Chinese Sculpture

Early Chinese sculptures, as well as Korean and Japanese sculptures, differed from India and other south-east Asian regions in the use of impermanent wooden structures as opposed to stone temples. A large percentage of early Chinese sculpture is Buddhist, with images produced mostly from wood or terracotta. Later, the Chinese sculpted stones to look like guardian figures to protect spirit paths. This tradition of stone-carved guardians continued from the Han through the Qing Dynasty and often the stone statues were created in pairs.

The Ming and Qing imperial tombs contain stone carvings of guardians and animal figures that are formal in appearance. These massive Chinese sculptures were emulated with many smaller-sized sculptures and can be seen in lesser tombs throughout China. As far back as the 5th century BC, the Chinese were creating Buddhist stone statues, which still survive in numerous cave complexes, the best known being Yungang and Dunhuang. These caves were often frequented by Buddhist pilgrims and contained many images set in niches and stone carved relief against the walls. The Chinese sculpture around that period (the Northern Wei Dynasty) are slender, stylized, depictions with exaggerated flowing garments.

By the time of the Sui Dynasty, the garments of the sculpture of the Chinese contained much simpler looking garments and the figures had more mass. During the Tang Dynasty, Chinese sculpture can be seen changing again, with Buddhist images being rounder and more realistic portrayals. The figures had tightly coiled hair, long earlobes and heavy eyelids. The majority of early large sculpture was made of wood or dry lacquer.

The introduction of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in China necessitated the depiction of Bodhisattva sculptures with a much more complex iconography than existed under Hinayana Buddhist thought. These Chinese sculptures were often fashioned out of wood or bronze and were marked by their long, flowing scarves, ornate necklaces, and garments draped across the torso in stylized folds. In the 20th century, large numbers of stone figure sculpture was carved in China with the more popular subjects being Buddhist lions and figures of Guanyin.