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4 Tutorials that teach Chinese Buddhist Art and Architecture
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Chinese Buddhist Art and Architecture

Chinese Buddhist Art and Architecture

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will explore the art and architecture of Buddhism in China.

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Tutorial

An overview of Chinese Buddhist art and architecture.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about Chinese Buddhist art and architecture. As you're watching the video feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain the role of Buddhism in dynastic China, and identify examples of Buddhist art and architecture from China.

Key terms as always are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is Amida Buddha, principal Buddha in the Pure Land sect practiced primarily in East Asia, and known for longevity and possessing unlimited merits from good works over many past lives. Bodhisattva is someone who is capable of achieving enlightenment, but who is motivated by great compassion to assist others in their spiritual development.

Enlightenment, also known as nirvana, the highest state spiritual being in Buddhism characterized primarily by a complete lack of worldly desire. And Silk Road is a modern term that refers to the trade routes that linked Asia with the Mediterranean. Pagoda is a Chinese tower with multiple tiers and a bracketed wooden roof. It is based loosely on the idea of an Indian stupa. And Triad, in Buddhism, an artistic grouping of three characters, usually Buddha in the center flanked by two Bodhisattvas, but there could be some variation.

And big idea for today is that the Buddhist religion was very influential on the art and architecture of dynastic China. So for all the Common Era, which is after 0 AD up until the early 20th century, China was ruled by a succession of dynasties. And I've outlined the majority here, but this shouldn't be considered the definitive list by any stretch but rather an outline. Some of them may stand out to you, such as the Qin Dynasty, which is where the word China derives from. It's the first one on the left.

The Ming dynasty, which is-- there it is-- is well known for the production of the white and blue porcelain vases that are named after it. And we'll be looking at the art and architecture from two periods shown in blue, the Tang dynasty and the Song dynasty. And the Song dynasty itself is actually broken up into two parts, the North and South, but I've kind of grouped them into one.

So, since we'll be in China today, let's take a look at where that is. China is a country that, along with Russia to the north and India to the south, comprises the majority of the Asian continent. And our first stop will be in Luoyang, China followed by Foguang Pagoda just a bit northeast. The Silk Road, which was named after one the primary goods traded via this route, silk, was one of the most important means of cultural exchange throughout Asia as well as between Eastern and Western cultures. The Silk Road actually passes right by the city of Luoyang, China, which we'll look at in just a moment.

So what was the Tang dynasty, and why do we care? Well, the Tang dynasty succeeded the Sui dynasty that came before it, which successfully reunited a broken China. The Tang dynasty subsequently became one of the most important periods of Chinese cultural development. It was also a time when Buddhism was the primary religion throughout China and the proliferation of art with Buddhism as its theme.

Now, the Longmen Caves are located in Luoyang, China, and feature sculptural relief that spans almost 1,000 years. We'll be looking at some examples of monumental sculptural relief, specifically the Vairocana Buddha, which is one of the largest, if not the largest, example sculptures of the Buddha within an even larger complex assortment of Buddhist iconography that is at the caves. The Vairocana Buddha means illuminator, and depicts the large figure of the Buddha in a lotus, or meditative, position. He's on the right, flanked by Bodhisattvas and disciples who, in typical hierarchic scale, are smaller but still colossal in size. They're huge.

Now, the way to tell the Bodhisattvas and the Buddha apart, aside from their size and position, is in their depiction. The Buddha is shown wearing a topknot, which is the hair, in the meditative lotus position with his hands in mudras, which are symbolic hand gestures. Now, the Bodhisattvas look almost identical. You can see one of them there. They look almost identical and stand on either side of the Buddha creating a triad grouping.

Buddhism is a religion that is composed of different branches of Buddhism that all share a similar foundation and ancestry, similar, I guess, to how Christianity is comprised of branches of Christianity, like Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, et cetera. Two of the primary forms are Zen and Pure Land Buddhism. We're going to focus on Pure Land today. So, unlike Zen Buddhism, adherents to Pure Land Buddhism believe that enlightenment cannot be achieved on your own but only through faith in Amida's-- who is, Amida is a form of Buddha-- on his salvation. Pure Land predates Zen Buddhism by about 350 years and arose during the Tang dynasty quickly gaining a strong following.

So if you notice the text box that just disappeared, there are two ways of referring to the same Buddha, Amida and Amitabha. Amida is more common in Japan, while Amitabha is more common in China. Now, this image of the Paradise of Amitabha is a 9th century painting in Dunhuang, China, a major stop on the Silk Road. Because of this, it became a major site of Buddhist art. This is just one of many cave paintings at this particular site. This painting is interesting in how it depicts the Pure Land as consisting of Tang dynasty imperial architecture, which is a definite nod to the style of the time, but also very honest and human depiction of paradise as something familiar, something like home.

So if you remember, the veneration of sacred relics is an important part of Buddhism. The Chinese pagoda is a type of shrine that was developed like the Indian stupa structures that preceded it to house sacred Buddhist relics. The relics were housed under the foundational floor of the pagoda in many cases, sealed off the rest of the structure, which will also usually function as a Buddhist temple that could be entered, unlike the Indians stupa.

Now, they were wooden structures and featured many innovative design elements, such as the post and lintel variant called dougong, which is a form of Chinese roof bracketing. Here's an example of dougong. This is actually from a Japanese structure, though, not Chinese. Now, unlike many types of structures, the walls within the pagoda are not load bearing. Instead, the weight of the roof structure is channeled through massive vertical columns by way of brackets called dougong.

Now, in this really simplified version you can see how layers of wooden beams are laid perpendicular to each other and cantilevered over a supportive column, which is in brown. If you can imagine here those little gray blocks are supposed to be going back into the picture running perpendicular to the blue block. So you can see how this rather ingenious method allows for portions of the structure to be extended outwards and allows for a surprising amount of elasticity in earthquake prone areas, something that stone structures are notoriously poor with.

So, the Foguang Si Pagoda in Shanxi Province in China is a Buddhist temple and shrine. And it's the tallest wooden structure ever made. It's about 216 feet tall. It was constructed in 1056 during the Song dynasty, the Northern Song dynasty, to be precise. And it's an octagonal design with column supports in the corners of that octagon. And it's symmetrically balanced and supported by the use of 60 giant four-tiered brackets that hold the structure together. Now, they're similar to the brackets that I showed you on the last page in my diagram. If you look at the walls or the sides of the octagon, those are not load bearing. Actually all the weight is channeled into the columns that you can't see, that are in the corners of the octagon.

So that brings to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain the role of Buddhism in dynastic China? Can you identify examples of Buddhist art and architecture from China? And once again, the big idea for today is that the Buddhist religion was very influential on the art and architecture of dynastic China. And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Amida Buddha

    Principal Buddha in the Pure Land sect, practiced primarily in East Asia, and known for longevity and possessing unlimited merits from good works over many past lives.

  • Bodhisattva

    Someone who is capable of achieving enlightenment, but who is motivated by great compassion to assist others in their spiritual development.

  • Enlightenment

    Also known as nirvana, the highest state of spiritual being in Buddhism, characterized primarily by a complete lack of worldly desire.

  • Silk Road

    A modern term that refers to the trade routes that linked Asia with the Mediterranean.

  • Pagoda

    A Chinese tower with multiple tiers and a bracketed wooden roof. It is based loosely on the idea of an Indian stupa.

  • Triad

    In Buddhism, an artistic grouping of three characters, usually Buddha in the center flanked by two bodhisattvas, but there could be some variation.