Chinese, Ghandaran, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Cambodian, Korean and Vietnamese art. Not to be missed is the new installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened in August, entitled "Glimpses of the Silk Road," encompassing forty diverse objects from Central Asia, marked by an astonishing amalgam of Hellenistic imagery, Near-eastern motifs and Chinese and Indian features. Locally in Boca Raton, the Griffin Gallery (the Boca Gallery Center) will showcase over a dozen new, exciting Asian artifacts, including a rare and exquisitely carved Ming oak table; a Tang dynasty (eighth century) compelling Bactrian camel; an imposing pair of Tang temple guardians; a unique Han dynasty (first century CE) green-glazed pottery pavilion; and a rare and intricately sculpted Ghandaran frieze with exceptional provenance.

STEPHEN F. BEINER is a practicing attorney in Boca Raton. Together with his wife, Dr. Judith Beiner, he owns the GRIFFIN GALLERY OF ANCIENT ART, Gallery Center, Boca Raton, Florida.

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