Buddhist Stele from Wei Dynasty China

Buddhist Stele from Wei Dynasty China

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Buddhist Stele from Wei Dynasty China - History

Provenance: Nakanishi Bunzo, Kyoto, possibly by inheritance from his father Nakanishi Bunzo, who was chief assistant at the Kyoto branch of Yamanaka & Co., by repute
James Freeman, Kyoto
An important American private collection, acquired from the above in 2002

Richly carved with a vibrant scene of veneration, encapsulating Buddhist compassion and celestial quality, the present carving encapsulates the emergence of stone steles as an important Buddhist sculptural medium in Chinese history.

Holding his right hand in abhaya mudra, signifying reassurance, the Buddha conveys to the worshippers that they may receive the divine blessings.

According to the 'Lotus Sutra', the apsaras are the protectors of the Buddha and of doctrine. These creatures were frequently portrayed in Buddhist cave temples from at least 420 and grew in popularity during the late Northern Wei and Eastern Wei periods. See The Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries, London, 2002, p.84.

The origins of Buddhist steles are traceable to two major historical events, both documented at the Buddhist cave temple sites of Yungang and Longmen (386-534), which occurred during the last two decades of the fifth century: the emergence of Buddhist devotional societies and the first espousal of tablets for Buddhist use. See D.C.Wong, Chinese Steles. Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form, Honolulu, 2004, p.43.

Steles played an important role in the development of regional religious art. During the Northern Wei dynasty, state-sponsorship of Buddhism enabled the rapid spread of the religion throughout Northern China. At this time, Buddhist voluntary groups affiliated to local temples and organised by laymen became the main patrons of Buddhist steles which commemorated the group's religious, social, and territorial identity. The relative ubiquity of the medium employed to manufacture steles, and their small size, prompted a multitude of regional workshops, many of which developed their own style using the monumental cave temple carvings as a basis.

Compare the stylistic features of the present stele with a related one, dated by inscription to the Eastern Wei (534-550), from the Cleveland Museum, of Art, Ohio, illustrated in J.A MacLean, 'A Buddhist Trinity', in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol.11, no.3, 1914, pp.2-3. Similarities can be noted in the serene expressions of the figures, fullness of their bodies and style of drapery as well as the modelling of the apsaras flying above the central figures.

Eastern Wei

The Eastern Wei ( / w eɪ / [4] simplified Chinese: 东魏 traditional Chinese: 東魏 pinyin: Dōng Wèi ) followed the disintegration of the Northern Wei, and ruled northern China from 534 to 550. As with Northern Wei, the ruling family of Eastern Wei were members of the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei.

Gao Huan was the potentate of the eastern half of what was Northern Wei territory. In 534 , following the disintegration of the Northern Wei dynasty, he installed Yuan Shanjian as ruler of Eastern Wei. Yuan Shanjian was a descendant of the Northern Wei. Yuan Shanjian was a puppet ruler, as the real power lay in the hands of Gao Huan. Several military campaigns were launched against the neighboring Western Wei in an attempt to reunify the territory once held by the Northern Wei, however these campaigns were not successful. In 547 Gao Huan died. His sons Gao Cheng and Gao Yang were able to pursue his policy of controlling the emperor, but in 550 Gao Yang deposed Yuan Shanjian and founded his own dynasty, the Northern Qi.

The changing face of Buddhist sculptures

SINGAPORE — For Chinese art specialists, the Qingzhou Buddhist sculptures, discovered by chance in 1996, are one of the most significant archaeological finds of the late 20th century. In an exceptional state of preservation, retaining some of their original paint and gilding, the sixth-century sculptures also bear testament to the inter-connectedness of ancient Asian cultures, showing stylistic experimentations with clear influences from India.

"Serenity in Stone: The Qingzhou Discovery," an exhibition of 35 sculptures now at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, highlights the rapid stylistic change in representing the Buddha that took place over a 50-year period when the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) disintegrated and gave rise to the Eastern Wei dynasty (534-550) and Northern Qi dynasty (550-577). Scholars estimate that about 90 percent of the stone sculptures uncovered on the former site of the Longxing Temple in Qingzhou, China, were carved between 529 and 577.

The Northern Wei rulers were strong supporters of Buddhism, although the original Buddhist teachings from India had been combined with Chinese culture and beliefs (notably Taoism and Confucianism). Buddhist art flourished and developed distinctly Chinese characteristics, most evident in the Chinese-like facial features and the figures' garments, which were similar to the robes of Chinese scholars with a rhythmic design of the folds.

In China's Shandong Province small Buddhist bronze altarpieces had given way to stone stele carvings by the early sixth century, said Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which co-organized the exhibition with the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. But while innovative patterns on steles could be found elsewhere, in Shandong, three figures - a central Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas (a being who has delayed enlightenment to help others) on either side - remained the primary model for representation. Liu added that new iconographic elements, such as a pair of writhing dragons sprouting lotus flowers from their mouths which formed part of the pedestal for the Buddhist sculptures, were introduced to steles during the late Northern Wei period.

In "Stele with Maitreya and two bodhisattvas," dated 529, two smiling figures were carved at the upper corners of the stele, each holding a disc. According to Chinese scholars, these discs represent the sun and the moon, a reference to Taoism, said Tan Huism, deputy director at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

"What is amazing with this exhibition is that you can see how the style of representation changed within a very short period," she said. "In the late Northern Wei period, the Buddha has a very formal and stiff posture with a flattened body. You have no sense of the body beneath the robe. But in the Northern Qi style, you can see the contours of the body under thin robes. The style becomes much more naturalistic."

