Chinese Steles

Chinese Steles: Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form

DOROTHY C. WONG
Copyright Date: 2004
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqsbp
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    Chinese Steles
    Book Description:

    Buddhist steles represent an important subset of early Chinese Buddhist art that flourished during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (386–581). More than two hundred Chinese Buddhist steles are known to have survived. Their brilliant imagery has long captivated scholars, yet until now the Buddhist stele as a unique art form has received little scholarly attention. Dorothy Wong rectifies that insufficiency by providing in this well-illustrated volume the first comprehensive investigation of this group of Buddhist monuments. She traces the ancient roots of the Chinese stele tradition and investigates the process by which Chinese steles were adapted for Buddhist use. She arranges the known corpus of Buddhist steles into broad chronological and regional groupings and analyzes not only their form and content but also the nexus of complex issues surrounding this art form—from cultural symbolism to the interrelations between religious doctrine and artistic expression, economic production, patronage, and the synthesis of native and foreign art styles. In her analysis of Buddhism’s dialogue with native traditions, Wong demonstrates how the Chinese artistic idiom planted the seeds for major achievements in figural and landscape arts in the ensuing Sui and Tang periods.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6187-2
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. FOREWORD
    (pp. xi-xii)
    JOHN M. ROSENFIELD

    Chinese Buddhist sculpture, eloquent and deeply moving, has gradually entered the awareness of the Western public at large. Though scorned for millennia by Confucian scholars in its homeland, reviled in this century by Marxists and Maoists, and slighted by Western connoisseurs beguiled by Chinese painting, this array of brilliant imagery has captivated scholars by its visual and intellectual appeal, and public interest has been excited by recent archaeological discoveries of statuary in China. Dorothy Wong’s new book treats an important subset of Chinese Buddhist art—stone steles of the fifth and sixth centuries, ornately carved and inscribed with instructive texts...

  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. DYNASTIC CHRONOLOGY
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  8. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-12)

    Buddhist steles—upright stone tablets carved with Buddhist images and symbols—flourished only for a short period during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Considering the enduring history of Chinese steles, which have been in use from the first century c.e. until modern times, the phenomenon of Buddhist steles represents just a brief interlude. Yet this episode offers important insights into the role Buddhism played in the history and culture of early medieval China, and into the process of adaptation and transformation by which the foreign religion was assimilated into Chinese society and became part of its civilization.

    More than two...

  9. PART I TRADITIONAL CHINESE STELES AND THEIR BUDDHIST ADAPTATION
    • CHAPTER ONE ANCIENT ROOTS OF THE CHINESE STELE TRADITION
      (pp. 15-24)

      Since the first century c.e., the Chinese have used steles, or flat stone slabs, as symbolic monuments. The adaptation of these slabs for Buddhist purposes in the fifth and sixth centuries represented only a brief episode in the long history of the Chinese stele tradition. All Chinese stone slabs, whether they were of the traditional type or Buddhist ones, served many of the same social and religious functions. In fact, it is impossible to account for the widespread popularity of Buddhist steles without recognizing the indigenous stele tradition that antedated by centuries the coming of Buddhism.

      Both traditional Chinese steles...

    • CHAPTER TWO THE ORIGINS AND RISE OF HAN STELES
      (pp. 25-42)

      In the latter part of the Han dynasty, the stone stele calledbeibecame widely used in China. The stele, or tablet, was a flat stone slab of regulated size and shape and was usually engraved with an inscription. Hanbeiserved funerary, commemorative, or edifying purposes, and espoused the values of Confucianism. The popular use of steles was also associated with the rise of a new social class, the scholar-officials, who were both sponsors and audience for these monuments.

      The Hanbeiexhibits both continuities with and new developments from its predecessor in Eastern Zhou and Qin times, which...

    • CHAPTER THREE THE ORIGINS OF BUDDHIST STELES UNDER THE NORTHERN WEI
      (pp. 43-60)

      The origins of Buddhist steles can be traced to two momentous events that occurred during the last two decades of the fifth century: (1) the emergence of Buddhist devotional societies and (2) the first appropriation of Chinese tablets for Buddhist use. These two events are documented at two principal Buddhist cave-temple sites associated with the Northern Wei: Yungang at Datong (the first Northern Wei capital from 386 to 494), and Longmen near Luoyang (the second Northern Wei capital from 495 to 534), respectively. Buddhist devotional groups were fashioned after indigenous Chinesesheorganizations, and these groups were among the first...

  10. PART II THE FLOURISHING OF BUDDHIST STELES
    • CHAPTER FOUR GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF BUDDHIST STELES
      (pp. 63-70)

      As mentioned in the introduction, the terms for Chinese Buddhist steles are “beixiang,” “xiangbei,” and “zaoxiangbei,” referring to the use of the Chinese tablet as a surface on which to carve Buddhist imagery. These Buddhist stone slabs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In what follows I describe the typology of Buddhist steles and their general characteristics using the conventional terms, some of which characterize the steles’ form while others describe their subject matter.

