Comparison between Chinese and Japanese Buddhist Art


Buddhism is considered as the most important religion in Oriental Asia. Developed from Indian roots, it has affected culture, politics, philosophy an even standards of living from last two thousand years in two most significant countries of Oriental Asia, China and Japan.

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Taken as the major religion of these two countries, the religion is very much similar in both countries. Buddhists from China and Japan both prefer artistic ways to express their feelings and thoughts. Nevertheless, with the exception of this similarity they are very much different in this expression of thoughts. Chinese Buddhism art and Japanese Buddhism arts are very different in the way of expressing their beliefs through their art.

This paper will explore the origin of Buddhist arts in China and Japan. Focused on the dissimilarity of these two arts, it will also illustrate the artistic association in both countries.

Chinese Buddhist Art

Origin and establishment

Buddhism was introduced in China during the Later Han Dynasty, it is also said that Buddhism came in China before A.D 100. This period is considered as the reign of Han rulers. It is supposed as by 300 A.D Buddhism was all spread in the country. Under Han dynasty, china became the Asian centre of power. It was also said that during this time the country became powerful and larger as the Roman Empire. During this time china was influenced by few other religions such as Confucianism and Taoism.

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Impact of these two powerful religions also influenced Buddhism in china. This was the development of various varieties of Buddhism in the nation.

These different varieties encompassed strict moral standards and ideals of rebirth and life after death, which were taught in those religions. These religions have concept of worshipping more than one God and Chinese Buddhism was very much influenced by such concepts. This is the reason behind worshipping many gods by Buddhists from China and bloom of assorted types of arts. The relevant history of the nation also influenced the expression of belief, which is much visible in their artistic skills.

During fifth and sixth centuries, Northern Dynasties started to develop Buddhist art, which was very symbolic and very conceptual with its illustration of the Buddhist culture. The northern Dynasty art was much more different than early form of Buddhist art. Early form of Buddhist art was purposed to express the enlightenment ideals in a realistic manner.  Due to this, the Buddhist art of China grew-up as a form of naturalism and realistic art that was flaunting the expression of Tang Buddhist art.

Buddhist sculpture under the Tang dynasty was more graceful than its early form. Tang dynasty was open to adapt foreign trade and other genres of art and culture. To understand a rich form of art, many Chinese Buddhist monks used to travel to India.

Presence of Indian art also influenced the Chinese art. Near the end of Tang reign in China, one of the last emperors ‘Wuzong’ had forbidden all religions other than Taoism.

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He impounded all Buddhist gods and forced Buddhists to adapt Taoism or to go underground to continue their art. Though they ran it secretly and Buddhism regained its popularity in the country. This popularity helped china in becoming the home to one among the largest array of Buddhist art around the globe. This can be proved by number of scripture filled Chinese caves; those caves are pulsating attraction for art-lovers from all around the planet. Buddhist sculptural sites such as The Longmen Grottoes and the Dazu Stone cravings are the most prominent example of the richness of Chinese sculptural art. China is abode of few the largest Buddha statues of the world, one among these gigantic Buddha statues is made by carving out a mountain.

Chinese painting is also taken as one of the most affluent painting arts of the world. At the birthplace of printing machine and paper, the art of painting is present in its most prosperous form. Illustrations of Chinese paintings can be found in old caves of nation (chiefly in 492 caves of Dunhuang). There is an assortment of frescos (wall-painting) and stucco statues at these caves. The entire area covered by frescos is measured 45,000 square meters while quantity of stucco statues is not less than 2,415. It is said that these stucco statues and fresco were made during the ‘golden age’ of Chinese history. Considered as the most notable period in the development of Chinese art and culture, the span of golden era began in seventh century and ended in ninth century. Founded by Buddhist monks, this cave is a preserver of diverse Chinese art. Frescos, present in these caves, shows pictures of flying fairy that denotes the prospect of freedom, kindness and happiness. These wall-paintings also showcase the Indian influence on Chinese art and culture. This influence developed a new artistic style, known as ‘Chinese Buddhist art’.

