Buddhist and Funerary Sculpture in China

Six Dynasties Period

Sui Dynasty

Tang Dynasty

Six Dynasties Period

(Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties)

Ca. 220 – ca. 600 CE


317-581 Northern Dynasties

386-535 Northern Wei Dynasty

550-577 Northern Qi Dynasty

420-589 Southern Dynasties


China is broken up under a series of different dynasties

Historical Context

Collapse of the Han dynasty

Politically complex age

Unified imperial rule and central authority disappeared

Series of dynasties: some foreign, some Chinese

Buddhism: first foreign system to become an integral part of Chinese culture

Why did Buddhism take root in China?

Patronage: rulers embraced it

Political and Social Context: fertile soil brought about by war, chaos, famine, disruption

Philosophical Context: Buddhist teachings paralleled Daoist mysticism

Buddhist Pilgrimage and Missionary Routes

The infrastructure of the "Silk Road" trade routes formed the conduit for the introduction of Buddhism to China

Shrines at Yungang and Longmen

Shrines on the Silk Road

Example: Colossal Buddha at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 5th-6th c. (destroyed)

Shrines trace the route of introduction of Buddhism to China

Influence of Kushan period sculpture

Cave Shrines at Yungang

Colossal Buddha, ca. 450-500

Prototypes: monumental rock cut architecture and sculpture in India and Central Asia

Kushan period styles influential (transmitted through small examples and drawings); followed fairly closely

Style Characteristics

Drapery folds: flat ribbon bands of flame-ended folds; graphic quality; flame imagery may be Chinese innovation

Massive physique, spheroid face, smile

Follows foreign style fairly closely

Bronze Sculpture

Shakyamuni and Buddha of the Past, 518

Early 6th century example; shows thorough assimilation of Indian Buddhist iconography and style


Style Characteristics

Elongated proportions

Physicality suppressed

Thin face, smile

"Waterfall" drapery: elongated drapery with decorative flourishes and water-like patterns

Flame imagery

Transformed into a uniquely Chinese aesthetic

Sui Dynasty

589 - 618


Reunification of China

Short dynasty set the stage for the 300-year Tang dynasty

Bronze Sculpture

Amitabha Altar, 593

Iconography: Buddha who presides over the Western Paradise; Pure Land Buddhist sect

Style: Based on a "columnar" style seen at the end of the Six Dynasties period, but softer; transitional style

Change in style reflects more direct contacts with India and Central Asia




Pure Land Buddhism becomes popular


Reflects more direct contacts with India and Central Asia

Stimulus: influence of Gupta sculpture

Body more solid, plastic

Less interest in ornamentation

Reticence, understatement (Chinese aesthetic)

Serene expression evokes deep spiritual content

Tang Dynasty

618 - 907

Historical Context

Capital at Chang’an: greatest city in the world at the time


Foreign trade expanded (Chinese goods found throughout Asia and the Middle East)

Buddhism flourished

Important cave shrines at Tianlongshan and new shrines Longmen

Pure Land and Esoteric sects

Diverse, vital culture

Cave Shrines at Tianlongshan

Bodhisattvas, ca. 700

Based on renewed study of Gupta sculpture

Advanced naturalism, relaxed poses

Solid, weighty forms

Drapery appears to have weight, texture, substance

Ceramic Sculpture:
Tomb Figurines

Camel Bearing Troupe of Central Asian Musicians, ca. 700-750

One of two general types of ceramic:

Earthenware glazed with a "three-color" lead glaze

Painted earthenware

Placed in groups in the tomb, along with other objects

Tomb Figurines:
Subject and Style

Subjects and style reflect the cosmopolitan Tang culture

Subjects from the Silk Route trade, foreign subjects

Naturalism in Buddhist art becomes a vivid, life-evoking "realism"


Buddhist Church reaches the height of its power and influence; widespread government-led persecutions against the clergy in the 9th century

Renewed trade contacts in India and Central Asia