Buddha's "Golden Period" - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Buddha's "Golden Period" October 10, 2007
by Eti Bonn-Muller

An exhibition of ancient Chinese sculpture sheds light on an overlooked history.


Standing Guanyin


Buddhist Sculpture from China: Selections from the Xi'an Beilin Museum, Fifth through Ninth Centuries, a beautifully conceived exhibition at the China Institute Gallery in New York, features some 70 pieces of Buddhist sculpture made from marble, limestone, clay, and bronze, as well as stone stelae. The sculptures were carved between A.D. 386 and 907, a period spanning five dynasties: the Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, and Tang. The works on view illuminate a fascinating period in Chinese history during which Buddhism thrived, despite severe religious persecutions. They also represent some of the most exciting archaeological discoveries to come out of the ancient capital city of Xi'an, located southwest of Beijing, over the past 50 years.


Seated Lion

The China Institute is nestled in a former townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. A distinctive red banner identifies the building; it hangs from the facade, softly fluttering in the early autumn breeze. The gallery space is made up of two adjacent, dimly lit rooms on the ground floor. The objects are carefully arranged: the smaller pieces gently line the walls and the larger ones stand front and center. The placement and lighting create a glowy aura around each piece. Beyond their exquisite artistry, the sculptures are all the more extraordinary when considered in light of the turbulent period during which they were created. Willow Weilan Hai Chang, archaeologist and director of the China Institute Gallery, guides me through the exhibition. A petite woman with a sparkle in her eyes, she explains that China underwent three severe religious persecutions between the fifth and ninth centuries A.D., the period on which the exhibition focuses. The first persecution occurred between A.D. 446 and 452, when the Northern Wei emperor Tai Wudi ordered that all monks be killed and all Buddhist sculptures be destroyed. "If anyone even mentioned 'Buddhism' again," she notes, "his entirely family would be executed." The second took place between A.D. 574 and 578, when the Northern Zhou emperor Wudi ordered all monks to leave their temples and return to their farms. He also demanded the destruction of Buddhist temples, shrines, and sculptures. And finally, from A.D. 841 to 845 the Tang emperor Wuzong ordered the destruction of more than 4,600 temples throughout the country. These three emperors all happen to bear the "Wu" name, so this period is known as "the three Wu's persecution." Since thousands of temples and sculptures were destroyed and buried, the artifacts on display in the exhibition are nothing short of archaeological miracles, turned up by construction work in the area over the past 50 years, and rescued through salvage excavations.


Relic Casket

Chang tells me how she and guest curator Annette L. Juliano, professor of Asian Art History at Rutgers University, organized the remarkable exhibition—the Xi'an Beilin Museum's first international solo show. The two traveled to China at least eight times over the past four years to select the objects. Chang says that although some of the pieces had been on display in the Beilin Museum, many had languished in storage for decades. She describes the selection process as her "excavation through the shelves." It went something like this: She would ask the collection keeper if the museum had an artifact from a certain period. The keeper would scurry off and emerge moments later with a suggested piece. Chang would examine it, and, as she explains, "I'd follow her, go to the shelf, and get excited because I'd discover other things. I'd say, 'Oh, I want this one! Oh this one is beautiful! I like this one! Let's bring it to the light.' So that's how we did it—back and forth, back and forth. Finally, one day she told me, 'This time I'll open every cabinet. I'll show you everything on the shelf. You can see them all! That's all I have. I have no more!' It was like an adventure, you know?"

Chang credits Juliano for helping make such difficult choices about pieces to display in the exhibition. Indeed, they show the remarkable breadth of Buddhist sculptural styles. She explains that from the fifth to the ninth century A.D., China was "kind of like New York—a big melting pot." People came from everywhere, she says, "from East Asia, Africa, and Europe...so different groups had their own tastes. When they adapted Buddhism into their own life habits, they made certain sculptures to suit their needs."

The resulting exhibition presents what appears to be the entire gamut of Buddhist sculpture, and more: from near-flawless imperial pieces, such as a torso of a Bodhisattva (a "Buddhist Saint"), to remarkably well-preserved ones, like a standing Guanyin, to sculptures created for private use, including a standing Shakyamuni Buddha holding a lotus. Some other highlights include clay votive tablets, a relic casket, and a Buddha seal. Among the most recently excavated pieces are a seated Shakyamuni (unearthed in 2004) and a fragmentary figure of a standing Bodhisattva (found in 2003).

