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Chinese Steles

Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form

Dorothy C. Wong

Publication Year: 2004

Buddhist steles represent an important subset of early Chinese Buddhist art that flourished during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (386–581). More than two hundred Chinese Buddhist steles are known to have survived. Their brilliant imagery has long captivated scholars, yet until now the Buddhist stele as a unique art form has received little scholarly attention. Dorothy Wong rectifies that insufficiency by providing in this well-illustrated volume the first comprehensive investigation of this group of Buddhist monuments. She traces the ancient roots of the Chinese stele tradition and investigates the process by which Chinese steles were adapted for Buddhist use. She arranges the known corpus of Buddhist steles into broad chronological and regional groupings and analyzes not only their form and content but also the nexus of complex issues surrounding this art form—from cultural symbolism to the interrelations between religious doctrine and artistic expression, economic production, patronage, and the synthesis of native and foreign art styles. In her analysis of Buddhism’s dialogue with native traditions, Wong demonstrates how the Chinese artistic idiom planted the seeds for major achievements in figural and landscape arts in the ensuing Sui and Tang periods.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Chinese Buddhist sculpture, eloquent and deeply moving, has gradually entered the awareness of the Western public at large. Though scorned for millennia by Confucian scholars in its homeland, reviled in this century by Marxists and Maoists, and slighted by Western connoisseurs...

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pp. xiii-xiv

The subject of Buddhist steles as the topic of my doctoral dissertation at Harvard was originally suggested to me by John M. Rosenfield, to whom I owe the deepest gratitude for his inspiration and guidance as a teacher and mentor through the years. Wu Hung, my other advisor under whom I completed the dissertation, has...


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pp. xv

Dynastic Chronology

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pp. xvii-xviii

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pp. 1-23

Buddhist steles—upright stone tablets carved with Buddhist images and symbols—flourished only for a short period during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Considering the enduring history of Chinese steles, which have been in use from the first century C.E. until modern times, the phenomenon of Buddhist steles represents...

Part I: Traditional Chinese Steles and Their Buddhist Adaptation

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Chapter One: Ancient Roots of the Chinese Stele Tradition

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pp. 15-23

Since the first century c.e., the Chinese have used steles, or flat stone slabs, as symbolic monuments. The adaptation of these slabs for Buddhist purposes in the fifth and sixth centuries represented only a brief episode in the long history of the Chinese stele tradition. ...

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Chapter Two: The Origins and Rise of Han Steles

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pp. 25-41

In the latter part of the Han dynasty, the stone stele called bei became widely used in China. The stele, or tablet, was a flat stone slab of regulated size and shape and was usually engraved with an inscription. Han bei served funerary, commemorative, or edifying purposes, and espoused the values of Confucianism. The popular use...

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Chapter Three: The Origins of Buddhist Steles under the Northern Wei

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pp. 43-60

The origins of Buddhist steles can be traced to two momentous events that occurred during the last two decades of the fifth century: (1) the emergence of Buddhist devotional societies and (2) the first appropriation of Chinese tablets for Buddhist use. These two events are documented at two principal Buddhist cave-temple sites associated with the Northern Wei: Yungang at Datong...

Part II: The Flourishing of Buddhist Steles

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Chapter Four: General Characteristics of Buddhist Steles

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pp. 63-70

As mentioned in the introduction, the terms for Chinese Buddhist steles are “beixiang,” “xiangbei,” and “zaoxiangbei,” referring to the use of the Chinese tablet as a surface on which to carve Buddhist imagery. These Buddhist stone slabs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In what follows I describe the typology of Buddhist steles and their general characteristics using the conventional...

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Chapter Five: The Initial Flourishing of Buddhist Steles in Shanxi

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pp. 71-88

This chapter examines the initial flourishing of Buddhist steles in the Shanxi region, the center of the Northern Wei empire’s political rule as well as religious and artistic enterprise. This group of votive steles from Shanxi, circa 500–530, exhibits a broad range of form and an iconographic and stylistic idiom characteristic of late Northern Wei Buddhist art. After a summary...

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Chapter Six: The Maitreya Faith and Henan Steles

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pp. 89-104

The discussion of Shanxi steles in chapter 5 introduced some principal themes of late Northern Wei Buddhist art and motifs, such as those of the Thousand Buddhas and Buddhas of the Three Ages, which explore the concept of buddhahood as it developed in Buddhist thought. This chapter focuses on steles from the Henan region...

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Chapter Seven: The Shaanxi School: Buddhist-Daoist Elements and Ethnic Diversity

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pp. 105-120

The Guanzhong plain in Shaanxi province is one of the oldest and most significant centers of Buddhist steles. Guanzhong, literally known as “the land within the passes,” refers to the rich alluvial plains created by the Wei River (a tributary of the Yellow River), which runs from west to east, and the Luo and Jing rivers, which flow southward, draining into the Wei River. The territory is marked by the towering...

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Chapter Eight: Buddhist Steles from the Gansu-Ningxia Region

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pp. 121-134

The Gansu-Ningxia region in northwest China was an important regional center of Buddhist art in the fifth and sixth centuries, nurtured by the international traffic and cultural exchanges between East and West along the Silk Road. The concentration of Buddhist cave-temples in the region attests to the widespread practice of Buddhism...

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Chapter Nine: Monumental Complex Steles and Further Developments in Mahāyāna Buddhist Iconography

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pp. 135-150

By the second and third quarters of the sixth century, the development of Buddhist steles had entered its mature phase. Earlier types such as the single-niche stele and the Thousand Buddhas stele continued, but these tended to be repetitive and mostly originated from conservative, rural areas. Stylistic and iconographic innovations...

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Chapter Ten: Sichuan Buddhist Steles and the Beginnings of Pure Land Imagery in China

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pp. 151-174

A perplexing aspect of the Buddhist stele phenomenon is the relative absence of these stone slabs in southern China. On the whole the south was less populated, but textual sources attest to the widespread acceptance of Buddhism in the south as well as the north. Jiankang (present-day Nanjing), the southern capital of the

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Conclusion: Buddhist Steles as a Symbolic Form

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pp. 175-179

This book has investigated the phenomenon of Chinese Buddhist steles, a brief yet brilliant episode in the history of the Chinese stele. It examined where, when, and how this hybrid art form came about, charting the evolution of the art form from its inception in the late fifth century to its demise at the end of the sixth century. ...


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pp. 181-198


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pp. 199-205


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pp. 207-220


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pp. 221-226

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861872
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824827830

Publication Year: 2004