Scholars believe the changes reflect influences from the Gupta style of art from Sarnath (where Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, first taught) and Mathura, a northern Indian center of artistic production during the period, she added. During the Northern Qi period, bodies became bulkier with broader shoulders and a new garment style emerged, unlined in the torso and pleated only around the edge of the mantel. Some robes, inspired by the artistic style from Mathura, have folds arranged like ripples across the body, moving away from the Chinese scholar robe though, unlike the Indian model, they are often arranged symmetrically.

"There is a real attempt to indicate the body beneath the clothing. Some sculptures are fine examples of the ⟊oyi chushui' style or the wet T-shirt effect, as the garment really clings to the body," Tan said. The expression "Caoyi chushui" comes from the style of drapery developed by a Northern Qi court painter, Cao Zhongda.

There were still significant differences between the Indian and Chinese styles. For example, the Buddha's high ushinisha (the bump on the head representing wisdom) found on early sculptures of the Gupta style became much flatter during the Northern Qi period.

The carving of bodhisattvas also became more elaborate especially during the Northern Qi dynasty, with rich ornamentation, like golden necklaces and long chains. Bodhisattva are often depicted as beauties of ambiguous gender, which is in keeping with the belief that they are able to assume any gender or form to help others on their path to nirvana, and also because the Chinese consider compassion to be a feminine trait.

"From an art history point of view, it's a very important exhibition," said Kenson Kwok, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum. "The sculptures are truly exquisitely beautiful and they are in an exceptional state of preservation. In some pieces you can see painting and gilding, in some cases you can even see painting over the gilding, which is even rarer because the pigment doesn't really adhere to gold leaf very well." He added: "Art historians will know that ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were also painted, and as we all know there are very few of those left with any color. Here, you can see how the maker of the statues intended them to look."

The 400 sculptures and fragments were discovered 1.5 meters, or about 5 feet, below ground level in a pit measuring 8.7 meters by 6.8 meters and 2 meters deep. Thanks to coins found among them, as well as 12th-century pottery, scholars agree that the sculptures, mostly carved from a fine-grained, pale gray limestone, were given a sacred burial in the 12th century. Because of the variety in their facial expressions and stylistic representations, they believe they came from different temples around Shandong Province, where Qingzhou is located.

Why they were buried remains a mystery and a subject of scholarly debate. "One commonly accepted theory is that the Qingzhou sculptures were buried during a period of strong anti-Buddhist sentiment. Fearing the growing influence of Buddhism was a threat to its own power, the government ordered the mass destruction of numerous temples and Buddhist sculptures," said Xie Zhixiu, director of the Shandong Provincial Cultural Bureau and deputy director of the Shandong Provincial Department of Culture, through a translator.

"However, this is not to say that the Qingzhou sculptures were destroyed by anti-Buddhist forces," Xie added. "Instead, their careful ritual arrangement in the excavated pits suggests that the sculptures could have been buried by devotees to protect the precious artifacts. The way in which certain figures were found also suggests that they may have been buried intact, with breakage only occurring due to stress over time. Also, the sculptures may have been buried in a hurry, due to the urgency of the task."

Buddhist Stele from China

A stele ( / ˈ s t iː l i / , STEE-lee) [Note 1] is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected in the ancient world as a monument. Grave steles were often used for funerary or commemorative purposes. Stelae as slabs of stone would also be used as ancient Greek and Romangovernment notices or as boundary markers to mark borders or property lines.

The surface of the stele usually has text, ornamentation, or both. The ornamentation may be inscribed, carved in relief, or painted.

Traditional Western gravestones may technically be considered the modern equivalent of ancient stelae, though the term is very rarely applied in this way. Equally, stelae-like forms in non-Western cultures may be called by other terms, and the words « stele » and « stelae » are most consistently applied in archaeological contexts to objects from Europe, the ancient Near East and Egypt, [1] China, and sometimes Pre-Columbian America.

Giacobbe Giusti, Stone monuments

The funerary stele of Thrasea and Euandria, c. 365 BC

Steles have also been used to publish laws and decrees, to record a ruler&rsquos exploits and honors, to mark sacred territories or mortgaged properties, as territorial markers, as the boundary steles of Akhenaton at Amarna, [2] or to commemorate military victories. [3] They were widely used in the Ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and, most likely independently, in China and elsewhere in the Far East, and, independently, by Mesoamerican civilisations, notably the Olmec [4] and Maya. [5]

Giacobbe Giusti, Stone monuments

Stela of Iddi-Sin, King of Simurrum. It dates back to the Old Babylonian Period. From Qarachatan Village, Sulaymaniyah Governorate, Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq

The large number of steles, including inscriptions, surviving from ancient Egypt and in Central Americaconstitute one of the largest and most significant sources of information on those civilisations, in particular Maya stelae. The most famous example of an inscribed stela leading to increased understanding is the Rosetta Stone, which led to the breakthrough allowing Egyptian hieroglyphs to be read. An informative stele of Tiglath-Pileser III is preserved in the British Museum. Two steles built into the walls of a church are major documents relating to the Etruscan language.

Standing stones (menhirs), set up without inscriptions from Libya in North Africa to Scotland, were monuments of pre-literate Megalithiccultures in the Late Stone Age. The Pictish stones of Scotland, often intricately carved, date from between the 6th and 9th centuries.

An obelisk is a specialized kind of stele. The Insular high crosses of Ireland and Britain are specialized in steles. Totem poles of North and South America that are made out of stone may also be considered a specialized type of stele. Gravestones, typically with inscribed name and often with inscribed epitaph, are among the most common types of stele seen in Western culture.

Most recently, in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the architect Peter Eisenman created a field of some 2,700 blank steles. [6] The memorial is meant to be read not only as the field, but also as an erasure of data that refer to memory of the Holocaust.


