Buddhism reached China from India during the Later Han Dynasty sometime before A.D.100 and by the 300's A.D. was well established throughout the country. Under Han rule, arts and sciences thrived and China became as large and powerful as the Roman Empire. Because of the influence of other accepted religions such as Confucianism and Taoism, Chinese varieties of Buddhism developed. They taught strict moral standards and the ideals of rebirth and life after death. The Chinese Buddhists worshipped many gods and with the establishment of this religion many forms or art flourished. I will provide examples and some history on a few of the important art mediums used along with pertinent Chinese history of the times which contributed to the influence of the arts.
A study of the Chinese Buddhist sculptures of the Liao dynasty (907-1125) is of great importance since they have been used as resources for sculptures in the USA, Europe and Asia. The art of this period is primarily Buddhist. In the site of the western capital of Liao there are three major monuments in the near vicinity of Ta-T'ung in Shansi province. They are the Hsia-ssu (hsia Huayen-ssu or Lesser Avatamsaka monastery), the Shih-chia-t'a and Liao sculptures in Yun-kang which are located in caves III and XI. The sculptures of Hsia-ssu are of clay and include the features of the deities' crowns, costumes, haloes and jewelry. An unusual characteristic of royal dress in the Liao period is the cloud collar, as seen on the seated Bodhisattvas. (A Bodhisattva is a person who strives to become a Buddha.)
The second Mu-t'a pagoda is from the 11th century and as far as anyone knows is the earliest still existing wooden (mu) pagoda (t'a) in China. The first and fourth floor is proclaimed to Sakyamuni, the third to the four Buddhas of the Vajradhatu-mandala, the fourth again to Sakyamuni, and from the fifth to the eighth floors the Boddhisattvas are around the central Buddha. If you examine the style closely it seems to support the era of the late 11th to early 12th century. The Liao sculpture theme seems to be one of softness and never with bone structure. The cloud collar is depicted in an effort to accentuate the ties of immortality and this world. The artist gives the sculptures a lifelike aura through such characteristics as parted lips and sparkling eyes. The stringent styles of the images of early Buddhist art were moderated by emphasis on the human element.
Dated from 1020 are additional works which have been studied. They are the 23 clay sculptures on the altar of the Feng-kuo-ssu-monastery. These Buddhas and other nobles are of enormous size which is one of the distinctive stylistic impressions of the Shang Dynasty of this period.
One notable work of art is a sculpture of white marble of the Northern Qi Dynasty. It dates from about 510. It is a small statue of a meditating bodhisattva (Maitreya). The pose of the figure and drape of the cloth indicate a Chinese Buddhist character, while the facial expression and natural shape of the torso reflect the softening influence of the Indian Guptan style. This figure demonstrates both indigenous and foreign styles of sculpture
An example of painting with ink and light color on paper is "Lohan Seated in a Tree." It is from the Ming Dynasty painted in 1608 by Ding Ynpeng. The style is characterized by the vitality of the lively, bight quality of line and color. Lohan means enlightened being and the earliest still existing example of a Buddhist monk being portrayed in a tree is by the thirteenth century painter Lian Kai. Lian Lai portrayed Pan Daolin, a Chan master, who was being visited from the poet Bai Juyi. There is a famous recorded exchange between Bai and the Master in which Bai comments that the Master was living in an unstable situation. Pan Daolinís reply to this was that Bai's situation was far more unsure than his own, because Bai lived in a place of ignorance of the Dharma (Buddhist Law).
Perhaps the largest representations of Buddhist art are found in the 492 caves of Dunhuang. These caves contain 45,000 square metres of frescoes and 2,415 stucco statues. This is one of the most precious heritages of art in the world. These caves have been taken taken care of with special devotion from the fourth century all the way up to the fourteenth. The most notable centuries however are the seventh to the ninth in which China went through a period of time known as the "golden period". During this "golden period" culture and art flourished, especially Dunhuang art.
The Chinese Buddhist monks founded the first of the Dunhuang Caves, the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in 366. Such construction of cave temples and paintings of the frescoes, as well as sculptures continued for a thousand years until the Yuan Dynasty. The frescoes contain many artistic presentations of famous images as depicted in various Buddhist sutras and stories. Most of the frescoes are of the famous flying Apsaras. The girls in the frescoes are flying with no wings, but with the help of long waving scarves. Many of the beautiful figures are plucking the pipa for playing Buddhist music. Some are slim and pretty and others are full and round. All the girls in the frescoes are flying and dancing and showering flowers with a fairly graceful and handsome posture, showing beauty of motion, which was instillling the prospect of freedom, kindness and happiness to the ancient people.
It is also noted that the different images, although originating in India, begin to depart from the Indian influences and gradually begin to show aesthetic form of their own. These often reflect daily life in China in the age the frescoes were painted.
Marilyn Gridley, 1993. "Chinese Buddhist Sculpture Under Liao." http://www.vedamsbooks.com/7896.htm
"Asian Art Gallery, Brief Guide to Our Collection." http://www.art.uiuc.edu/kam/Guide/Asian/82-04-001.html
Tan Chung, 1994. "Dunhuang Art: Through the Eyes of Duan Wenjie." http://www.vedamsbooks.com/dunghuan.htm#DunhuangArt