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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 two groups.

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 a whole.

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 style.

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 below.

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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