Tuesday, August 21, 2012


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The Sung Dynasty has been referred to the ¡§golden age¡¨ of Chinese culture. It immediately precedes the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty, which the West associates with time of Marco Polo¡¦s expeditions. Sung Dynasty rulers were content to be masters of China itself, unlike the preceding Tang Dynasty, whose rulers had great expansionist tendencies and brought Central Asia into their political and cultural orbit. China, during the Sung Dynasty, looked inward to herself. Traditional ideas in art forms and religious thought were now modified and made more truly Chinese. Buddhist philosophy was fused with the meditative mysticism of native Chinese Taoism.

Over 00 years of Sung history is divided into the two periods of Northern and Southern Sung. Because of the barbarian occupation of northern China the second half of the Sung rule was confined to the area south of the Huai River. Artistic and intellectual output increased enormously. Sung thinkers turned back to the Confucian classics, attempting to purge them of Han and Tang accretions. The resulting Neo-Confucianism was most concerned with good government, and the hierarchical but compassionate ordering of society. Yet, this era was also heavily influenced by Buddhist ideals of compassion and kinship with all sentient beings and by the Buddhist/Taoist concept that the two are mutually interactive, making Sung the most egalitarian of all periods in China¡¦s dynastic history.

Icons created for new Buddhist establishment give sufficient evidence of sculptural creativity during Sung. Guanyin was the most popular deities at that time, particularly in the newer embodiments based on the Lotus and Flower Garland sutras. Over time, Guanyin combined major elements from Chinese folk culture, including a growing feminization of the image type and its increasing association with aid in conception and childbirth.

Guanyin (Kuan Shih Yin) was first known as a male figure; it was not until later that it was perceived as a female. The reason for this change was the ultimate nature of the Guanyin. It is a kind soul that never turns a person in need away. There were stories of miraculous things happening when the common people called on Guanyin. People usually see women as kindly and merciful. So it would only make sense to people to have a feminine form to look up to. It gave the people a sense of calmness. Another reason for this change is that many women believed in Guanyin and look to her for strength in times of injustice. It would only be logical for Guanyin to be a woman.

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Guanyin (or Avalokiteshvara) is a saintly Buddhist figure of Indian origin. Known in the West as the Goddess of Mercy (circa 706 A.D.). Guanyin, an all-powerful enlightened being. Bodhisattvas are those beings who have progressed spiritually to the point of enlightenment, yet choose to remain on earth to help others reach similar spiritual heights (he who hears the cries of the world or kuan looks on, Shih the region of sufferers Yin whose voices ask salvation from misery). Chinese people were not able to fully understand and welcome the concept of enlightenment, which was established originally from India, because it did not have much appeal to them. Enlightenment required an individual to detach himself from family relations and all material things. This seemed a little far-fetched for the Chinese because family has always been an important part of a person¡¦s life. Therefore, Guanyin was perceived as a gracious bodhisattva who they could look up and relate to. To pay reverence to Guanyin there need not be a detachment to family. The Chinese people has selectively admired a deity that best suites them. Unlike the Buddha, the bodhisattvas are decorated with jewelry to indicate their ties to this world. Buddha, a creature that has reached ultimate enlightenment, meaning that it has moved from the living world to a world of utopia without the need of personal possessions. That is why bodhisattvas have an elaborate dress and possess to show their connections to the world. People were able to easily connect and relate themselves to such image of Guanyin. At the time of the Sung, people dressed elaborately, with lots of color and jewelry. This is then reflected on the dress of the ¡§Guanyin¡¨ in the Museum.

Here, we see that culture strongly affected the artistic form of a religious deity.

¡§Guanyin¡¨ consists of all the elements and concepts I have mentioned above. During the Sung Dynasty, the Guanyin became a special patron of women and object of a separate cult. These sculptures were beautifully polychromed and well-preserved seated figures, enhanced by their sharply undercut and swirling draperies. Also, the traditional masculinity was softened by soft skin and contours, charm of bearing, and beguiling smile, which create a sensation of femininity.

¡§Guanyin¡¨ was carved of soft wood, which has been covered with a gesso-like composition, and in parts, layers of paper, then painted and gilded. The figures calm, sensitive face and informal posture of royal ease express both compassion and strength. She was sitting down with her right arm resting on her right knee showed that she was relaxed and welcoming. Her arm seemed to be reaching out to her followers and believers. It showed that she was kind and compassionate without a sense of solemnity. Her ornate, princely attire is sculpted from interlocking blocks of wood, carved, painted, and gilded to convey the movement of gently flowing silk. Her royal costume betrays the Indian origin of Buddhist iconography; for she wears an elaborate necklace, head piece and scarves over the shoulders, the garb of an Indian Bodhisattva. However, the sculptural form itself, a symphony of elegant curves, is the very essence of the Sung art of China.


1. Far Eastern Art, Sherman E. Lee, Chap. 14, pg. 58-8

. Website http//www.artfaces.com/artkids/oriental.htm

. Website http//www.bergen.org/AAST/Projects/ChinaHistory/SUNG.HTM

4. Website http//www-chaos.umd.edu/history/imperial.html#song

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