Ancient Buddhist artifacts reveal impact on Chinese religious civilization

An exhibition displaying ancient religious artifacts, from the glory days of the Tang Dynasty and Buddhism, is on show at the Gushan Pavilion of Zhejiang Museum through March 9.

An exhibition displaying ancient religious artifacts, from the glory days of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and Buddhism, is now on show at the Gushan Pavilion of the Zhejiang Museum through March 9.

Chang’an, in what is today’s Xi’an City of Shaanxi Province, was the capital of the Tang Dynasty, and in its heyday was considered to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. Besides its booming economy, Chang’an was also a center of Buddhism with support from the nation’s sovereignty.

Unearthed Buddhist sculptures, figurines and other antiques, on show at the Zhejiang Museum, testify to the city’s vibrant Buddhist culture.

During the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong (AD 559-649) sent the famous Xuanzang Monk to Tianzhu (present-day India) to inquire about the teachings of Buddha. Hundreds of Buddhist scriptures were sent back to China, which largely contributed to the development of the religion and cultural exchanges.

Buddhism subsequently evolved into the country’s main religion and millions of devout believers worshipped Buddha and built temples across China, especially in Chang’an City.

A gold casket

Buddhism became part of Chinese culture and became the epitome of the Tang Dynasty, deeply influencing a wide variety of fields, including art, architecture, medicine, philosophy and literature.

Nonetheless, the late Tang Dynasty went through a period of change and turbulence, during which temples, stone scriptures, sculptures and grottoes were destroyed. The unearthed relics provide precious proof of a once prosperous Tang Dynasty.

In the Tang Dynasty, artisans used metal to build Buddhist sculptures and figurines to showcase Buddha’s immortal body. They integrated the styles from other places across the country and created a unified Tang style.

Their multifarious shapes and vivid expressions typify the workmanship of the time and reflect the cultural exchanges all over the country. Today, they are regarded as some of the best examples of Buddhist sculpture art from the Tang Dynasty.

Because of the imperial court’s supportive policies, different schools of Buddhism thrived, and a number of scriptures were translated, which in return enriched the themes of religious handicrafts. Meanwhile, the Buddha of medicine in Mahayana Buddhism and Guanyin (bodhisattva venerated by followers of Chinese believers) were also popular with worshippers.

A silver casket

According to the different designs in Guanyin, the Tang-style Buddhist arts could be divided into different ages. Before the Emperor Taizong period, the sculptures were still characterized by the styles of the previous Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618).

Between the Taizong and Gaozong emperors, as chubbiness was favored over slimness then, the exhibits feature a plump face. Until Empress Wu Zetian, the sculptures had more vivid expressions and better-proportioned bodies. Body lines were smoother and often twisted into the “S” shape.

Starting from the Tang Dynasty, extensive underground palaces were built under pagodas and temples. More ornate caskets became common, including those with gold and silver.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of caskets and handicrafts were discovered from the underground palace of the Qingshan Temple in Lintong District of Xi’an City. They feature distinctive characteristics from the Empress Wu Zetian era.

According to historical archives, the temple epitomized the highest level and scale of that period. As the only officially recognized empress in more than two millennia, Wu turned to the temple and Buddhist doctrines for legitimacy in politics.

A tri-colored porcelain

Exquisite sculptures, stone tablets engraved with Buddhist scriptures and floral motifs, tri-colored porcelains, sarira (pearl or crystal-like objects that are found among the cremated ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters) boxes, and silver and gold caskets from the temple are also exhibited.

The antiques are highly valued by archaeologists as they reflect burial practices and how Tang-style underground palaces were built. Among them, the tri-colored ceramics were a classic symbol of the then Chang’an City.

The glazed ceramics are predominantly in three colors: brown, green and a creamy off-white. The white came from the natural color of the fired clay while the brown and green came from adding metal oxides in a lead glaze.

Since the pottery was mainly fired during the Tang Dynasty, people named it Tang San Cai — Tang-style tri-colored pottery. They are an indispensable part of China’s porcelain manufacturing history.

Date: Through March 9, closed on Mondays

Address: 25 Gushan Rd

Admission: Free

A Tang Dynasty Buddhist sculpture

An engraved Buddhist sculpture 

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