An unforgettable work is the seated lion. "This lion is incredible!" exclaims Chang. "You see the power, even though it's very small [10 inches high]. It is from the Northern Cho dynasty, the mid-sixth century. People have said, 'We've never seen this lion before!' And after this period, like in the other room, in later times, the lion lost its power. It became more playful, like what people would call 'foo dogs,'" she says with a laugh. "There is no power anymore. It is very sweet, very playful. But in this period you still feel, you know, fear!" Chang believes the change in the representation of the lion had to do with the political climate. "Starting in the Tang dynasty, for 300 years," she explains, "it was peaceful. There was no war, so people enjoyed life more and they did not like to see anything fierce. That may be one reason."


Torso of a Bodhisattva

When I ask her what her favorite piece in the exhibition is, she doesn't flinch. She walks straight over to the torso of a Bodhisattva. Her whole face lights up as she gazes at it lovingly. "It is a Tang dynasty piece," she says, "The Tang dynasty is from 618 through 917—so in those 300 years, it's considered one of the most powerful dynasties in Chinese history. And this piece was made in the peak of this dynasty." The marble torso is incredibly lifelike. My eyes are drawn so closely into the folds of skin on the pristine waistline that the cold, milky stone seems to turn to flesh. She gushes, "This piece, the carving is absolutely...you can not pick even a flaw from any part. The muscles have very profound movement. It is just a fabulous piece...look at her waist, the back...those little muscles, they just like real! And the amazing thing is [compared to] other Bodhisattvas—they kind of stand straight, right? But this one has a twist—forward and also sideward. I'm just puzzled. How can she make such a beautiful gesture?" Chang explains that this is not the first time she has encountered this piece. "When I was a student, my major was archaeology. In 1980, I went to the Beilin Museum. And the teacher talked about their collection. And he said, 'Each of you, pick your favorite to do a drawing.' So this was the one I picked. I drew this some 28 years ago, and at that time I never dreamed I would be in America—and I never dreamed I would bring this piece to America!" Chang explains that the Xi'an Beilin Museum considers this sculpture the most beautiful one in their collection. "This Bodhisattva has a name, a nickname," Chang explains with a large smile, "people call her 'the Oriental Venus.'"


Seated Buddha

The works on view are undeniably beautiful—some of the Bodhisattvas are so perfectly executed I believe they might wink as I pass by; other pieces are so unusual it's hard to imagine I'll ever see anything quite like them again. For example, Chang points out a small seated Buddha. "This is a very, very weird one," she explains, "I've never, ever seen anything like this before. To me, the interesting thing is the carving. You know, in Chinese painting, we have various lines...This really just reminds me of that typical Chinese linear skill—like brush painting, you know, when you draw a line? So strong, so even. This is a really, really interesting one. It just gives us so many puzzles. We don't know much about it."

Aesthetically pleasing as they are, why should these lovely artifacts matter so much today? Why did Chang and Juliano spend four years planning an exhibit that will be on display in a modest two-room gallery space on the Upper East Side—a world away from where they were unearthed—for a brief 11 weeks?

"I hope [visitors will learn] that in our history there is this period which is really adapting the Buddhist theory into our belief," Chang says, "And thus, it enhanced people's way of thinking about life, about the world...I'd like them to know we have this 'golden period' in Buddhist art." She pauses and adds, "The second thing I would like people to know is that all valuable culture needs nutrition from others. In other words, we are very similar. We are human beings. We have a common need for our lives. We have a common wish for our lives. So I just hope and believe whatever the visitor's religion, the exhibition is just going to enhance our connection, you know? All the human beings in the world are family. I just hope this exhibition can really inspire people to cultivate a peaceful mind. Then we understand each other better."

Leaving the serene, whisper-filled gallery, I stumble back into the reality of a bustling city. At the end of the block, I turn the corner and walk up Park Avenue, but I can't stop thinking about Chang's statement regarding "our connection" and the fact that half-a-block away from this glamorous, modern New York street, there are two unpretentious roomfuls of artifacts created in China some 1,500 years ago. Banned, destroyed, and buried in antiquity; then excavated, catalogued, and stored over the last few decades, and relatively unknown until now, the pieces remind me how connected we all are—to our past and to each other.

The exhibition is on view through December 8, 2007. The China Institute is located at 125 East 65th Street, New York, NY 10021. See www.chinainstitute.org for more information. The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue, Buddhist Sculpture from China: Selections from the Xi'an Beilin Museum, Fifth through Ninth Centuries by Annette L. Juliano (with contributions from noted scholars in the field).

Eti Bonn-Muller is copy chief at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America