Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiantangshan

Anne Doran


The Xiantangshan cave temples in northern China, constructed during the short-lived Northern Qi dynasty (550–577 C.E.), are still used as places of worship. But the artworks they once contained—carved friezes depicting Buddhist deities and their mandalas, limestone statues of relaxed bodhisattvas and intent disciples, and incised decorative panels lavishly patterned with flowering trees and flaming jewels—are largely missing, looted during the first part of the 20th century to satisfy a growing demand for such material.

Chinese Buddhist stone sculptures appealed to Western curators and collectors of the 1910s and 1920s, being massive, modernistically spare (particularly without their original paint), and, above all, inexpensive. The primary source of works from Xiantangshan was C. T. Loo, a Chinese art dealer with offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Paris, and New York, and—vital to the success of his export business—connections to Kuomintang [Chinese Nationalist Party] leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. By 1922, when Japanese researchers surveyed the site, over 30 freestanding figures had vanished from the caves at Southern Xiantangshan alone.

A number of sculptures removed from Xiantangshan—among them a childsized demon with folded wings, delicate, ruffled bat ears, and a stormy expression, and a relief depicting a group of bodhisattvas casually chatting among themselves as they wait for the Buddha to begin his teaching—are part of the permanent collection of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Here, they are ordinarily presented as purely visual objects, part of an art-historical continuum of stylistic developments. Like nearly every other work of art in the museum, they represent the highest aesthetic achievement of their time; they are, in all other respects, opaque.

An exhibition currently on view at the nearby Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, however, takes a broader view. Uniting the Freer’s holdings with some 30 other items taken from the caves, “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiantangshan” puts them into context as an expression of both the Northern Qi dynasty’s religious concerns and its sophisticated, multiethnic culture. The show is an outgrowth of a seven-year effort by the University of Chicago’s Center for the Art of East Asia to document the caves and their dispersed contents and, using advanced imaging technology, to reconstruct how the interiors might once have looked.

Xiantangshan’s two main groups of caves, Northern Xiantangshan and Southern Xiantangshan, are situated nine miles apart near the Northern Qi capital of Ye. Paid for out of imperial coffers or by wealthy courtiers, they represent one of the most graceful expressions of Mahayana Buddhist ideals in the history of Chinese art.

Although there seems to have been a great deal of individual improvisation by the anonymous artisans who created the Xiantangshan chapels, a comparison of works from the two sites shows the rapid evolution of an unmistakable Northern Qi style, whose naturalism was so radical for its time that the art historian Osvald Sirén, writing in the 1920s, mistakenly identified the sculptures of Xiantangshan as belonging to the Sui period. Without a doubt they anticipated and influenced subsequent developments in both Sui dynasty (581–618 C.E.) and Tang dynasty (618–906 C.E.) art.

Like the Tang, the Northern Qi culture was vibrantly cosmopolitan. After the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 C.E., northern China came under the control of a series of kingdoms ruled by invaders from Central Asia. While the Xianbei people of the preceding Northern Wei dynasty had adopted Chinese dress and language, the Northern Qi delighted in their difference, emphasizing their tribal roots by polishing their riding skills and dressing in tunics and trousers. At the same time they enjoyed the intellectual and artistic fruits of a multicultural society that included various northern Chinese ethnic groups, Sogdian traders, and Buddhist monks from India and Central Asia, all of whom contributed to the heterogeneity of Northern Qi musical and visual arts.

The oldest and largest shrine at Northern Xiantangshan is known as the North Cave and was probably commissioned by Gao Yang, whose father, Gao Huan, had been the power behind the throne at the end of the Wei dynasty. An unprepossessing child, Gao Yang was neither his father’s nor his mother’s favorite for the job, but he became the first emperor of the new dynasty after his brother, who had inherited the shogunate was assassinated. Gao Yang was an enthusiastic Buddhist who seems to have considered himself a contemporary dharma king, building many temples and outlawing, among other things, falconry and the collecting of crustaceans. His last years, however, were marked by increasingly bizarre and violent behavior. He died at age 31, apparently from alcohol poisoning.

The North Cave features a massive central pillar with niches carved into three sides. Each niche contained a colossal Buddha flanked by two bodhisattva attendants. Sixteen smaller niches around the perimeter wall may have housed sculptures of seated figures. Two large heads of bodhisattvas from this cave are among the most beautiful objects in the exhibition. Subtly modeled, with plump lips, half-closed eyes, and arched brows all delineated with fine incisions, they call to mind a drawing by Matisse. They epitomize the Northern Qi style, which combined a Chinese emphasis on flowing line, Kushan schematized forms, and the humanizing three-dimensionality and physicality of contemporaneous Indian Gupta sculpture.

And these figures are, above all, physical. In addition to informing its art, the Qi openness to foreign influences contributed to an increasingly nuanced understanding of Buddhist metaphysical ideas, and with it a concomitant shift in the treatment of the figure. Buddhism had first arrived in China in the 1st century B.C.E., but did not flourish as a popular religion until after 220 C.E., when it was embraced by the non-Han Chinese rulers in the north. Buddhist scriptures of importance during the Northern Qi period included the Lotus Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which all present the Mahayana doctrines of an infinite, omnipresent, and eternal buddhanature, or dharmakaya, and the possibility of universal liberation.

Reflecting the idea that each living being has the potential to achieve enlightenment, the figural sculptures of Xiantangshan collapse the distinction between the form bodies of buddhas and bodhisattvas and the human bodies of practitioners whose physical perfection reflects their spiritual attainments. No longer depicted as idealized figures encased in enveloping robes, as they had been during the Wei, deities and disciples were increasingly represented as animated personae whose fuller, more lifelike bodies were clearly visible under thin, clinging garments.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a group of four large standing figures, carved almost in the round, from Southern Xiantangshan, a complex of seven caves sponsored by the court official Gao Anagong during the reign of the last Northern Qi emperor. One of the figures is a pratyekabuddha (one who has achieved enlightenment on his own) holding a lotus bud at his heart level. The three others are broad-shouldered bodhisattvas, their hair falling past their shoulders and their jeweled headdresses trailing ribbons. With their oval faces, bow-shaped upper lips, and long noses—all in concordance with Qi standards of beauty—they are both divine beings and dashing Xianbei heartthrobs.

A special section of the show is an immersive video environment in which scans of objects looted from Xiantangshan’s South Cave have been inserted into a high-resolution digital picture of the cave’s interior as it appears today. Finished after Gao Yang’s death, the South Cave is also called the “Cave of the Engraved Sutras” for the Buddhist texts engraved on its porch and outer walls. On each of its three rock-cut altars there was once a seated Buddha accompanied by three matched pairs of attendants—two lay disciples, two pratyekabuddhas (distinguished by their conical topknots), and two bodhisattvas—representing the three paths to enlightenment.

Almost all of these statues are missing their heads and hands; smaller figures of dancers and musicians have been chipped out whole from friezes above and below the altars. Uniting this sadly despoiled place and a portion of its scattered contents, the installation posits a future in which such a site might be restored (either virtually or, by means of 3-D “printing,” in actuality) to an approximation of its original state, providing at least a partial antidote to the arrogance and greed of the past.

“Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiantangshan,” which originated at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, is on view at the Sackler Gallery through July 31, 2011. The show will be at the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas from September 11, 2011, through January 8, 2012, and at the San Diego Museum of Art from February 18 through May 27, 2012.


Anne Doran is a writer and editor for the visual arts. She lives in New York City.

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