The Religious Art of China







Chief editor: Zhao Kuangwei

Published by China Intercontinental Press, Beijing



CHINA has the longest continuous history of any country in the world; its civilization has been in existence for several thousand years. This miraculous vitality is rooted in the culture’s impressive sense of inclusiveness. Over centuries, Chinese civilization has been absorbing and integrating the essence of exotic cultures, races or languages, no matter where they might be from. And foreign religion is no exception: Buddhism was introduced to China in the first century AD, Islam, circa the seventh century, and Nestorianism, an ancient Christian doctrine, shortly after. Since then, foreign religions have been integrated into local culture and become a part of it.

When the weekend draws near, friends will ask each other about their plans for libai tian (Sunday), which literally means “day of worship.” In rural areas, if someone has a run of bad luck, people will comment that he or she has yezhang (bad karma). Many terms of religious origins like Libai tian and yezhang are in everyday use in China.

But which religions they each come from remains a question that even experts and researchers in the field can’t answer. Precisely this situation reflects the fact that religions, whether indigenous or foreign, have merged into Chinese culture and daily life. The wave of globalization that sweeps across economic, political and cultural fields has brought with it inspiration and a new perspective from which to understand the process of integration.

After five years’ editing, China Intercontinental Press has published a series on the art of the five major religions in China – Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Catholicism. These books include a great number of photos that elaborate on the architecture, painting, sculpture and music of these different belief systems, and also strive to show their development, heritage and influence in China.

The Goddess of Mercy, or Guanyin as she is known in Chinese, is one of the best examples of how foreign religions, Chinese aesthetics, art and secular life have become integrated and influence each other. Buddhism was the earliest foreign religion introduced to China, and Guanyin, a bodhisattva of Buddhism, has numerous believers in this country. In India, the bodhisattva is a male, while in China, over hundreds of years, the god gradually evolved into a female image in the late Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) that became the most influential goddess, known for her mercy.

The changes in the image of Guanyin were well reflected in religious art. Of the remaining Guanyin statues dating from the Tang Dynasty, many have beards. In the Yuquan Temple of Dangyang, Hubei Province, a stele with a carved image of Guanyin, which was believed to be the work of Wu Daozi, a great painter in the early Tang, depicts Guanyin bare-chested, with a handlebar moustache and beard, and holding a prayer wheel.

In the late Tang, Guanyin tended towards femininity and secularization. In several caves of the Dunhuang Grottoes in Gansu Province, Guanyin statues are plump and delicate, and wear brocade robes. In the Dazu Grottoes of Chongqing, Guanyin statues, made during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), are slender and graceful, and their physical appearance and dress are completely Chinese.

Religion is a spiritual belief system of a group of people; but religious art shows the material wealth of all humankind. Zhao Puchu, a respected Buddhist activist, commented that without Christian art, there would be no European culture or Western civilization. Everyone is familiar with the outstanding Western religious works of art such as Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. In China however there are no systematic works of religious art owing to the long period that Chinese history covers, its intricate development and the abundance of individual sects. In this regard, The Religious Art in China series is a bold attempt.

The series’s chief editor Zhao Kuangwei taught at the Buddhist Academy of China and was later appointed director of the Research Center of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. He has a deep understanding of the five major religions, and deals extensively with leaders of various religions and sects, as well as prominent figures of culture and art.

The first volume published was Chinese Taoist Arts, authored by Wang Yi’e, deputy editor-in-chief of China Taoism. As a local religion, Taoism is a combination of Chinese primitive religions, folk religions and nature worship. Its aesthetic is also influenced by numerous ethnic groups in Southwest China. Therefore, the development of Taoist art is almost synchronous with that of traditional Chinese art. The book gives a comprehensive introduction to the art, and publishes for the first time images of several Taoist treasures.

China is the second home to Buddhism, and secular life here has been greatly influenced by the religion. In China there are 10 main Buddhist sects. The evolution of Buddhism was very complicated. Zhang Zong, author of The Buddhist Art of China, is a research fellow of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He elaborates on Chinese Buddhist art in the context of the spread of the religion and three major language families of Buddhism – Chinese, Tibetan and Pali, a language now extinct but widely studied because it is the language of many early Buddhist scriptures in existence. The book collates a number of precious relics that are exhibited in foreign museums.

Since Nestorianism was introduced to China in the Tang Dynasty, Christianity and Catholicism have been practiced in China for over 1,400 years. However, there are few publications on the art of the two religions and the research is lacking. Su Xile is the author of Christian Art in China, and Liu Ping, author of The Art of the Catholic Church in China. Both writers spent a lot of time collecting materials and taking pictures to show the religions’ influence on Chinese arts. In these volumes, they bring together many previously unpublished materials such as artifacts from the Nestorian Shizi Temple (Cross Temple) in Beijing, built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368), and a small bronze cross unearthed in the Ordos Grassland of Inner Mongolia.

Islam is widely practiced in China, but mostly by ethnic minority groups. These 10 groups have different customs and habits, and many different sub-types of Islam are practiced. In Islamic Art in China, Professor Yang Guiping of Minzu University of China not only presents the beauty of Islamic art in China, but also the different costumes, architectures and tombs of these ethnic groups, like the mosques modeled after the typical Chinese courtyard dwellings.

The English edition of this Chinese religious art series was published in January 2013. It is believed that the series will help Chinese and foreign readers to better understand religious art in China and its growth, and promote wider cultural communication and development.