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Indian Savants' Obsrvations on China

A K Coomaraswami


From the Chinese point of view the primary function of art is to reveal the operation of the Spirit (chi) in the forms of life; in India it has been said that all songs alike, whether sacred or profane, refer to God, and that he alone is the true teacher who reveals the presence of the superlative Spirit (paramatman) wherever the mind attaches itself; in Islam, it is the music of the spheres that is echoed by the human voice and lute, and every lovely form whether of nature or art derives its beauty from a supermundane source. Needless to say that these conceptions of the world as a theophany are in no way distinguishable from those of the Platonic and Scholastic traditions. In other words, the beauty of the aesthetic surfaces, or that of the natural forms of which they may or may not remind us, is always a good, but not a final good; works of art are like nuts, to be stripped of their lovely material husk, if one would see the picture that is not in the colours, just as to find nature as she is in herself (that nature whose manner of operation is imitated in art) “all her forms must be, shattered." The very purposes of art are ultimately iconoclastic; and it is precisely in this sense that anthropomorphic and naturalistic forms of art are least of all artistic, since it is no part of nature’s way to imitate her own effects; and the artist is compared to be Divine Architect precisely in this respect, that he does not work by means of ideas external to himself, but "by a word conceived, in his intellect," and judges of what things ought to be like, not by observation, but “by their ideas," which he must first of all conceive in imitable forms. The perfection of art is then indeed achieved when the intellectual operation, the art in the artist, by which he works, becomes itself the whole form of the work to be done, which then proceeds from the artist without calculation. And this is the significance of the Chinese ‘flight of the dragon," and disappearance of the artist himself. For if there be an ultimate perfection towards which all things tend, that of One the very forms of whose intellect are already lives, although not made by hands nor according to any external model - then to speak of a humanly “creative art" implies that the relative freedom and spontaneity of one who is in full possession of his art (i.e. in whom the form of the thing to be made already inheres in all its details), and the life" of the work itself (which is likewise a reflection of its author’s vitality), are truly imitations of this nature in its manner of operation and in its effects.

It is of the first importance, then, lest we misunderstand it entirely, to realize that the appearances presented by this art are not, or are only accidentally and incidentally, reminiscent of visual perceptions. There is no studying here from a posed model, nor any recording of transient effects-of light. All of the themes that belong to “genre" are foreign to this art; the nude, for example, is never represented for its own sake, but only when the theme requires it, nor can this be explained by any moralistic considerations, where sexual symbolism is freely enough employed for doctrinal purposes. Even the Chinese landscape is not a "scape" in our sense, but much rather an allusive (and only for us elusive) conversation about the conjoint principles of existence. We must not fall into the common error of seeing in ancient folk, or Asiatic arts an inadequate attempt at that kind of descriptive workmanship which we tacitly assume to have been the goal of art whenever we speak of & “evolution" or “progress" in art. We must not flatter ourselves by saying that “that was before they knew anything about anatomy," or complain that "the" rules of perspective have been ignored, forgetting that our own medical and topographical preoccupations may not have interested those whom we are considering. We must not suppose that “composition" has here been determined only by a search for comfort, as with ourselves, but realize that fin a significant art, composition is a matter of the logical relationships of parts, and that if the result is pleasing it may not be because pleasure has been pursued, but because there are principles of order that are common to thought and vision, or in other words because the truth, whether mathematical or metaphysical, cannot be otherwise than beautifully expressed. Not that all arts - even the most abstract - are not strictly speaking “Imitative", but that in art, as distinguished from descriptive and scientific figuration, “similitude is with respect to the form: and mimesis is of that sort that assumes the existence of naturally adequate symbolisms, whether visual or aural, or geometrical or natural, since in this view of life analogies are assumed on all levels of reference; and this indeed is why apparently naturalistic forms, those for example of mountains, clouds, or animals, and likewise all human relations whatever, can as well as geometrical forms be used in the communication of other than merely physical meanings.

(From The Asiatic Art; New York by The New Orient Society of America, 1965, pp. 8-10.)

Indian influence extended to China, Korea and Japan, with Indian ideas generally and Buddhist forms of art specifically, by direct and indirect routes; overland through Khotan, and by the southern sea route and through Cambodia and Campa. In China, however, where an ancient civilisation had long previously attained to a high stage of consciousness, and had found expression in a solemn and cultivated art dating back to the second millennium B.C., and where, despite the settlement of Indian traders and priests, especially at Loyang [Luoyang], there was never any question of Indian social or political domination, the situation was far other than that of Farther India and Indonesia. The Indian element in the art of the Far East is nevertheless a considerable one; for here there was not merely the acceptance of an iconography and of formulae, but the assimilation of a mode of thought; so that we have to take into account effects both of the outer form of Indian art and of an inner emotional working of Indian thought.

A Chinese contact with Indian Buddhism was made in the first century, 67 A.D. and probably earlier. Our knowledge of Chinese painting and sculpture in the third, fourth, and early fifth centuries is, however, so slight that we cannot seriously discuss the Indian, Iranian, and Hellenistic influences that may have been exerted at this time, except to point out that all are apparent in Central Asia. Between 357 and 371, however, we read of no less than ten embassies sent from India to China; and amongst Indians settled in China may be mentioned the priest Kumarajiva (383), and Prince Gunavarman of Kasmir, who is credited with Buddhist converts in Sumatra, is said to have painted a Jataka scene in Canton, and to have died in Nankin [Nanjing] in 431. In the contrary direction Fa Hsien [Faxian], travelling in 399-413 across Central Asia and entering India through the Panjab, spent six years in Magadha and Bengal, and returned home via Ceylon and Sumatra. It is certain that from at least the middle of the fourth century A.D., probably a good deal earlier, there was constant intercourse between India and China by the sea route; perhaps also by a southern land route through Burma, whereby the Indian water-buffalo was introduced to Chinese agriculture. Taking these facts into consideration with the difficulty of the northern land route, we might expect to find unmistakeable evidences of Indian influences in Southern China, as we do in Campa. Unfortunately we know very little about Chinese art in the third, fourth, and early fifth centuries. Some of the so-called Han tiles may date from this period, and it is interesting to find that while their decoration is not in general suggestive of India, some bear numerous representations of what would be called in India caitya-vrksas, not indeed railed, but rising from pedestals marked with diagonal lines; and still more curious, other representations of trees enclosed by and rising above the double roof of a surrounding building, just as in the numerous examples of Indian reliefs depicting temples of the Bodhi-druma. But if these forms are of Indian origin, it seems probable that they can only have been borrowed as decoration, and not as Buddhist symbols. There are realty no tangible evidence of Buddhist influences in Chinese art before the fifth century.

