Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
“The Medieval Chinese Paintings of Sukhavati and its Social Context”
The spread of Buddhism and Indian Buddhist aesthetic to China via the Silk Road and its amalgamation with the Chinese traditions since first century C.E. constitute a complex cultural movement. During the 6th – 10th century, Pure Land Buddhism was introduced to and developed into a prevalent Buddhist sect in medieval China. Its doctrine of being born in the Western Paradise (Sukhavati) afterlife soon became a common view of death and a common subject for wall paintings in medieval Buddhist cave temples.
Although the notion of Sukhavati was originated in ancient India, artworks that directly refer to Sukhavati are rarely found in Indian Buddhist sites today. My SYE in art history in Fall 2012 identified potential iconographic sources of the Chinese paintings of Sukhavati from Bamiyan and Kizil, which are two major Buddhist centers on Silk Road. With the Erich H. Hanson’70 International Endowment, I travelled to Dunhuang, China, where has most of the extant Sukhāvatī paintings today, in the Winter Break 2012-13. By observing the original mural paintings and artifacts in Dunhuang, I studied what are the potential iconographic sources that Chinese artists had taken from Kizil and Bamiyan Buddhist art and how they adopted these sources in the Sukhavati paintings. The research demonstrates that the emergence of Sukhavati paintings is a result of secularization of Buddhist practice.
Dunhuang and the Rise of Buddhism
During these ten days of research, I first studied the collection in Dunhuang Research Institute of Lanzhou University, Gansu Provincial Museum and Dunhuang City Museum to understand the historical context of medieval Dunhuang. Located on the northwestern border of ancient China, Dunhuang was not only an important garrison town, but also a Buddhist pilgrimage and trading center on the Silk Road. Since 1st century C.E., the emperors of Han Dynasty sent soldiers from different areas of China to Dunhuang to secure the border. The later brick reliefs from the burials of Western Jin Dynasty (265 – 316 CE) reflect a strong influence of Chinese style and motifs, such as Queen Mother of the West, Fu xi and General Li Guang. Starting from the late 4th century, Buddhist imagery appeared on the burial objects in Dunhuang. This suggests that Buddhism had become part of the Chinese culture at the time and closely associated with their beliefs of the afterlife.
Iconography of Sukhavati Paintings
With the assistance of the Dunhuang Academy, I visited Dunhuang Mogao Cave, the Cave of Thousand Buddha and Yulin Cave and studied their mural paintings in detail. In the 6th century CE, Sukhavati paintings surged in popularity in China. Their major function is to assist Buddhists to visualize the Western Paradise when they meditate. In Dunhuang, Sukhavati paintings are part of the mural cycle of each cave. When Buddhists enter the cave, they would first worship the Buddha figure at the niche of the rear wall. Then they would encounter the Sukhavati paintings on the side walls, where used to show Amitabha’s preaching triad. Its location indicates that Sukhavati is not the major object to worship in the cave. Instead, the realistic representation of Sukhavati serves as teaching tool for less trained Buddhists to understand the notion of Sukhavati.
In terms of iconography, the scene of deified musicians performing in the balcony was common in Kizil and Bamiyan Buddhist art. According to my observation on the Sukhavati paintings, musician figures were placed at the eye level of devotee. In Kizil and Bamiyan cave temples, their ceilings often show celestial figures to indicate the ceiling as sky. In the Sukhavati paintings in Dunhuang, these figures were also presented. But at the same time, traditional Chinese deities that were presented on the local burials were also showed on the cave ceilings.
After talking to the researchers in the Dunhuang Academy, I understand that most of the cave temples with Sukhavati paintings in Dunhuang were patronized by local noble families and were used by them for generations. Buddhist laity was the major audience for the Sukhavati paintings. Apart from showing the doctrines of Sukhavati, the grandiosity of the Sukhavati scene is also a demonstration of these families’ power.
In a larger context, the caves with Sukhavati paintings only form the worshipping units of the cave temple complex. For example, in the north of Dunhuang Mogao Cave, there are more than 200 caves for residence, meditation, granaries and burials. In my visit to the Dunhuang Academy exhibition center, I studied the architectural model and artifacts from the northern district of Mogao Caves. Different from the worship halls, these caves have neither wall paintings nor sculptures. Artifacts from these caves suggests that they were used by monks to conduct their personal worship, such as copying sutras, meditate with small stupas in this region. Thus, caves with Sukhavati paintings were only a public representation of the faith and mainly used by the laity.