The vigorous tradition of sculpture in China can be
traced in this exhibition from Neolithic jade dragons to
Shang dynasty animals and mythical creatures cast in
bronze to the monumental terra-cotta warriors and horses
of the Qin dynasty to the Han and Tang dynasty figurines
designed to accompany the deceased to his or her
posthumous destination. Although some large-scale secular
sculpture in stone survives from the Han dynasty,
only with the advent of Buddhism did the Chinese produce
large quantities of stone sculpture intended for public
Between its arrival in China from India in the first century CE and its peak in the mid-Tang (618-907), Buddhism inspired a vast body of sculpture. The sculpture on display in this section, which dates from the Northern Wei (386-534) to the Tang dynasties, reflects the complicated iconography of this foreign religion and a strong interest in the human form in which the deities were imagined. The attributes of these deities were constant-selflessness, compassion, majesty, vehement fury against all evil-but the styles and materials in which the sculptors attempted to convey these attributes varied greatly over time and region, demonstrating powerfully the transforming force of Chinese culture.
Embraced by the Chinese during the Period of Disunity (220-589), Buddhism flourished in north China under the Northern Wei, when the state sponsored the translation of scriptures into Chinese and the construction of cave-temples with vast and elaborate sculptural programs. Whereas Indian sculpture celebrates the sensuous beauty of the human body, Chinese taste held otherwise, and the Chinese sculptors quickly departed from the idealized naturalism of their Gandharan models to create images clad in proper Confucian fashion and enlivened by abstract and stylized linear patterns playing across flat drapery surfaces. The images in the early cave-temples of the Northern Wei are stiffly modeled, the body contours suppressed by rigidly symmetrical garment folds. In the first half of the sixth century, with further sinicization, figures became more slender and elegant, less static, with the impression of movement greatly enhanced by rippling garments and flickering halos executed in linear low relief. From about the mid-sixth century, renewed Indian influences of the classic Gupta period (fourth to sixth centuries) stimulated a new emphasis on three-dimensional figures, but Chinese sculptors expressed this emphasis in a columnar form that reflects the Chinese tendency to abstraction and stylization.
During the seventh and eighth centuries, the Chinese genius for abstract patterns was combined with a renewed appreciation for naturalistically rendered human form. Compassionate and humane deities, muscular and fearsome guardians, wise and exemplary monks, and many other figures were endowed with volume, grace, and beauty; imbued with a sense of inner life and the capacity for movement, these images are among the finest ever produced in China. This mature Tang style spread rapidly to Korea, Japan, and other parts of Asia, making it truly an International Style.