From Inherited Tradition A Dazzling Revelation:
A Report on the Statues Recently Excavated from a Storage Pit at the
Longxing Temple, Qingzhou
by Lang Tianyong
Department of Fine Arts
China Central Institute of Fine Arts, Beijing
In 1996, more than two hundred statues stored in a pit were excavated
from the remains of the Longxing Temple in Qingzhou, Shandong province.
These date from the Northern Wei (386-534) through the Northern Song
(998-1127) (Figures 1 and 2), ranging over five hundred years. The Qingzhou
find is considered one of the ten greatest archaeological discoveries
from that year in all of China. The excavation of this group of images
adds a new page to the history of Buddhist sculpture.
Among the excavated objects, the predominantly Northern Wei sculptures
are the most important. In terms of style, these can be classified into
In the first group are Northern Wei and Eastern Wei (534-550) sculptures,
among these a stele inscribed with the name Han Xiaohua dated the second
year of the Yong'an reign (529) (Figure 3), individual Buddha images,
and a Northern Qi stele from the third year of the Tianping reign (537)
with the name "Zhiming" (Figure 4).The style extends Central
Plains sculptural traditions subsequent to the reforms of the Northern
Wei emperor Xiaowen
(r. 471-500), marked with such salient characteristics as facial features
with "fine bones and pure expressions" and clothing resembling
"officials' robes and scholars' belts." Faces are open, elegant,
and divinely cast, with a hint of a smile (Figure 5).
Works from the Northern Qi (550-577) comprise the second stylistic
grouping, which includes individual Buddha heads, polychrome Buddhist
deities, images of Vairocana (Figure 6), etc. (see "Clearing-up
of a Storage Pit of Buddhist Icons in the Longxing Temple at Qingzhou,
Shandong," Wenwu 1998.2). Compared with the preceding period,
the style has changed considerably: Thicker bodies, more simply carved
drapery lines, fuller faces, and a deepened intensity of expression.
All the works mentioned above are representative of the excavation as
In both the Northern and Southern dynastic realms, Chinese belief in
Buddhism and the concomitant efflorescence in image-making reached its
pinnacle in the fifth to sixth centuries. Objectively speaking, this
promoted a long-term development in the art of sculpture. Starting in
the late fifth century, the North closely followed Southern tastes.
The "fine bones and pure expressions" prevalent during the
Northern Wei was a Sinicization and expansion of the style developed
during the Southern dynasty of Liu Song (420-479). From the end of the
fifth century to the beginning of the sixth century, during the relatively
stable southern Liang Dynasty (502-557), the Wu emperor Xiaoyan (r.
502-549) also devoutly practiced Buddhism. The production of Buddhist
images flourished during this period. Owing to a shift in aesthetic
taste and heightened relations outside the dynasty proper, the style
of this period is not merely a perpetuation of the Liu Song "fine
bones and pure expressions" style. A few new factors emerged: One
of the prevalent features of this period is the "Zhang family style,"
as it is termed in historical documents. However, there are relatively
few excavated images from the Southern dynasties, except for the sculpures
discovered in the remains of the Wanfo Temple in Chengdu and a few individual
works, and textual evidence is scarce. Although one can consult the
these few individual works or Northern cave-temples (such as those in
Gongxian, Henan and Xiangtangshan, Hebei and Henan), all together these
do not suffice to reflect the true features of the Southern style.
The evolution of style between the Wei (220-260) and Jin (265-420)
to the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties is an extremely important
link in the history of Buddhist sculpture, and, as such, scholars have
sustained differences of opinion towards this period. The Longxing Temple
images, of different periods and of different styles, provide excellent
material evidence for laying bare the stylistic development of the later
Northern and Southern Dynasties (particularly the Southern Dynasties).
Qingzhou lay in the North, within the political boundaries of the Northern
Qi, but during one prolonged period, it had been turned over to the
jurisdiction of the South and held deep origins within traditional Southern
culture. Thus this group of images should stylistically relate to contemporaneous
Southern types. Indeed, as scholars have clearly pointed out, the Qingzhou
sculptures are the same as those unearthed in Sichuan, and should constitute
a substantial foundation for our understanding of late Southern Dynasties
The Qingzhou sculptures attained a high level of artistry, especially
the Northern Qi individual standing figures -- masterpieces of this
period. Several distinguishing features of these objects are outlined
1. Robust Figures and Simple Drapery Lines.
Starting in the Northern Wei, the use of the so-called "officials'
robes and scholars' belts" drapery style, i.e., loose outer apparel,
prevailed, as seen in the Sakyamuni triad dated the third year of Tianping
(Eastern Wei, 537) (Figure 7). Drapery lines are overly elaborate
and stylized, supplementing and complementing the appearance of "fine
bones and pure expressions." The majority of the Qingzhou Northern
Qi statues have thick strong bodies and full soft faces (Figure 8).
Garments conform to a select type: The kasaya, or monk's
robe, passes over the shoulder, exposing the left side of the torso
(Figure 9), and the agitated folds of the Northern Wei give way to form-fitting
drapery, or the "flat ladder" technique, or utterly unadorned
line, the entire body as smooth as paper (Figure 10). The overall feeling
is one of purity and completeness. We can see this form-fitting type
among early fifth-century images, as in the figures inside Cave 169
of the Bingling Temple (Gansu) and Cave 5 of the Tanyao group at Yungang
(Shanxi), representing the earliest local examples of non-indigenous
Buddhist art. Gradually, displaying the contours of the body in this
way became Sinicized, replaced by the local Han literati costume
-- "officials' robes and scholars' belts." Although the form-fitting
style of the late Northern Dynasties images discovered in Qingzhou differ
substantially from those of a century earlier, generally speaking in
these works a foreign influence has re-emerged.
