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  • Donors of Longmen: Faith, Politics, and Patronage in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Scripture
  • Michael Saso (bio)
Amy McNair . Donors of Longmen: Faith, Politics, and Patronage in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Scripture. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. xi, 231 pp. Hardcover $58.00, ISBN-13: 978-0-8248-2994-0.

This clearly written and marvelously lucid scholarly work by Amy McNair provides descriptions and illustrations of Buddhist art and sculpture in the Longmen caves and grottoes, carved from the Three Kingdoms and Sui dynasty (220-618) through the mid-Tang dynasty (618-906). The study identifies and discusses art patronage, inscriptions, and historical-textual references, following the precise and detailed textual research methodology of University of Chicago's most eminent art historian, Harry Vanderstappen, to whom the present book is dedicated. Using Vanderstappen's methods, MacNair has examined and analyzed the major artifacts of Longmen and compared her findings with all previous Chinese, Japanese, and [End Page 138] European studies of the Longmen cave grottoes. This, indeed, is no small undertaking. Longmen, located near the eastern Chinese capital city Luoyang, "contains 2,345 grottoes, 3000 votive inscriptions, and over 100,000 Buddhist statues, which range in size from a few inches to over 17 meters (56 feet) in height" (p. 1).

The Longmen (Dragon Gate) caves were sponsored by emperors and courtiers of Luoyang City in central China, during the period when emperors resided in China's eastern capital (as opposed to Chang City in Shenxi province to the west). Along with the earlier Yungang (near Datong in Shanxi province) and Dunhuang (western Gansu Province) grottoes, the caves preserve the finest and most historically important Buddhist art of medieval China. The famous Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi frequently visited the Longmen grottoes, celebrated their beauty in poetry, and asked to be buried nearby.

The value of MacNair's work is both scholarly and practically tangible. Art historians and teachers of Chinese history, religion, and philosophy will vastly improve the quality of their college lectures—and receive the undying gratitude and interest of their students—by availing themselves of the wealth of personal details preserved in the Longmen grottoes. MacNair's monumental work includes carved inscriptions, identification of the art styles, and reasons for choosing specific Buddha images.

The structure of the book is both "narrative and chronological" (p. 3), beginning with the earliest inscription and carvings in the Guyang grotto (ca. 493), up to the finishing of the forty-eight Amithaba statues added to the Great Vairocana shrine in 730. The Longmen images include a vast range of carving styles, from those imported along the Silk Road in pre-Tang times to the more ornate Chinese style that developed during the Tang dynasty and thereafter. Many of the later carvings, however, were deliberate imitations of earlier styles, showing the influence of the Hua Yen Avatamsaka Sutra and the coming of Tantric Buddhist images into China proper.

The great Vairocana image (fig. 6.1, p. 112), for instance, was chosen because of the support and political influence of Empress Wu. This interesting chapter in Chinese history is clearly described, from the period before her ascendancy to the imperial throne (as the second of China's three women emperors) to the completion of the Vairocana figure during her reign.

Two of the most famous carvings of Longmen, the Amithaba and Fifty Bodhisattvas and the King Udayana (commissioned) Buddha image, were based on texts and statues brought to China by pilgrim monks, sponsored by Lady Wei—a consort of the late Emperor Taizong—and two laymen—the Wang brothers (pp. 99-110). The Longmen caves are now the only remaining example of these images (pp. 106-107).

The caves were protected from destruction during the Cultural Revolution and were made an important cultural asset by UNESCO. They are easily accessible to students studying in China, along with the Yungang caves at Datong, the [End Page 139] Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang (of which more than twenty illustrated volumes have been published in China), and the Nine Story Tibetan Art stupa at Gyantse, which have been thoroughly studied and analyzed by the great Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci. Amy MacNair's monumental study and faultless...