Giacobbe Giusti, Stone monuments

Egyptian Hieroglyphs on an Egyptian funerary stela in Manchester Museum

Many steles have been used since the First Dynasty of Egypt. These vertical slabs of stone depict tombstones, religious usage, and boundaries. [7]


Urartian steles were freestanding stone obelisks that served a variety of purposes, sometimes they were located within temple complexes, or set within monumental rock-cut niches (such as the niche of the Rock of Van, discovered by Marrand Orbeli in 1916 [8] ) or erected beside tombs. Others stood in isolated positions and, such as the Kelashin Stele, had a commemorative function or served as boundary markers. Although sometimes plain, most bore a cuneiform inscription that would detail the stele&rsquos function or the reasons for its erection. The steel from Van&rsquos « western niche » contained annals of the reign of Sarduri II, with events detailed yearly and with each year separated by the phrase « For the God Haldi I accomplished these deeds ». [9] Urartian steles are sometimes found reused as Christian Armenian gravestones or as spolia in Armenian churches – Maranci suggests this reuse was a deliberate desire to capitalize on the potency of the past. [10] Some scholars have suggested Urartian steles may have influenced the development of the Armenian khachkar. [11]


Greek funerary markers, especially in Attica, had a long and evolutionary history in Athens. From public and extravagant processional funerals to different types of pottery used to store ashes after cremation, visibility has always been a large part of Ancient Greek funerary markers in Athens. Regarding stelai (Greek plural of stele), in the period of the Archaic style in Ancient Athens (600 BCE) stele often showed certain archetypes of figures, such as the male athlete. [12] Generally their figures were singular, though there are instances of two or more figures from this time period. [13] Moving into the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, Greek stelai declined and then rose in popularity again in Athens and evolved to show scenes with multiple figures, often of a family unit or a household scene. One such notable example is the Stele of Hegeso. Typically grave stelai are made of marble and carved in relief, and like most Ancient Greek sculpture they were vibrantly painted. [14] For more examples of stelai, the Getty Museum&rsquos published Catalog of Greek Funerary Sculpture is a valuable resource [15]


Giacobbe Giusti, Stone monuments

Chinese ink rubbings of the 1489 (left) and 1512 (right) steles left by the Kaifeng Jews.

Steles (Chinese: bēi 碑) have been the major medium of stone inscription in China since the Tang dynasty. [16] Chinese steles are generally rectangular stone tablets upon which Chinese characters are carved intaglio with a funerary, commemorative, or edifying text. They can commemorate talented writers and officials, inscribe poems, portraits, or maps, and frequently contain the calligraphy of famous historical figures. [17] In additional to their commemorative value, many Chinese steles are regarded as exemplars of traditional Chinese calligraphic scripts, especially the clerical script. [18]

Chinese steles from before the Tang dynasty are rare: there are a handful from before the Qin dynasty, roughly a dozen from the Western Han, 160 from the Eastern Han, and several hundred from the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern, and Suidynasties. [19] During the Han dynasty, tomb inscriptions ( 墓誌 , mùzhì) containing biographical information on deceased people began to be written on stone tablets rather than wooden ones. [19]

Erecting steles at tombs or temples eventually became a widespread social and religious phenomenon. Emperors found it necessary to promulgate laws, regulating the use of funerary steles by the population. The Ming dynasty laws, instituted in the 14th century by its founder the Hongwu Emperor, listed a number of stele types available as status symbols to various ranks of the nobility and officialdom: the top noblemen and mandarins were eligible for steles installed on top of a stone tortoise and crowned with hornless dragons, while the lower-level officials had to be satisfied with steles with plain rounded tops, standing on simple rectangular pedestals. [20]

Steles are found at nearly every significant mountain and historical site in China. The First Emperor made five tours of his domain in the 3rd century BC and had Li Si make seven stone inscriptions commemorating and praising his work, of which fragments of two survive. [21] One of the most famous mountain steles is the 13 m (43 ft) high stele at Mount Tai with the personal calligraphy of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang commemorating his imperial sacrifices there in 725. [21]

A number of such stone monuments have preserved the origin and history of China&rsquos minority religious communities. The 8th-century Christians of Xi&rsquoan left behind the Nestorian Stele, which survived adverse events of the later history by being buried underground for several centuries. Steles created by the Kaifeng Jews in 1489, 1512, and 1663, have survived the repeated flooding of the Yellow River that destroyed their synagogue several times, to tell us something about their world. China&rsquos Muslim have a number of steles of considerable antiquity as well, often containing both Chinese and Arabic text.

Thousands of steles, surplus to the original requirements, and no longer associated with the person they were erected for or to, have been assembled in Xi&rsquoan&rsquos Stele Forest Museum, which is a popular tourist attraction. Elsewhere, many unwanted steles can also be found in selected places in Beijing, such as Dong Yue Miao, the Five Pagoda Temple, and the Bell Tower, again assembled to attract tourists and also as a means of solving the problem faced by local authorities of what to do with them. The long, wordy, and detailed inscriptions on these steles are almost impossible to read for most are lightly engraved on white marble in characters only an inch or so in size, thus being difficult to see since the slabs are often 3m or more tall.