      Chinese Buddhist steles were usually fashioned from locally quarried stone, most commonly limestone or sandstone. The reddish buff sandstone was usually from the Shanxi...

    • CHAPTER FIVE THE INITIAL FLOURISHING OF BUDDHIST STELES IN SHANXI
      (pp. 71-88)

      This chapter examines the initial flourishing of Buddhist steles in the Shanxi region, the center of the Northern Wei empire’s political rule as well as religious and artistic enterprise. This group of votive steles from Shanxi, circa 500–530, exhibits a broad range of form and an iconographic and stylistic idiom characteristic of late Northern Wei Buddhist art. After a summary of the historical and geographical background of Shanxi, selected examples of the following categories are discussed: the Thousand Buddhas stele (qianfobei), the four-sided stele (simian xiangbei), the monumental complex stele, and the funeral Buddhist stele.

      Iconographically, these examples portray...

    • CHAPTER SIX THE MAITREYA FAITH AND HENAN STELES
      (pp. 89-104)

      The discussion of Shanxi steles in chapter 5 introduced some principal themes of late Northern Wei Buddhist art and motifs, such as those of the Thousand Buddhas and Buddhas of the Three Ages, which explore the concept of buddhahood as it developed in Buddhist thought. This chapter focuses on steles from the Henan region that feature Maitreya as the principal icon. Following the developments in India and Central Asia, Maitreya Bodhisattva, the Future Buddha and successor of the Historical Buddha, emerged as the first cult figure to rival the popularity of Śākyamuni. The emergence of the cult of Maitreya signaled...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN THE SHAANXI SCHOOL: BUDDHIST-DAOIST ELEMENTS AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY
      (pp. 105-120)

      The Guanzhong plain in Shaanxi province is one of the oldest and most significant centers of Buddhist steles. Guanzhong, literally known as “the land within the passes,” refers to the rich alluvial plains created by the Wei River (a tributary of the Yellow River), which runs from west to east, and the Luo and Jing rivers, which flow southward, draining into the Wei River. The territory is marked by the towering Qinling mountain ranges to the south, the Liupan mountains to the northwest, and the narrow, precipitous gorges of Tongguan Pass to the east, where the Wei River merges with...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT BUDDHIST STELES FROM THE GANSU-NINGXIA REGION
      (pp. 121-134)

      The Gansu-Ningxia region in northwest China was an important regional center of Buddhist art in the fifth and sixth centuries, nurtured by the international traffic and cultural exchanges between East and West along the Silk Road. The concentration of Buddhist cave-temples in the region attests to the widespread practice of Buddhism and to the prevalence of artistic influences from the West. External influences, however, also interacted with local traditions, giving rise to innovations and independent developments.

      The northwest region was peripheral to the core area of stele production that was concentrated in the central plains of Shanxi, Henan, and Shaanxi...

    • CHAPTER NINE MONUMENTAL COMPLEX STELES AND FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS IN MAHĀYĀNA BUDDHIST ICONOGRAPHY
      (pp. 135-150)

      By the second and third quarters of the sixth century, the development of Buddhist steles had entered its mature phase. Earlier types such as the single-niche stele and the Thousand Buddhas stele continued, but these tended to be repetitive and mostly originated from conservative, rural areas. Stylistic and iconographic innovations were expressed primarily in monumental complex steles, which I categorize into two main types. The first type evolved from a single main niche to include a variety of subject matter. The second developed from the Thousand Buddhas motif, with multiple niches representing different Buddhist deities that expressed new devotional emphases...

    • CHAPTER TEN SICHUAN BUDDHIST STELES AND THE BEGINNINGS OF PURE LAND IMAGERY IN CHINA
      (pp. 151-174)

      Aperplexing aspect of the Buddhist stele phenomenon is the relative absence of these stone slabs in southern China. On the whole the south was less populated, but textual sources attest to the widespread acceptance of Buddhism in the south as well as the north. Jiankang (present-day Nanjing), the southern capital of the émigré Chinese dynasty, was particularly well known as a Buddhist center because of the lavish patronage of Buddhism by many emperors of the Southern Dynasties, most notably Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty. Jiankang can also be compared with Luoyang, its northern counterpart, as an important artistic and...

  11. CONCLUSION BUDDHIST STELES AS A SYMBOLIC FORM
    (pp. 175-180)

    This book has investigated the phenomenon of Chinese Buddhist steles, a brief yet brilliant episode in the history of the Chinese stele. It examined where, when, and how this hybrid art form came about, charting the evolution of the art form from its inception in the late fifth century to its demise at the end of the sixth century. The Chinese Buddhist stele represents a synthesis of native Chinese and foreign visual forms, underscoring the vigorous dialogue that occurred between Buddhism and the native traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and folk beliefs. The advent and flourishing of this art form at...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 181-198)
  13. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 199-206)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 207-220)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 221-226)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 227-228)