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Donors of Longmen

Donors of Longmen: Faith, Politics, and Patronage in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

Amy McNair
Copyright Date: 2007
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    Donors of Longmen
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6225-1
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The limestone cliffs that flank the Yi River some twelve kilometers south of the modern city of Luoyang, Henan Province, are carved with 2,345 grottoes, which bear nearly 3,000 votive inscriptions and contain more than 100,000 individual Buddhist statues, ranging in size from a few centimeters in height to over seventeen meters. Longmen, the “Dragon Gate,” was considered an auspicious place for sponsoring Buddhist icons for about 250 years, from the time the Northern Wei (386–534) capital was relocated to Luoyang in 494 until the sack of the city in 755 during the An Lushan Rebellion, under the Tang...

  6. One Emperor as Tathāgata
    (pp. 7-30)

    Standing in the open mouth of Guyang Grotto, the visitor looks into a huge, dark stone chamber whose walls are a jumble of image shrines of different sizes, extending from the floor up into the ceiling eleven meters overhead and almost twelve meters deep into the living rock of the cliff (figure 1.1). Embedded in the welter of dozens of smaller shrines is a matrix of three registers of large shrines, each about three meters high. The lowest register is sunk partially below the floor, the middle is somewhat higher than eye level, and the highest is far overhead. The...

  7. Two The Mechanics of a Karmic Gift of Sculpture
    (pp. 31-50)

    The first imperially sponsored cave-shrine at Longmen — Binyang Central Grotto — is featured in nearly every textbook of Chinese art as a monument of late Northern Wei art. In Laurence Sickman’s words, not only is it “lucid and coherent” in plan, but also “it seems to represent in stone a close approximation to the interior of freestanding temples of the early sixth century — all of which have disappeared centuries ago.”² The sculpture, moreover, is considered peerless (figure 2.1). Sickman wrote of the main image:

    This Śākyamuni Buddha, the central deity, is in many respects, the supreme example of the archaic Buddha...

  8. Three The Rhetoric of Expenditure
    (pp. 51-74)

    What price salvation? Chinese Buddhists believed that acts of merit generate karmic benefits that can be credited toward a salvation conceived of commonly as rebirth in a paradise or Pure Land, where one could see the Buddha and hear the Dharma directly, or less commonly as the attainment of enlightenment andnirvāna. from this existence. Acts of merit included a variety of faith-filled actions intended to propagate the Buddhist Dharma, such as establishing monasteries, building pagodas, setting updhāraṇīpillars, copying sūtras, painting icons, and carving statuary. As most believers were not artisans, they could not produce such objects themselves....

  9. Four The Politics of Filial Piety
    (pp. 75-88)

    Just south of the entryway to Binyang Central Grotto is a gigantic Northern Wei relief stele. In all likelihood, it was originally carved to bear Emperor Xuanwu’s dedication of the Binyang grottoes to his late parents, but now it bears the abraded remains of an early Tang dynasty (618–907) inscription titled “The Stele for the Yique Buddha Shrine” (see figure 2.2 above).² The author was Cen Wenben (595–645), a historian, memorialist, and close advisor to Emperor Taizong (r. 626–649), who was known for his moral uprightness and extreme frugality.³ Despite Cen’s skill with language, or perhaps because...

  10. Five Cīnasthāna Preserves the Dharma
    (pp. 89-110)

    In the century between the evacuation of Luoyang in 534 and the recommencement of patronage under the Tang in 637, the iconography of Longmen altered dramatically. No Tang donor commissioned images of Vimalakīrti and MañjuṤrī, the “pensive prince,” or Ṥākyamuni and Prabhūtaratna. The number of conventional Ṥākyamuni statues dwindled from 50 dated examples made in the Northern Wei to only 11 made in the Tang. All 35 dated Maitreya figures produced under the Northern Wei are seated cross-ankled bodhisattvas, while the 15 dated examples from the early Tang are all seated pendant-legged Maitreya Buddhas. No images of Amitābha were sponsored...

  11. Six Rouge and Powder Money
    (pp. 111-122)

    For most tourists to Longmen, the highlight of their visit is seeing the colossal figures of the Great Vairocana Image Shrine (figure 6.1). As with any other effective theatrical experience, the shrine is situated so as to build up a sense of anticipation by delaying and controlling the experience of seeing it. The modern-day visitor enters the northern precinct of the Longmen cliffs from the north — which was quite likely the experience of anyone approaching by land from Luoyang during the Tang dynasty — and amidst the flocks of tourists from Japan, Europe, and elsewhere walks along the stone-paved pathway that...

  12. Seven The Satellite Grottoes
    (pp. 123-142)

    Several of the largest and most opulently carved grottoes at Longmen were excavated during the years the Great Vairocana Image Shrine was produced. Clustered together, they are situated about 150 meters north of the imperial shrine, but they are not hidden high on the cliff face; rather, they stand at the base of the cliff, with their fine sculpture and elaborate programs on display (figure 7.1). The Paired Grottoes consist of one grotto containing a Buddhas of the Three Periods assembly and another with a Maitreya Buddha and the Thousand Buddhas of the PresentKalpa. Qingmingsi Grotto contains a seated...

  13. Eight Salvation for One
    (pp. 143-156)

    After the deaths of Empress Wu in 705 and Emperor Zhongzong in 710, there was a hiatus in imperial followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism and imperial sponsorship for Buddhist projects. Emperor Ruizong (r. 684 – 690, 710 – 712) and his son Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712 – 756) were adherents of Daoism, the religion favored by the Li family at the beginning of the Tang dynasty.² The only type of Buddhism that interested Emperor Xuanzong was the Esoteric School, likely because its emphasis on identification with and invocation of deities through magical gestures (mudrās), chanted Sanskrit syllables (mantrasanddhāranīs), and procedures for meditation...

  14. Epilogue: The Later Life of the Site
    (pp. 157-166)

    The donors of Longmen ceased sponsoring statuary grottoes over a thousand years ago, but the site itself has survived to the present day, perceived and treated very differently by various types of visitors over the centuries. This epilogue presents the later life of Longmen broadly, from three perspectives, each illustrated by selected vignettes. From the perspective of religion, the monasteries of Longmen continued to be lively sites of Buddhist practice until sometime around the thirteenth century, while their hospitality made the hills of Xiangshan an attractive destination for landscape lovers and pleasure seekers. By Chinese intellectuals, Longmen was seen as...

  15. Appendix: Chinese Texts of Longmen Inscriptions
    (pp. 167-180)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 181-212)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-226)
  18. Index
    (pp. 227-230)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-236)