There are more than 100,000 surviving stone inscriptions in China. However, only approximately 30,000 have been transcribed or had rubbings made, and fewer than those 30,000 have been formally studied. [19]


Buddhist votive stele with carved Buddhist figures and inscriptions, Northern Wei dynasty, 529 CE

This is a Buddhist votive stele made in the sixth century in north central China. It probably stood either in the courtyard of a Buddhist monastery, or in a public place such as a market square, or at a major crossroads. It is iconographically complex: the two dragons at the top are decorative and conventional (more or less), but they enclose an image of the infant Buddha being bathed by nagas just after his birth. Working downward from the viewer’s perspective, the stele introduces a vinescroll border almost certainly adapted from Silk Road textiles two rows of unnamed Buddhas, probably as a reference to the multiplicity of Buddhas described in many Chinese Mahayana sutras a principal niche with a main Buddha icon, in this period probably Sakyamuni, surrounded by attendants, lions, guardians, and worshiping figures then two rows of donor figures and at the very bottom, an inscription about the circumstances of the stele’s dedication in year 529 by a Buddhist charitable society made up of laymen, laywomen, and monastics.

The charitable society’s primary function was to allow people of ordinary means to pool their resources to sponsor various religious activities, including the making of Buddhist images and monuments, offerings to the Buddha (food, flowers, music, etc.), public sutra lectures by an eminent monk, the printing and distribution of Buddhist texts, vegetarian feasts for the poor, and so on. They might also make contributions to the support of a monk/nun or a monastery. Although their main purpose was Buddhist merit-making, the bylaws of such organizations reveal that they could also function as mutual aid societies, since their members had established obligations toward each other if one of their number was widowed, ill, or fell on hard times.

The members of this charitable organization take their places as donor figures on the front of the monument. There are rows of smaller donor figures on the sides and back of the stele as well, each inscribed with a name. The figures visible on the front are the leaders and principal donors of the society. They either served as officers of the society or gave extra money to “sponsor” a particular Buddha figure or a particular part of the ceremony of dedication. The figures on the sides and back of the stele include such principal donors, but mostly represent ordinary donors—members of the society who contributed to the project, but who had no special office or role in the association.

Thus in the upper register of donors, at far left, appears the preceptor Bhiksu Fazang, a monk. He was one of the monastic advisors of the society—probably consulted by lay members on questions of doctrine. To his right is a symmetrical group of worshipers surrounding a large incense burner at the center, supported by a powerful crouching figure. There are paired bodhisattvas on elephant-back, then two vertical stacks of acrobats sitting on each others’ shoulders and extending their hands with offerings (acrobatic performances were often part of Buddhist festivals at this time) then a pair of seated monks. There is a second preceptor to the right, completing the symmetry.

The lower register contains three little scenes, each representing one of the “major donors” of the monument. At far left is Lin Yansheng, who sponsored the main Buddha icon on the monument. He is shown on horseback with a whole entourage of servants and attendants with fans and canopies, a testament to his social status. The middle scene is inscribed with the name of Lin Sengming, who sponsored the “eye-opening” ceremony, when the Buddha’s eyes were dotted in, “enlivening” the figure but the inscription says that he acted in honor of his daughter Lin Jingsheng, and the image shows a lady’s closed oxcart, with servants. The third figure, at far right, shows another man on horseback with servants, and the inscription reveals yet another Lin, who sponsored the vegetarian feast associated with the dedication, in honor of his deceased elder brother.

These major donors were almost certainly members of the same extended family this was not unusual for the time. Such Buddhist societies were frequently organized by people who already had some other connection, being members of the same lineage, village, or monastery. Other surnames found among the donors of this stele include Guan, Wen, Qi, and Yang, perhaps representing in-laws of the Lin family, or other families from the same village.

Temple honors the White Horse that brought Buddhism to China

White Horse Temple is honored as the origin of Chinese Buddhism.

In AD 67, two Indian monks carried the Buddhist sutras and Buddha statues on a white horse to Luoyang in Henan Province, one of the capitals of ancient China, during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220).

They might not have expected the religion would become so deeply rooted, branch out and thrive in the country for more than 1,900 years.

A year later, a temple, the country's first official Buddhist shrine, was built in the city, named "White Horse" to remember the animal's contribution.

The two monks, Kasyapamatanga and Dharmaratna, settled in the temple and translated "The Sutra In Forty-Two Sections," the first Buddhist scripture in Chinese.

White Horse Temple is thus honored as the origin of Chinese Buddhism.

And from there the religion spread throughout Asia.

Today's temple is an international compound of courtyards of China, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka and the nearby Qiyun Nunnery.

As the major construction, the China courtyard sprawls on more than 40,000 square meters. The entrance is guarded by two life-size stone horses from the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Looking gentle and meek, they were carved with lowered heads, as if they're struggling onwards with a great burden.

The horses once stood in front of the tomb of General Wei Xianxin (946-1014), the son-in-law of Zhao Kuangyin (AD 927-976), the founding emperor of the Song Dynasty.

Like other Chinese Buddhist temples, the entrance has three doors: the doors of nihility, formlessness and inaction.

For Buddhists, going through the doors means to put aside all worldly worries to have inner peace.

Five halls sit on the central axis running from south to north.

Each hall features various Buddha statues, heavenly kings and arhats, mostly made in the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Pilu Hall, the last hall on the axis, was built on the Qingliang (Cooling) Platform, where the two Indian monks finished their translation work of the Buddhist sutra.

To some extent, this brick-laid high platform is the starting point of Chinese Buddhism.

Two memorial halls honoring the Indian monks were set up at two sides of the platform.

The Bell Tower and Drum Tower were built in 1991, co-sponsored by a Japanese businessman, who donated 4 million yen (US$36,152) to the towers' construction.

Both 7 meters tall square, the bell rings at dawn and the drum beats at dusk – a centuries-old Buddhist ritual resumed.

There is an ancient well, which dates to 1,000 years ago.

Visitors throw coins into the well, believing it can bring good luck and blessings. The monks have to clean the well four times a day on festivals and celebrations.