From the period of the Six Dynasties, Southern China has yielded a few Buddhist bronzes, of which the earliest, dated equivalent to 433 A.D. has been described as quite in an Indian style. The oldest known Chinese Buddhist stone sculpture, of 457 A.D., and unknown proveniarce, is regarded by Siren as derived from the early Kusana type, Mathura Museum Nos. A 1 and A 2.

According to some, too, the Chinese pagoda is nothing but a transformed Indian stupa. More likely the pagoda has been developed from indigenous forms, though under the strong influence of Indian models of the type of Kaniska's "stupa" at Peshawar, which made so great an impression on all the Chinese pilgrims.

In the meanwhile had developed the art of the Northern Wei dynasty, best exemplified by the well-known sculptured caves of Yun Kang pungang] near Ta-Tung-fu [Datong]. This is a highly original art, Chinese more than Indian or Gandharan in feeling, and no more Indian in detail than must inevitably be the case with an art representing an Indian religion. This art and its more immediate offshoots represent the flower of Buddhist sculpture in the Far East. Its formal sources cannot be directly traced, but must be in the main Gandharan, Iranian and Indian; it is most nearly related to the earlier mural painting of Tun Huang [Dunhuang].

In the transition period, sculptures at T’ien Lung Shan [Tianlongshan] are compared by Siren with Mathura types of the fifth ‘and sixth centuries, and... some may have been the work-of an Indian artist %ell acquainted with the products of the great Mathura school". In the Sui period there is clear evidence of Indian, or perhaps rather, Indonesian design in the pedestals of the great Buddhist figures at Mien-Cheu, Sze-Chwan [Mianzhu county in Sichuan province].

With the establishment of Chinese unity under the short-lived Sui dynasty, and their immediate successors the T’angs (618-906), with the development of a cosmopolitan capital at Loyang, where resided a considerable colony of Indian merchants and priests, and with the active development, from the sixth century onwards, of the trade route across Central Asia, there was established a closer connection with India and the West by land. Fa Hsien, the first Chinese pilgrim, had reached India about 399; Sung Yun [Songyun] about 518; Hsuan Tsang [Xuanzang] travelled extensively in India between 630 and 644, and is recorded to have taken back with him to China not only books, but also images and relics; lching [Yijing] travelled in India and returned to China via Indonesia ca. 671-695. In the contrary direction, Gunavarman of Kasmir, ca. 431, Bodhidharma of Southern India, ca. 529-36, of Buddhism in various Mahayana forms. In the eighth century China had direct political relations with Kasmir.

It is not surprising, then, that we find in the T’ang period a more mixed and less purely Chinese art developing, Indian (Gupta) and late Hellenistic elements crossing and intercrossing with the Chinese idioms of the Six Dynasties. There exist Chinese works of the T’ang period that could almost be thought to be Indian; just as there exist Indian and Cambodian works of late Gupta or early mediaeval date that seem to foreshadow Far-Eastern types.

Still more eclectic is the mixed Central Asian art of Tun Huang in the far west of China; this Central-Asiatic-Indian art, though its actual examples are the work of artisans rather than of great artists, forms the foundation of Chinese Buddhist art in the Tang period; and is almost our only source of knowledge for T’ang painting.

Towards the close of the T’ang period the vitality of Chinese Buddhist art is on the wane; specifically Buddhist art is becoming exquisite, over-refined, and finally lifeless. But there comes into being in the Yuan and Sung [Song] periods another kind of painting, philosophical and poetic, which is essentially a product of a fusion of Taoist and Ch’an ideas.

In the meantime Chinese influence was extending westwards (Mongol period of Persian art) and in the contrary direction Tibetan Lamaism was spreading through Mongolia and China carrying with it all its apparatus of elaborate iconography, and ritual mysteries. M. Pelliot, indeed, has remarked that “a monograph ought to be prepared, dealing with the religious art in Hindu style which was favoured in China from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century".

A specific instance of the migration of a Nepalese artist is afforded in the case of A-ni-ko, who became Controller of Imperial Manufactures at the court of Kublai Khan in 1279, and made large numbers of images and paintings for his Chinese patron. One Yi Yuan became his pupil, "studying under him the making of Hindu images", and this Yi Yuan or Lieu Yuan in turn became the author of innumerable Buddhist figures set up in all the celebrated sanctuaries of the two capitals, Shan Shang-tu and Pekin [Beijing]. Nepalese artists, too, settled in Tibet, and there produced the bronzes and temple banners which are familiar to collectors. There is in fact a common Lamaistic art which extends, from the thirteenth century onwards, from Nepal through Tibet into China, of which the creations are iconographically similar, and only to be distinguished by the gradual change of style which corresponds to the local ethnic conditions.

(From The Histoy of Indian and lndonesian Art, New York: Dover Publications, 1.965: pp. 150-55.)



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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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