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Early Development of Buddhists Art in China

By Devik Balami at
early Chinese Buddhist arts

Buddhism was spread in China around the 1st century CE. Along with the teachings of Buddha, Indian Buddhist arts were also accepted in many parts of China. These art forms were later fused with strong Chinese traits to form localized Buddhist art.

Development of Buddhists Art in various Dynasties of China

Han Dynasty

The Buddhism in China was spread in this dynasty. It is the matter of debate between the historians that through which route did the Buddhism introduced in China. Whether it was from maritime or through land route. But the recent findings have suggested that the Buddhism was introduced in China from north-west India and through land route. After entering into China, Buddhism blended with early Daoism and Chinese traditional esoteric arts and so did the iconography. Therefore the localized form of art was developed.

Northern Dynasty

In the period of 5th to 6th centuries, the northern dynasties build more symbolic and abstract modes of arts. Their style of arts was also said to be solemn and majestic. Since this art form was far more diverse from the objective of the original Buddhist art form, this led to a change towards more naturalism and realism. Hence it led to the expression of Tang Buddhist art. Some of the pilgrimage sites constructed in Northern Wei Dynasty art form that is still preserved in the present context are; Yungang Grottoes, Longmen Grottoes, Bingling Temple, etc.

Sui Dynasty

During the period of Sui dynasty, Buddhism had gained a strong foothold in China. Sui dynasty helped to unify the Buddhist art in China even though it was the shortest dynasty to rule. The dynasty paved the way for the Buddhist art in the succeeding era of the Tang dynasty.

Tang Dynasty

Following Sui Dynasty, Buddha statues and Buddhist arts were evolved towards a lifelike expression unlike the art forms of Northern Dynasty. The reason behind these art form is due to influence of Gupta art form of India. Since numerous Chinese Buddhist monks traveled to India to learn teachings of Buddha, they were influenced by the art forms. When they returned their place, they began to continue the similar art form. These travels were possible due to the Tang dynasty's openness to foreign influences. But the foreign influences were perceived negatively towards the end of the Tang dynasty. In 845 CE, Wuzong, a Tang emperor outlawed all foreign religions in order to support the indigenous religion, Taoism. This decision greatly affects the flourish of Buddhism in China.

Song Dynasty

Under this dynasty, Chan Buddhism flourished for some centuries when Chan monasteries were great centers of culture and learnings. During this period, Chan monks painted Gongbi paintings in order to express the impact of enlightenment through their brushwork.

With the rise of Neo-Confucianism in the 12th century resulted in the criticism of these paintings. Therefore, the paintings were discarded and ignored. The school of Chan painting gradually diminished due to this event.

Qing Dynasty

In the early periods of Qing Dynasty, the emperors supported particular forms of Buddhism according to their beliefs and devotion. Shunzhi Emperor promoted Chan Buddhism while Kangxi Emperor promoted Tibetan Buddhism. However, Buddhist arts reached its height during the period of Qianlong Emperor. He ordered numerous religious works in Tibetan style. The artworks during this period were the fusion of Tibetan and Chinese artistic styles.

Qianlong Emperor also initiated a numerous large-scale construction projects. In 1744, he marked Yonghe Temple as Beijing's main Tibetan Buddhist monastery. He donated a various number of valuable religious paintings, antique Buddha statues, Buddhist inscriptions to the temple. Another project is Xumi Fushou Temple which houses Tibetan and Manchu artistic styles of Buddhist arts. The popularity of Tibetan Buddhism declined after the resignation of Qianlong Emperor in 1795.

Hence the Buddhist arts got its form and style in China through various dynasties.