A bamboo-flanked path in the east leads to the Qiyun Nunnery, Henan Province's only Buddhist place for nuns.

It was named after the square Qiyun Tower, 25 meters tall with 13 levels.

One of the most interesting things about the tower is its myth of "the frog of croaks." If people stand about 20 meters to the south of the tower and clap their hands, it sounds like frogs croaking.

Modern science explains it's the sound waves bouncing off the walls and eaves.

But the legend said there once lived a giant frog in the pond, which jumped out frequently to make floods.

A travelling monk caught the devil and asked it to carry bricks to build the Buddhist tower. He trapped the frog under the tower, hoping the devil could transform itself through meditation.

The courtyards of India, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka in the west were sponsored by the governments of the countries.

Walking through the architectures in different styles, visitors can see how Buddhism affected China, and how China carried it forward throughout Asia.

Friday Fave: Buddhist Stele

Buddhist Stele with the “Thousand Buddhas” China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler S1991.157

For my first assignment as a summer intern at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I was asked to research this monumental Chinese Buddhist stele, which is being considered for a future exhibition on Buddhist art. Steles were created to commemorate the Buddhist faith and proliferated during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE). At the bottom of this stele, the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni sits cross-legged with hands in dhyani mudra, flanked by bodhisattvas and ascetic figures.

The stele’s repetitive pattern is known as the “Thousand Buddhas” (qianfo), characterized by rows of small Buddha figures on the front and back. It’s one of the most important motifs in Northern Wei Buddhist art. According to scholars, it reflects the notion that the cosmos is filled with innumerable realms, which are all simultaneously inhabited by Buddhas. The motif supports the omnipresence of Buddha and Buddha-nature. Many experts propose that the motif is related to the practice of visualization and recitation during Buddhist practice. While there is room for debate on the meaning of the Thousand Buddhas, the inscription provides a concrete example of the hopes of the stele’s sponsors, including their good wishes for the emperor, hope for the spread of Buddhism, and request for peace.

After about a month of reading and researching, I was finally able to view the stele in Sackler storage. It is a remarkable experience to see an object after learning about its many details. It reminded me of meeting a penpal for the first time or reuniting with a childhood friend. I was immediately able to relate all of my research to the physical object in front of me. For instance, I knew to look for the bodhisattva to the right of Shakyamuni who holds a bottle of healing water, indicating that he is Avalokiteshvara. Once I finally saw the stele in person, a wave of complete comprehension and appreciation washed over me. What began as a simple research project evolved into a rewarding, thought-provoking experience.


Establishment Edit

The name refers to the woods of Shaoshi ( 少室 Shǎo Shì ) mountain, one of the seven peaks of the Song mountains. The first Shaolin Monastery abbot was Batuo (also called Fotuo or Buddhabhadra), a dhyāna master who came to ancient China from ancient India [2] to spread Buddhist teachings and was the first abbot of the Shaolin monastery. Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who came from either Southern India or from Persian Central Asia and is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China in 464 AD and also started the physical training of Shaolin monks that would eventually lead to the creation of Shaolin Kung fu. In Japan bodhidharma is known as daruma. He is regarded as the first chinese patriarch of chan buddhism. [3]

According to the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (645 AD) by Daoxuan, Shaolin Monastery was built on the north side of Shaoshi, the central peak of Mount Song, one of the Sacred Mountains of China, by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty in 477 AD, to accommodate the Indian master beside the capital Luoyang city. Yang Xuanzhi, in the Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (547 AD), and Li Xian, in the Ming Yitongzhi (1461), concur with Daoxuan's location and attribution. The Jiaqing Chongxiu Yitongzhi (1843) specifies that this monastery, located in the province of Henan, was built in the 20th year of the Taihe era of the Northern Wei dynasty, that is, the monastery was built in 495 AD.

As the center of Chan Buddhism, the Shaolin Temple attracted many emperors' attention in China's history. During the Tang dynasty 618–907 AD Empress Wu Zetian (AD 625–705) paid several visits to the Shaolin Temple discussing Chan philosophy with high monk Tan Zong. According to legend, Emperor Taizong granted the Shaolin Temple extra land and a special "imperial dispensation" to consume meat and alcohol during the Tang dynasty. If true, this would have made Shaolin the only temple in China that did not prohibit alcohol. Regardless of historical veracity, these rituals are not practiced today. [4] This legend is not corroborated in any period documents, such as the Shaolin Stele erected in 728 AD. The stele does not list any such imperial dispensation as reward for the monks' assistance during the campaign against Wang Shichong, only land and a water mill are granted. [5] The founder of the Yuan dynasty, Kublai Khan (AD 1215–1294) ordered all Buddhist temples in China to be led by the Shaolin Temple eight princes during the Ming dynasty converted to Shaolin.

Traditionally Bodhidharma is credited as founder of the martial arts at the Shaolin Temple. However, martial arts historians have shown this legend stems from a 17th-century qigong manual known as the Yijin Jing. [6]

The authenticity of the Yi Jin Jing has been discredited by some historians including Tang Hao, Xu Zhen and Ryuchi Matsuda. This argument is summarized by modern historian Lin Boyuan in his Zhongguo wushu shi:

