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  Chinese Way>Life

Book report: the religious art of China

2013-11-08 10:35:34

(China Today)


Chinese Taoist Arts

The Buddhist Art of China

The Art of the Catholic Church in China

Christian Arts in China

Islamic Art in China

Chief editor: Zhao Kuangwei

Published by China Intercontinental Press, Beijing

China has the longest continuous history of any country in the world; its civilization has been in existence for several thousand years. This miraculous vitality is rooted in the culture’s impressive sense of inclusiveness. Over centuries, Chinese civilization has been absorbing and integrating the essence of exotic cultures, races or languages, no matter where they might be from. And foreign religion is no exception: Buddhism was introduced to China in the first century AD, Islam, circa the seventh century, and Nestorianism, an ancient Christian doctrine, shortly after. Since then, foreign religions have been integrated into local culture and become a part of it.

When the weekend draws near, friends will ask each other about their plans for libai tian (Sunday), which literally means “day of worship.” In rural areas, if someone has a run of bad luck, people will comment that he or she has yezhang (bad karma). Many terms of religious origins like Libai tian and yezhang are in everyday use in China.

But which religions they each come from remains a question that even experts and researchers in the field can’t answer. Precisely this situation reflects the fact that religions, whether indigenous or foreign, have merged into Chinese culture and daily life. The wave of globalization that sweeps across economic, political and cultural fields has brought with it inspiration and a new perspective from which to understand the process of integration.

After five years’ editing, China Intercontinental Press has published a series on the art of the five major religions in China – Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Catholicism. These books include a great number of photos that elaborate on the architecture, painting, sculpture and music of these different belief systems, and also strive to show their development, heritage and influence in China.

The Goddess of Mercy, or Guanyin as she is known in Chinese, is one of the best examples of how foreign religions, Chinese aesthetics, art and secular life have become integrated and influence each other. Buddhism was the earliest foreign religion introduced to China, and Guanyin, a bodhisattva of Buddhism, has numerous believers in this country. In India, the bodhisattva is a male, while in China, over hundreds of years, the god gradually evolved into a female image in the late Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) that became the most influential goddess, known for her mercy.

The changes in the image of Guanyin were well reflected in religious art. Of the remaining Guanyin statues dating from the Tang Dynasty, many have beards. In the Yuquan Temple of Dangyang, Hubei Province, a stele with a carved image of Guanyin, which was believed to be the work of Wu Daozi, a great painter in the early Tang, depicts Guanyin bare-chested, with a handlebar moustache and beard, and holding a prayer wheel.

In the late Tang, Guanyin tended towards femininity and secularization. In several caves of the Dunhuang Grottoes in Gansu Province, Guanyin statues are plump and delicate, and wear brocade robes. In the Dazu Grottoes of Chongqing, Guanyin statues, made during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), are slender and graceful, and their physical appearance and dress are completely Chinese.

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