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Reviewed by:
  • Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia. Volume 1
  • Alfonz Lengyel (bio)
Marylin Martin Rhie . Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia. Volume 1. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1999. 460 pp. Maps, 16 colored plates, 67 black-and-white plates, 381 figures. Hardcover $259.00, ISBN 90-04-11201-4.

This volume contains a discussion of Buddhist art from the Western Han through the Jin periods (part 1) and the art of West Asia and East-Central Asia (part 2). Names and terms are given according to the Wade-Giles system. (Since pinyin is the official romanization of the People's Republic, with a population of over one billion, it is perhaps advisable to supplement Wade-Giles with pinyin in either the text or glossary of a scholarly publication like this one.)

Included in part 1 is a social and political history of China at the time of the introduction of Buddhism during the Western (former) and Eastern (later) Han, along with translations of some Buddhist texts. Part 1 is larger than part 2, and this reviewer wonders why, in the second part, West Asia was treated before East Central Asia, since the latter is geographically closer to China and its history most influenced by Chinese expansion of the Western and Eastern Han periods.

China's isolation ended with the beginning of trade along the "Silk Road," which resulted in cultural and artistic influences on both China and the West. To provide security for the free flow of commerce along the trade routes, the Chinese had to keep the hostile Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) in check, and the emperors of the Han therefore established military outposts reaching out toward Central Asia. First, agricultural garrisons were dispatched; then the office of Protector General [End Page 533] of the Western Region was created. During the interregnum of Wang Mang (A.D. 8-24), the Xiongnu became more aggressive in the western region, but effective control was reestablished by the Eastern Han (A.D. 25-220).

About A.D. 67, monks from India arrived in China, and the White Horse Monastery was built in Loyang by the Eastern Han emperor Ming Di (r. 57-75). Rhie points out that from this period, for economic and political reasons, the observance of Confucian "filial piety" went into decline, while at the same time there was a resurgence of interest in Daoism. Daoist cosmology became the ideological foundation for the Yellow Turban Rebellion of A.D. 187, and this interest in Daoist thought paved the way for the introduction of Buddhism into China.

Rhie offers a substantial account of how the Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese, starting with the work of the Parthian monk An Shigao around the year 148, during the reign of Emperor Huan Di (r. 146-148). An Shi-gao's translation effort was continued by several other monks during the Eastern Han. In her explanation of the art works of this period, however, the author does not mention the correlation of art with sacred texts.

The iconography of early Chinese Buddhist statuary involved an intermingling of both popular Chinese and non-Chinese figures; in cliff art, for example, the traditional Chinese image of the "Queen Mother of the West" was given a more prominent position over Buddhist images, which were placed on a lower level. Narratives of the life of the Buddha were carved in sequence from left to right: scenes from the Buddha's previous lives (jātakas), the Buddha seated in meditation, and the Buddha in his present life (shown as a standing figure).

Rhie suggests that during the later Han, the Three Kingdoms, and the Jin periods, Buddhist statuary gradually came to resemble the Indian Mathura, Gandhara, Swat, and Afghan Kushana styles, although in a sinicized transformation—but she notes that further research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.

An evaluation of material that has been excavated in Transoxiana and Bamiyan in West-Central Asia shows elements of Hellenistic Greek and Parthian influence. Here again, the author cautions that the current comparative studies need further refinement.

The artistic production from Kashgar to Khotan in East-Central Asia shows stylistic similarities with early Chinese Buddhist...


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