As for the "Yi Jin Jing" (Muscle Change Classic), a spurious text attributed to Bodhidharma and included in the legend of his transmitting martial arts at the temple, it was written in the Ming dynasty, in 1624, by the Daoist priest Zining of Mt. Tiantai, and falsely attributed to Bodhidharma. Forged prefaces, attributed to the Tang general Li Jing and the Southern Song general Niu Gao were written. They say that, after Bodhidharma faced the wall for nine years at Shaolin temple, he left behind an iron chest when the monks opened this chest they found the two books "Xi Sui Jing" (Marrow Washing Classic) and "Yi Jin Jing" within. The first book was taken by his disciple Huike, and disappeared as for the second, "the monks selfishly coveted it, practicing the skills therein, falling into heterodox ways, and losing the correct purpose of cultivating the Real. The Shaolin monks have made some fame for themselves through their fighting skill this is all due to having obtained this manuscript". Based on this, Bodhidharma was claimed to be the ancestor of Shaolin martial arts. This manuscript is full of errors, absurdities and fantastic claims it cannot be taken as a legitimate source. [7]

The oldest available copy was published in 1827. [8] The composition of the text itself has been dated to 1624. [7] Even then, the association of Bodhidharma with martial arts only became widespread as a result of the 1904–1907 serialization of the novel The Travels of Lao Ts'an in Illustrated Fiction Magazine: [9]

One of the most recently invented and familiar of the Shaolin historical narratives is a story that claims that the Indian monk Bodhidharma, the supposed founder of Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism, introduced boxing into the monastery as a form of exercise around a.d. 525. This story first appeared in a popular novel, The Travels of Lao T'san, published as a series in a literary magazine in 1907. This story was quickly picked up by others and spread rapidly through publication in a popular contemporary boxing manual, Secrets of Shaolin Boxing Methods, and the first Chinese physical culture history published in 1919. As a result, it has enjoyed vast oral circulation and is one of the most "sacred" of the narratives shared within Chinese and Chinese-derived martial arts. That this story is clearly a twentieth-century invention is confirmed by writings going back at least 250 years earlier, which mention both Bodhidharma and martial arts but make no connection between the two. [10]

Other scholars see an earlier connection between Da Mo and the Shaolin Monastery. Scholars generally accept the historicity of Da Mo (Bodhidharma) who arrived in China from his country India around 480. Da Mo (Bodhidharma) and his disciples are said to have lived at a spot about a mile from the Shaolin Temple that is now a small nunnery. [11] In the 6th century, around 547 AD, The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries says Da Mo visited the area near Mount Song. [12] [13] In 645 AD, The Continuation of the Biographies of Eminent Monks, describes him as being active in the Mount Song region. [13] [14] Around 710 AD, Da Mo is identified specifically with the Shaolin Temple (Precious Record of Dharma's Transmission or Chuanfa Baoji) [13] [15] and writes of his sitting facing a wall in meditation for many years. It also speaks of Huike's many trials in his efforts to receive instruction from Da Mo. In the 11th century (1004 AD) a work embellishes the Da Mo legends with great detail. A stele inscription at the Shaolin Monastery dated 728 Ad reveals Da Mo residing on Mount Song. [16] Another stele from 798 AD speaks of Huike seeking instruction from Da Mo. Another engraving dated 1209 depicts the barefoot saint holding a shoe according to the ancient legend of Da Mo. A plethora of 13th- and 14th-century steles feature Da Mo in various roles. One 13th-century image shows him riding a fragile stalk across the Yangtze River. [17] In 1125 a special temple was constructed in his honor at the Shaolin Monastery. [18]

Destructions and renovations Edit

The monastery has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. During the Red Turban Rebellion in the 14th century, bandits ransacked the monastery for its real or supposed valuables, destroying much of the temple and driving the monks away. The monastery was likely abandoned from 1351 or 1356 (the most likely dates for the attack) to at least 1359, when government troops retook Henan. The events of this period would later figure heavily in 16th-century legends of the temple's patron saint Vajrapani, with the story being changed to claim a victory for the monks, rather than a defeat. [19]

In 1641, rebel forces led by Li Zicheng sacked the monastery due to the monks' support of the Ming dynasty and the possible threat they posed to the rebels. This effectively destroyed the temple's fighting force. [20] The temple fell into ruin and was home to only a few monks until the early 18th century, when the government of the Qing dynasty patronized and restored the temple. [21]

Perhaps the best-known story of the Temple's destruction is that it was destroyed by the Qing government for supposed anti-Qing activities. Variously said to have taken place in 1647 under the Shunzhi Emperor, in 1674, 1677, or 1714 under the Kangxi Emperor, or in 1728 or 1732 under the Yongzheng Emperor, this destruction is also supposed to have helped spread Shaolin martial arts throughout China by means of the five fugitive monks. Some accounts claim that a supposed southern Shaolin Temple was destroyed instead of, or in addition to, the temple in Henan: Ju Ke, in the Qing bai lei chao (1917), locates this temple in Fujian province. These stories commonly appear in legendary or popular accounts of martial history, and in wuxia fiction.

While these latter accounts are popular among martial artists, and often serve as origin stories for various martial arts styles, they are viewed by scholars as fictional. The accounts are known through often inconsistent 19th-century secret society histories and popular literature, and also appear to draw on both Fujianese folklore and popular narratives such as the classical novel Water Margin. Modern scholarly attention to the tales is mainly concerned with their role as folklore. [22] [23] [24] [25]

Recent history Edit

There is evidence of Shaolin martial arts being exported to Japan beginning in the 18th century. Martial arts such as Okinawan Shōrin-ryū ( 少林流 ) style of Karate, for example, has a name meaning "Shaolin School" [26] and the Japanese Shorinji Kempo ( 少林寺拳法 ) is translated as "Shaolin Temple Fist Method". Other similarities can be seen in centuries-old Chinese and Japanese martial arts manuals. [27]

In 1928, the warlord Shi Yousan set fire to the monastery, burning it for over 40 days, destroying a significant portion of the buildings, including many manuscripts of the temple library. [28]

The Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 targeted religious orders including the monastery. The monks who were present at the monastery when the Red Guards attacked were shackled and made to wear placards declaring the crimes charged against them. [28] The monks were imprisoned after being publicly flogged and then paraded through the streets as people threw rubbish at them. [28] The film crew for the Jet Li movie Martial Arts of Shaolin was shocked to find that there were no remaining monks when they filmed at the monastery complex in 1986. [29]

Martial arts groups from around the world have made donations for the upkeep of the temple and grounds, and are subsequently honored with carved stones near the entrance of the temple. In the past, many have tried to capitalise on Shaolin Monastery fame by building their own schools on Mount Song. However, the Chinese government eventually outlawed this the schools were moved to the nearby towns. [ citation needed ]

A dharma gathering was held from 19-20th August 1999, in Shaolin Monastery for Shi Yongxin's assumption of office as Abbot. Over the next two decades the Monastery grew into a global business empire. [29] In March 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin became the first foreign leader to visit the monastery. In 2007, the Chinese government partially lifted the 300-year ban of the Jieba, the ancient ceremony of the nine marks which are burned onto the head with sticks of incense. The ban was lifted only for those who were mentally and physically prepared to participate in the tradition. [ citation needed ]

Two modern bathrooms were recently added to the temple for use by monks and tourists. The new bathrooms reportedly cost three million yuan to build. [30] Films have also been released like Shaolin Temple [31] and more recently, Shaolin starring Andy Lau. [32]

In 1994 the temple registered its name as a trademark. In the late 2000s, Shi Yongxin began authorizing Shaolin branches outside of mainland China in what has been called a franchise scheme. The branches are run by current and former monks and allow dispersion of Shaolin culture and study of Shaolin kung fu around the globe. [33] As of January, 2011, Yongxin and the temple operated over 40 companies in cities across the world, including London and Berlin, which have purchased land and property. [34]

In 2018, for the first time in its 1500-year history, the Shaolin Monastery raised the national flag as a part of a "patriotism drive" under the new National Religious Affairs Administration, a part of the United Front Work Department which "oversees propaganda efforts as well as relations with the global Chinese diaspora". [35] Senior theology lecturer Sze Chi Chan of Hong Kong Baptist University analyzes this move as General Secretary Xi Jinping making an example of the Shaolin Monastery to send a message to other temples and the Chinese Catholic Church. [36]

The Shaolin Monastery was historically led by an abbot, but the communist era restrictions on religious expression and independence have since changed this ancient system. The monastery is currently led by a committee composed primarily of government officials. The treasurer is appointed by the government, and as such the abbot has little control over finances. Profits are split with Dengfeng the municipality takes two thirds of the profits and the monastery retains one third. [29]

The temple's inside area is 160 by 360 meters (520 ft × 1,180 ft), that is, 57,600 square meters (620,000 sq ft). It has seven main halls on the axis and seven other halls around, with several yards around the halls. The temple structure includes:

Chinese Buddhist Cave Temple Sculpture

Buddha head, Hebei or Xiangtangshan (possibly), China, 550-577. Carved grey limestone with traces of pigment. Museum no. A.98-1927. Presented by The Art Fund.

This Buddha's head, which dates to the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 AD) is one of several pieces in the V&A's collection thought to have originated from a Buddhist cave temple in China.

Over one metre in diameter this three dimensional head with full, fleshy features is highly expressive and, despite the fact that it is only a small fragment of a whole sculpture, it retains a great sense of presence. It is difficult to ascertain whether it would have been part of a standing or a sitting figure.

The face is characterised by symmetrical features: high arching eyebrows, downcast eyes, angular nose and full lips. The eyes and the gently smiling lips in particular contribute to creating an aura of serenity and calm around the object.

The Buddha would originally have been painted in bright colours. There are still some traces of pigment remaining on the lips, eyes and eyebrows and in the 'third eye' or Urna. This would most likely have been embellished with a jewel of some kind there is in fact a visible depression where a jewel would have been inlaid. The Urna symbolises wisdom and is one of the thirty-two 'lakshana' or special physical and symbolic characteristics of the Buddha.

Sculptures such as this played a very important role in the practice of Buddhism. Followers of the faith would worship before them, and many were specially commissioned by wealthy patrons.

Buddhist cave temples

Sakyamuni Buddha, about 544 AD, Eastern Wei, China, Museum no. FE.7-1971

The concept of cave temples came to China from Central Asia where the tradition of building such complexes had been practised for centuries. The majority of Chinese cave temples were established with official Imperial sponsorship in the Northern regions, where Buddhism first took hold.

Among the many cave temple complexes known today are the caves at Dunhuang, Majishan, Bingling, Yungang, Longmen and Xiangtangshan.

The very act of creating these vast monuments, hollowed out from rock faces and decorated so lavishly within, was considered an act of 'piety' resulting in the accrual of merit. According to the teachings of the Buddhist faith merit is accumulated as a result of good deeds, acts or thoughts and this merit is carried over to later in life or to a person's next birth. It is thought that merit contributes to a person's growth towards spiritual liberation.

In addition to this concept of gaining merit the sculptures and paintings also functioned as an important focus for worship and as symbolic links between the wordly and heavenly realms. People would have travelled great distances to see them and to worship and make offerings before them.

The sculpture in Buddhist cave temples ranged greatly in size from pieces only a few feet tall to colossal figures
several metres high and several metres wide.

The spread of Buddhism in China

Buddhist Stele, about 520 AD, Northern Wei, China. Museum no. A.9-1935

Buddhism first came to China during the late first and second centuries AD as a direct result of Han expansion and the establishment of the Silk Road. Buddhist missionaries and other followers of the faith came to China from India, travelling various routes along the Silk Road disseminating their faith as well as a variety of goods from the West.

