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The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Ancient Sculpture

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Buddhism spread rapidly during the war-ravaged period of the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties. The common people sought relief from their sufferings by praying for Buddha’s help, while their ruler used Buddhism to be numb the minds of the people and avert revolt. During this period, the chiseling of stone grottoes and building of Buddhist temples became prevalent all over China. Du Mu (803-852), a leading poet of the Tang Dynasty, described the temples of the Southern Dynasties in a poem, as follows: “Of four hundred and eighty temples of the Southern Dynasties/How many towers and terraces loom in the misty rain?” since grottoes are less vulnerable than temples and palaces in times of war and natural disaster, grotto sculptures are our major source of information about the art and religion of that epoch. The famous grottoes of Datong in Shanxi Province and Luoyang in Henan Province, along with many lesser ones, were constructed in the Northern Wei Dynasty, bequeathing large numbers of stone statues of Buddha to posterity.
Of the Yungang Grottoes at Datong, five major grottoes (the 16th to the 20th) were constructed by Monk Tanyao at the order of Emperor Wencheng of the Wei Dynasty in 450. These “five grottoes by Monk Tanyao” display the rigid forms of foreign in fluencies on Chinese sculpture, but in the grottoes constructed later, artisans seemed to be trying to abandon these forms and return to the traditional artistic forms of the Han people. The image of Buddha is usually represented with a plump forehead, long eyes, straight nose, thick lips and broad shoulders. After the Northern Wei Dynasty moved its capital to Luoyang, Monk Huicheng, a member of the Wei imperial clan, began the construction of a big grotto known as the Guyang Cave on Mount Longmen in 495. From 500 to 523, Emperor Xuanwu and Emperor Xiaoming had the north, central and south grottoes-called the Binyang Caves-carved out. Constructed over a period of more than 50 years, the Guyang Cave is full of stone statues of Buddha in various sizes. And in the Binyang Caves, a carving representing emperors and empresses praying before Buddha is the most exquisite piece of work. The sculptures of the Longmen Grottoes manifest more Chinese artistic forms than those of the Yungang Grottoes, and the postures of Buddha have changed from vigorous and awe-inspiring at Yungang to gentle and amiable at Longmen. The image of Buddha represented by the main Buddha in the Central Binyang Cave is a kindly one, shown by the benevolent smile on the face of the statue. All these show the evolution of the combination of traditional Chinese art with foreign art.


Source

arts.cultural-china.com