2. Spiritualized Facial Features. Attention to the mood of the
object and to the expression of an inner spirituality is an artistic
tradition formulated during the Wei and Jin dynasties, arising from
fundamental aesthetic theories that stress "disregarding form for
meaning" or "disregarding likeness for meaning." The
painter Gu Kaizhi's (346-407) discussion of transmitting the spirit
and the sculptor Lu Tanwei's (Liu Song dynasty, 420-479) "fine
bones and pure expressions" invariably conform to this belief.
Although the Qingzhou Northern Qi sculptures break with the stylistic
conventions of the earlier period, nevertheless to some degree the Northern
Wei legacy is carried through. The Buddhas' faces are numinous and otherworldly
(Figure 11) and, coupled with the emphasis placed on simpler garb (Figure
12), thoroughly expresses the spiritual character of Buddhist transcendence
over the secular world -- solemnity, beneficence, mercy, and infinite
wisdom, arousing profound emotions towards the gods and the afterworld.
3. Polychrome Painting Preserved and Intact. Elaborately painted
surfaces characterize ancient Chinese sculpture. Initially, Buddhist
images all possessed colors of gorgeous hues, no longer visible on extant
works and most excavated examples. As a result, it is difficult to imagine
the polychromed surfaces, thus misleading viewers of their original
appearance. The colors on the Qingzhou statuary have been preserved
remarkably well, allowing us to catch a glimpse of how the coloration
of these Buddhist images first looked. Furthermore, the colors raise
the scholarly and aesthetic value of the works. On ancient China, there
were two main types of polychrome statues: the first involves covering
the entire figure with gold paint; and the second is to apply different
shades according to the carved lines, the body thus divided by color.
Most of the Longxing Temple pieces belong to the second type. In addition,
many of the painted surfaces diverge from these two traditional types:
The smooth stone plane was used in the same way as paper, with individual
designs on its surface. Some illustrate the kasaya (Figures 13
and 14), some illustrate the Buddhist pantheon ranging from monks to
nomadic peoples (Figures 15 and 16), and some illustrate subjects yet
to be defined. Judging from excavated Buddhist statues, there are few
surviving examples of designs drawn directly on the surface. This is
undoubtedly also a unique feature of the Longxing Temple images.
The excavation of Buddhist images from the storage pit of the Longxing
Temple in Qingzhou is one of the most important archaeological discoveries
in China in the past decade. It has enhanced research into an
unknown aspect of the history of Chinese sculpture, and, at the same
time, has raised several questions, such as the origin of the Northern
Qi sculptural style, the elements contributing to the making of sculpture,
and the relationship and influence among regional and chronological
trends in Buddhist art. Scholars have already conducted research along
these lines. The extraordinary stylistic attributes of this group of
images can also offer inspiration towards our notions of creativity,
such as the care taken to express the figures' inner spirtuality, and
the emphasis on the overall effect of each work.In addressing the relationship
between the past and the present, the Qingzhou find yields another advantage:Though
the fundamental artistic choices then and today's individual creativity
certainly cannot be discussed in the same terms, in the final analysis,
this is one case in which tradition and innovation merge.
see Select Bibliography
*Click on each image to enlarge.
Figure 1. Seated Arhat. Northern Song. Lime-stone. 35 x 17 cm.
Figure 2. SEated Arhat. Northern Song. Lime-stone. 37 x 16 cm.
Figure 3. Maitreya stele donated by Han Xiaohua. Dated 529 (Northern
Wei). Lime-stone. 55 x 51 cm.
Figure 4. Buddha triad donated by the Nun Zhiming.
Dated 537 (Eastern Wei). Limestone. 83 x 66 cm.
Figure 5. Head of Buddha.
Eastern Wei - Northern Qi. Limestone. Height 22 cm.
Figure 6. Standing Buddha with illustrated robe.
Northern Qi. Limestone. 117 x 43 cm.
Figure 7. Maitreya triad donated by Xing Changzhen. Dated 536 (Eastern
Wei). Limestone. Height 137.7 cm.
Figure 8. Standing Buddha (detail of head). Northern Qi. Limestone.
Height 125 cm.
Figure 9. Standing
Buddha. Northern Qi. Limestone.
60 x 20 cm.
Figure 10. Standing Buddha.
Northern Qi. Limestone. Height 82 cm.
Figure 11. Standing Buddha (detail of head). Northern Qi. Limestone.
Height 139 cm.
Figure 12. Standing Buddha.
Northern Qi. Limestone.
116 x 40 cm.
Figure 13. Standing Buddha.
Northern Qi. Limestone.
170 x 40 cm.
Figure 14. Seated Buddha.
Northern Qi. Limestone.
64 x 28 cm.
Figure 15. Standing Buddha.
Northern Qi. Limestone. Height 118 cm.
Figure 16. Standing Buddha (detail of robe).
Northern Qi. Limestone. Height 121 cm.
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