The art of Buddhist figures in China took shape with the introduction of Indian Buddhism. The legend had it that on a certain night of the year 60, Ming Emperor Liu Zhuang in Eastern Han dreamed a golden man without knowing where he came from. The next day, the emperor called his subjects together to explain the dream. A minister named Fu Yi said Xitianzhu (in ancient India) had such a sage called Buddha dressed in gold. What the emperor had dreamed must be the Buddha. Then the emperor sent one of his attendants, Cai Yin, with thousands of soldiers, to Tianzhu on a diplomatic mission to seek Buddhist doctrine. In 67, they returned to China with Buddhist scripture and figures. This was the first record on China's Buddhist figures in ancient books, but it didn't tell what kind of figures they were. From the existing stone sculptures and pottery Buddhist figures, we will find that the Han people carved them according to the images of celestial beings in vogue at that time.
In the Five Dynasties and 16 States, Buddhist figures in Chinese style began to show up. They were not reliefs or shallow-carved images attached to other objects, but whole Buddhist figures with complete body structure. The statues, however, still followed the suit of Indian models.
In the Northern Wei period, the art of Buddhist figures flourished and began to shake off trace from ancient India. At that time, emperors believed in Buddhism which resulted in a nationwide practice to cast figures. The early works were greatly influenced by the Indian arts. The most attractive was two gold-plated copper buddhas sitting abreast. Hebei region was then the figure-carving centre and had gathered many skillful craftsmen from the country. Among the Yungang Grottoes we found many ancient outstanding works.
Figures of the middle of the Wei Dynasty changed a lot in that Buddha's faces which once had been plump and decorous became fine and decorated. In the late Northern Wei, Longmen style which laid stress on realness and meticulosity became the main stream in Buddhist figure carving. The works presented fine workmanship and a realistic approach. In the era of Xiaoming Emperor, this exciting artistic style was widely accepted as a rule for the then figure-carving craftsmen to follow.
Buddhist figures in Western Wei not only preserved the delicated and elegant bearings of Northern Wei but also were permeated with more artistic interest of life. The varied looks and unrestrained carriage were most fully displayed in the Grotto Temple on Maijishan Mountain.
Figures in Northern Qi were known for changeable techniques of expression and characterization. The combination of Buddhas and their family dependents presented a colourful Buddhist world. More attention was paid to the sense of beauty against the gorgeous back light.
Early arts of Buddhist images in the Sui Dynasty carried on part of the Northern Dynasty style. At its mature period of stone carving, Sui Dynasty produces many outstanding Buddhist statues with unique characteristics and dignified gestures and magnificent dress.
When it is the Tang Dynasty, Buddha images were dressed in clothes so thin and light as if wet gauze sticked to the body. The half-naked body was well-developed, assuming a projecting and clear arc line from breast to waist. This feature in curved body line became an important rule to judge carving works of Tang Dynasty from those of the others periods.
Carved Buddha image works of the Song Dynasty were inferior to those in the Tang Dynasty in terms of number and scale. But new development was made to techniques of expression. Artists with superior skills characterized many figures with profound psychology and personality reflecting real life.
A broad review of China's carving arts of Buddhist figures showed that figures mainly followed the Indian styles at the beginning. The Northern and Southern Dynasties made some essential changes and improvements. China's first generation of Buddhist images with Han characteristics were thus created. Transforms of Bei Qi and the Sui Dynasty helped the Tang Dynasty create a new peak of Buddhist figure carvings. This exotic art was finally localized and became popular. In the Song Dynasty, religious colour on Buddhist figures graduated faded and common delights of life were reflected. That is the main development of China's carving arts of Buddhist figures.