Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Dunhuang is an oasis located on the western border of ancient China, also known as the “throat” of the Silk Road. During the 7th – 10th century, Dunhuang was an important Buddhist center where Buddhist doctrine and culture were first introduced from India to China. United Kingdom has one of the world’s largest collections of Dunhuang Buddhist art. In 2012 spring break, I had the opportunity, through The Travel Enrichment Grant, to visit the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum and Royal Asiatic Society in London. Through comparing some of the important artworks from Dunhuang and the original photographs of the site with Indian Buddhist sculptures, the inquiry attempts to understand how medieval Chinese Buddhist art integrated and adopted artistic traditions from the two main Indian schools of art: Gandhara and Mathura.
Due to its long-term contact with the Greek culture, Gandhara style is characterized by sensuous modeling and idealistic realism. From the Gandhara sculptures that I studied in the Victoria & Albert Museum, Buddha (Image 1) is usually adorned by a large, plain halo, elongated ears and usnisa on the forehead. These are the symbolisms of his identity as Buddha. The Buddha is also dressed in monastic robe which cover both shoulders. His robe falls on his body in richly carved, asymmetrical fold lines. Bodhisattva Maitreya (Image 2), who is known as the future Buddha, is usually wearing three strands of necklaces across his upper body. The two terminal ends of the necklace on top are decorated with the figure of Greek creature Eros. The face of both figures were portrayed with finely arched eyebrows, almond-shaped, half closed eyes, heavy, dropping eyelids, straight nose and undulating moustache, which give a serene quality to the Buddha.
On the other hand, Mathura style emphasizes to portray the physical strength and energy of the Buddha. From the sculptures that I studied in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the torso of Buddha from Mathura is usually portrayed with board shoulders and swelling chest. He stands firmly with his feet spaced apart. Also, the sculptures of Buddha from Mathura wear monastic robe that leave the right shoulder bear. The fold lines of the robe are carved in board relief, which reveals a transparent quality of the robe.
Based on the photographs that I studied in the Royal Asiatic Society, paintings of Buddha and Bodhisattva on silk were often used to flank large paradise paintings in Dunhuang cave temples during ceremonies. These paintings reveal a blending of both Gandhara and Mathura styles in different extents. For example, the painting of Vajrapani (Image 3) from the British Museum portrays Vajrapani with round, board torso. He has almond-shape eyes with finely arched eyebrows. Such modeling recalls Indian influence. At the same time, Chinese artists integrated Indian style with Chinese aesthetic. On the painting of Avalokitesvara (Image 4) from the British Museum, artist represents Avalokitesvara in Chinese style robe and adorned with simple circular halo. Although other symbolism of Buddhahood remains, Chinese artists here highlight the roundness of the bodhisattva’s body instead of the physical strength or realistic quality of bodhisattva.