Donors of Longmen is the first work in the west to recreate the history of the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where thousands of ancient cave-chapels and shrines containing Buddhist icons of all sizes were carved into the towering limestone cliffs from the fifth to the eighth century. Beyond its superb sculpture, Longmen also preserves thousands of engraved dedicatory inscriptions by its donors, who included emperors and empresses, aristocrats, court eunuchs, artisans, monks, nuns, lay societies, female palace officials, male civil and military officials and ordinary lay believers. These inscriptions preserve the voices of self-willed women, charismatic religious people, wealthy merchants and palace eunuchs – all traditionally excluded from history – and since they and the sculpture they dedicate are artifacts of actual religious practice, they offer tangible proof of what their sponsors worshiped and why. Donors of Longmen explores the dynamics of faith, politics and money. Believers sponsored statues and cave-shrines as public acts of giving (dāna) and merit (karma) to generate social credit in the political realm and karmic merit in the spiritual. While donors’ choices of icons reveal the changes in Buddhist religious concerns over the 250-year life of the site, the discussions of expenditure in their dedicatory inscriptions reveal not only how much they spent, but also the rhetoric appropriate to their station in life, gender and intended audience. The author argues that donors made conscious decisions concerning the style of their sculptures to imbue them with meanings that were immediately comprehensible to their contemporaries, and these choices constitute a lively interplay between native Chinese imagery and icons and styles of art from the Buddhist holy land of India.
Subjects: Art & Art History
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