Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia - Vol. 1

Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia - Vol. 1

Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia - Vol. 1

Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia - Vol. 1


The earliest Buddhist art of China can only be understood when seen in relation to a wider area comprising Central Asia and India. This is exactly the purpose of the underlying volume.

Presenting the earliest Buddhist art of China in its wider context of the Bactrian and Southern Silk Road regions in Central Asia (1st to 4th century A. D.), the author offers clarifications of the issues and new assessments regarding the cross-cultural and cross-regional interrelationships, sources, dating and chronology during these formative initial phases of Buddhism from India to China.

With over 500 illustrations, 18 in full colour, 76 drawings and 14 maps, the book offers not only an overview of this complex and important period, but also the fullest and most detailed analysis of the art: individually, within its local region, and in relation to the wider, trans-Asian scope essential for a proper understanding of this period for a wide range of disciplines.


Many historians tend to be fascinated by the primordial, the first traces of what later was to become a major movement deeply affecting the course of the history. The spread of Buddhism from its Indian homeland through western and eastern Central Asia to China in the first centuries of our era was one of such movements, and Professor Rhie is one of such historians. Although this impressive work deals mainly with art, material culture and the archaeological record, it is a major contribution to the history of Asian Buddhism, and to Chinese Buddhism in its earliest formative stage—an indispensable complement to the little we know on the basis of written sources. In fact, after reading this almost exhaustive survey of the available iconographical materials, one of the main conclusions to be drawn is that they disclose a whole world of beliefs and rituals that have little in common with the scriptural tradition of "canonical Buddhism".

Artefacts speak their own language, with its own conventions, not transmitted by an elite of scholarly monks but by nameless travelling artisans; not derived from the scriptural sources, but from some deeper strata of popular syncretism, or from portable models and prompt-book which the artisans carried with them. They constitute an independent channel of expression which often baffles the philologist. A Neptune-like seated Buddha with trident from Loulan defies any scriptural explanation; so does the common theme of the Buddha with flames rising from his shoulders. Of one of the most striking features of late Han Buddhist iconography —the association of the Buddha with the Taoist deity Xiwang mu—no trace can be found in any written source, Buddhist or secular, and there is no textual evidence for another common feature of this early "Buddho-Taoism": the part played by Buddhist figures in funerary cult. Such artefacts and images have come to light in regions where, according to our written sources, Buddhism was only introduced centuries later, such as Sichuan, Inner Mongolia, and perhaps even Japan. So far not a single object of this early period can be linked to any particular canonical scripture that is known to have been available in a Chinese translation.

Since the written tradition is of little help, the earliest products of Buddhist art (and to a large extent the later ones as well) can only be described and analyzed in their own terms, in the language of pure form and in their wider context, covering most of Buddhist Asia of the Kushan period. That is what the author has done in this work: while focusing upon a rather limited time-span, she has placed the objects in a vast intercultural setting stretching from Mathura to Ferghana, and . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.