In this way the Silk Road not only facilitated trade between peoples from the Middle East, India, Central Asia, China and beyond, but essentially created an extensive cultural interface between these distinct cultures. As a result Buddhism became an important part of Chinese life and culture along side other belief systems. People commissioned and made figures relating to Buddhism for use during worship and as an act of piety and devotion to the faith.

Buddhist iconography was gradually assimilated into Chinese visual art and culture along with increasing knowledge and familiarity with the Buddhist doctrines and texts. Buddhist temples, monasteries and cave temple complexes replete with Buddhist sculpture and painting were established in great numbers and spread gradually throughout China from its Northern regions.

History of the Northern Dynasties

Buddha's Head, side view. Museum no. A.98-1927.

The Buddha's head is thought to have been made in the Northern Qi Period (550-577 AD). The Northern Qi were one of a number of ruling dynasties that held power in China during the Period of Disunion (265-589 AD).

Following the collapse of the Han dynasty in the early third century there was an extended period of war and political upheaval in China which disrupted the lives of people across the country for over three centuries. This period is commonly known as the Period of Disunion (265-589 AD) and was characterised by violent power struggles between a succession of small kingdoms. During this time China was repeatedly invaded by a barrage of Northern tribes and minority peoples from the territories beyond the Great Wall.

As a result of this political instability China was, by the fourth century effectively divided into two parts. In the North a non-Han people known as the Tuoba or Northern Wei established the first of the Northern dynasties, with their capital at Datong in Hebei province, in North East China. The mainly Han Chinese Southern dynasties based their capital at Nanjing in the South of China.

During the Period of Disunion the Northern Dynasties established a distinct cultural identity which embraced multi-ethnic cultural influences. They made a concerted effort to distance themselves from the culture of the Southern Dynasties, adopting Buddhism as the state religion. In contrast the Southern Dynasties strived to preserve traditional Confucian values and a distinctly 'Chinese' identity in all aspects of political, cultural and religious life.

Periods of Disunion 265 - 589 AD
Western Jin 265 - 316 AD
Eastern Jin 316 - 420 AD
Northern Dynasties Southern Dynasties
Northern Wei 386 - 534 AD Liu Song 421 - 479 AD
Eastern Wei 534 - 550 AD Southern Qi 479 - 502 AD
Western Wei 535 - 556 AD Liang 502 - 557 AD
Northern Qi 550 - 577 AD Chen 557 - 581 AD
Northern Zhou 577 - 581 AD

The Xiangtangshan Caves project

Seated Buddha, possibly Northern Qi, China, Museum no. A.4-1924. It has been suggested that this marble sculpture of a Seated Buddha with Halo (A.4-1924) dated to the Northern Qi period, could also have originated from Xiangtangshan. However, a firm consensus has yet to be reached as further research is carried out.

The huge carved stone Buddha's head (A.98-1927) was recently identified by visiting scholars from the University of Chicago as having originated from the Xiangtangshan cave complex in Hebei province China. This identification was part of an international, collaborative research project into the visual art and culture of the Northern Qi period.

It was also suggested that this sculpture of a Seated Buddha with Halo (right), dated to the Northern Qi period, could also have originated from Xiangtangshan. However, a firm consensus has yet to be reached as further research is carried out.

The cave complex at Xiangtangshan was established with Imperial sponsorship during the sixth century and exemplifies the importance of Buddhism in the life and culture of the Northern Qi at this time. Unfortunately, the Xiangtangshan caves are today in a severe state of disrepair.

In the early twentieth century the exceptionally high quality of the artworks at the site attracted attention from art dealers and collectors from around the globe. As a result large quantities of these art works were taken images were removed and sculptures were forcibly cut from the walls causing serious damage to the caves as well as the artefacts themselves. The art work was then sold on the international art market and thus scattered around the world.

As many of the sculptural works from the caves have now been outside China for nearly a century the caves have never been photographed with all the original sculpture intact.

About the project

The project is being led by the Centre for the Art of East Asia and the Smart Museum of Art, based at the University of Chicago, and will involve a large number of scholars and cultural institutions from around the world. The project will focus on the sixth century Buddhist cave temple complex of Xiangtangshan ('Mountain of Resounding Halls'), situated in Mount Gu, southern Hebei province, North East China.

One of the main objectives of the project is to locate sculptures and fragments from the Xiangtangshan caves in collections around the world and record them with accurate 3-D scanning technology. These images will be used to build up a database of images which will then be used to produce digital reconstructions of the former appearance of the caves, their contents and their architectural design. This will allow the sculptures to be studied in their original context for the first time.

The second major objective is to initiate an international collaborative effort to research and reassess the art of the Northern Qi period. In recent decades numerous archaeological finds in tombs and temple sites dating to the Northern Qi and its contemporary Northern Zhou (557-581 AD) have brought this period to the fore of scholarly attention. The artistic importance of the late Northern Dynasties period and the multi-ethnic characteristics of its culture have been widely noted. However, the need for further research and exploration of this period is also evident.

The project coordinators plan to host a major exhibition at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art to display the research results and the digital reconstruction of the caves. The exhibition will present a combination of digital imagery and actual examples of art from Xiangtangshan. The exhibition will also be accompanied by a catalogue on the art of the Xiangtangshan caves and the visual culture of the Northern Qi period, documenting each stage of the project.


The Xiangtangshan Caves Project is an international collaborative research project which seeks to establish a better understanding of the art and visual culture of the Northern Qi in China.

The International Dunhuang Projectis a ground-breaking international collaboration based at the British Library to make information and images of more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts from Dunhuang and other Silk Road sites freely available on the Internet.

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