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Japanese Buddhist Art

Origin and Establishments

Known as the largest Buddhist country in the world, Japan came to known about Buddhism in sixth century when Buddhist monks from china and India, traveled to Japanese Islands with their religious scriptures and art. This was the establishment of Buddhism in Japan, but it was very influential. Due to a great introductory welcome, many temples and monasteries were also built in Japan just after the introduction of Buddhism in the nation.

Japanese government also supported the religion and tried to expand it in the nation with its extreme extent. The Japanese Buddhist art was influenced by Buddhist artwork from India, China and Korea. The wonderful amalgamation of many artistic skills formed a distinctive arty style. This style was defined by its realism. Japanese Buddhist art mainly flourished during the 8th century and the 13th century. This is also known as the booming phase of Japanese Buddhist art. This art was principally focused on the representation of Buddhist deities, which were combined with the influence of Hindu and Shino religion on Buddhism.

Zen art is considered as another development in Japanese Buddhist art; this art was defined by original paintings and poetry. This art is taken as an attempt to express the real essence of the earth through generalized and non-dualistic representations.

Presence of 80,000 Buddhism temples reflects that Buddhism is still the most active in the country. Unlike Chinese Buddhist art, Japanese Buddhist art is blend of many cultures.

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Arrival of a bronze Buddhist sculpture was the initiation of Buddhism in Japan. This was encouraged by the crown prince of Taishi in the Suiko reign in 500 AD (sixth century). In eighth century it was boosted by Emperor Shomu of Nara dynasty. Nevertheless, Buddhist art in Japan saw its foremost development during Heian period, this time it greatly influenced traditional Shinto arts and lately submerged that. This was the time when Buddhist art became the choice of high class of the society and exhibited a unique architecture and painting style.

The Amida sect of Japanese Buddhist art provided the basis for many great artworks of its time. As an instance, the bronze Great Buddha at Kamakura was developed.  Many famed artists of this period were monks and saints.

In accordance with the Japanese history, Japanese Buddhist art has relied on forms and techniques imported from neighbor countries such as China and Korea. Artwork of the nation has a major Indian influence too, as Buddhism Pagodas reflect tints of Indian architecture.  Japanese Buddhist art captured the best form of Indian and Korean Buddhist arts.

In the thirteenth century, a new relationship between art and Buddhism developed. This produced some of the best artistic skills ever developed in Japan. This was the era when Kegon and Nichiren sects of Buddhist art full-fledged in the nation. In this age, diverse types of painting were produced. Suijako painting is one among them, which tried to bring together the two chief Japanese faiths. These faiths were depiction of Shinto deities in the early manifestations of Buddha. ‘Eight aspects of Buddha’s life’ was made in this period illustrating Buddhist art.

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This great painting was done as a color on silk, describing the legend that Buddha was a son of queen Maya. It also shows picture of a man kneeling before a village priest to pray. In Japan, the main focus was on Paintings and poetry especially on Haiku poems to express old beliefs and thoughts through art.

Buddhism religion made a great influence on Japanese art in several ways through many periods of Japanese history. Buddhist pagodas with their halls and five storey towers built all over in Japan and gigantic sculptures of Buddha all around the nation utter presence of Buddhism in Japan.

Many artists portrayed Buddhist images. Maximum among these artists were Buddhist Lama or Buddhist priest. The scroll painting of the nation is a very popular form of Japanese Buddhist art; it exhibits replicas of lives of Buddha and bodhisattva saints, pictures of priests and other religious symbols.  Japanese Buddhist art was devided I different sects such as Amida sect, Zen sect, Heian Period, Fujiwara, Kamakura and Muromachi period. In every sect, Japanese Buddhist art and culture was developed. Japanese government made their best effort to popularize art and culture. This art and culture was highly influenced by Hindu culture, Chinese tang dynasty and Korean aspects of sculpture and painting. The Japanese Buddhist art was mainly focused on God and spirits. This artistic skilled is famed as the proper Buddhist artistic style. Few sects of Japanese art development era made this art the most impressionistic than the other types of Buddhist art. Japanese architecture is also different; this is much influenced by different sects of Japanese Buddhist art.

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Japanese Buddhist art and Chinese Buddhist art are considered as two most abundant arts of the world. Both arts are representation and expression of beliefs and thoughts. Apart from this similarity, these arts are very much different from each other.

Checkout where Japanese Buddhist art is not similar to Chinese Buddhist art –

China was introduced to Buddhism in 100 AD while Japanese came to know about this religion, centuries after its welcome in China. Buddhism came in Japan around 500 Ad or sixth century.

Buddhist art was introduced in China as a raw, which was a religious representation. This wart came in China from India. Many Chinese monks used to travel to India to know more about Buddhism culture and Indian art. Later this was adapted by them and that developed the new form of Buddhist art named as ‘Chinese Buddhist art’. In china this art was influenced by many local religions and many dynasties. But, the art introduced in Japan was not a raw form of art. Japanese came to know about an art that was better than its initial form.

Buddhist art mainly flourished in Japan during eighteenth century and thirteenth century. Earlier it was focused on art of Buddhist deities that were also combined with Hindu and Shinto influences. Shinto was the major religion in Japan before the arrival of Buddhism in the nation. This incorporation of Hindu art and Shinto art in Buddhist art gave birth to a new artistic style, which is now known as “Japanese Buddhist art”.

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In china Buddhist art faced numerous problems, as near the end of Tang Emperorship, the last emperor of this dynasty has put possession on every foreign religion including Buddhism. He forced Buddhist priests to adopt Taoism or go underground to run their own religion faiths. This is taken as the most critical period in the history of Chinese Buddhist art.

By the time, Buddhist lamas worked in a secret way and preserved their great art by cave paintings and stucco statues. These are still present in 492 caves of Dunhuang, China.

Nevertheless, in Japan, Buddhism has never seen a downfall. It was always boosted by Japanese government. They sponsored many Buddhist paintings and sculptures. Almost every Japanese dynasty encouraged Buddhism and its artistic skills. This boot is clearly visible in the appearance of Japanese Buddhist art.

Japanese Buddhist art was separated in many sects but Chinese art was not divided in any of such sects. Different sects helped in development of different forms of Japanese Buddhist art. As instance, Heian dynasty of Japan advanced the Buddhist art by blending tints of Hindu culture and Shinto culture in it. During Fujiwara period, architectural art became more decorated and ornate. This period also boasted the demonstration of actual dates in Buddha’s life. While in Amida sect, some of the greatest and most beautiful artworks were produced. This was the period when famed scroll art of Japan came in existence. Thirteenth century is supposed to be the duration of Amida sect. The beautiful bronze Amida Buddha was made in this period, as its creation year is mentioned as 1252. Zen sect was another influential sect in the development of Japanese Buddhist art.

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This period is defined as the period of paintings and poetry. It was the most prolific period for Buddhist art in Japan. This art was intended to express the fundamental nature earth through impressionistic and non-dualistic representations.

Nonexistence of such sects in Chinese Buddhist art limited its enormity. Chinese Buddhist art was immensely influenced by Chinese culture. The first Chinese art from the northern dynasties was more abstract and less realistic in comparison of the Buddhist art forms present in central Asia by that time. Buddhism art in china was much more influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. The blend of Buddhism and these two religions incorporated principles rebirth and life after death in Buddhism. Art of the nation had grown-up in accordance with these ideals.

However, Buddhism in Japan was free from such illustration.

Chinese encompassed realism into their Buddhist art and Japanese as well. Though their arts had an impact of realism, they were quite dissimilar. Chinese paid attention on the art of sculpting and painting to express their faiths and thoughts, while Japanese boasted other genres of art too. Japanese Buddhist art encouraged poetry (especially Haiku poems) to convey their beliefs. It was sponsored by Japanese government too. Nevertheless, Buddhist art never saw such encouragement in china. In china, Buddhist art was conceptual in nature while Japanese were never interested in doing conceptual art of Buddhism. Buddhist art of China and Japan were borrowed to other countries but Japanese worked on crux unlike Chinese. Chinese focused on wall-paintings and sculpting whereas Japanese form of Buddhist art was poetry and scroll painting. Despite of various dissimilarities, both arts are creative and unique expression of faiths.




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