China's Communist government is officially atheist but the country's 5,000-year history is rife with religions, relics, superstitions, spiritual practices and sacred statues. China was an intellectual and artistic powerhouse as well as a great trade nation, influenced by many cultures. Buddhism, imported from India with its ritual statues of the Buddha and saints, became even more popular than native Confucianism and Daoism. But statues, reflecting the advanced artistry of China, are part of every religious practice.
Confucius, the Dao and the Buddha
Confucianism, considered one of the four main Chinese religions, is not strictly a religion but a philosophy and path of ethical conduct. Venerated temple statues are representations of the sage himself or esteemed members of his family. Daoism is both philosophy, stemming from the writings of Lao Tzu, and a nature-based religion with many gods and goddesses. Daoist religious statues embody legendary and mythological figures such as the Dipper Mother, an ancient Daoist queen who gave birth to the Big Dipper constellation. But they share important deities with Buddhism -- Guanyin is the goddess of mercy in both credos. Statues of her share features with Avalokiteshvara, the Indian bodhisattva of compassion. Buddha statues in stone, wood, bronze, gold and porcelain are everywhere in China, carved into mountains and enshrined in temples.
Folk religions feature their own indigenous statues and practices, most concerned with protection, good harvests, health and prosperity. On local feast days, important religious statues are adorned with flowers or flowing robes and paraded through the square or carried in procession to a temple or shrine for a devotional ceremony. Mazu is a widely-revered folk goddess whose popularity has won her a place in both the Buddhist and Daoist pantheons. But she is foremost a folk hero, credited with protecting ships and fishermen from the sea. On Meizhou Island in Fujian province, the legendary birthplace of Mazu, her birthday has been honored for more than a thousand years with a festival in Wenxing Square where all the Mazu statues from surrounding villages are displayed together for ritual dancing and singing and then paraded around the island as devotees tuck money offerings into their robes.
Careful examination of museum artifacts shows that the practice of creating hidden cavities inside religious statues was common. The Metropolitan Museum of Art used X-rays to determine where an 11th-Century seated Guanyin statue had been restored or repaired. The inspection revealed two secret chambers concealed inside the statue's head and chest where precious objects -- relics, consecrated items or small scrolls -- could be secreted. For less important statues, a common procedure was to hollow out a small cavity on the back of the statue, insert a slip of paper containing a prayer or intention and fill the opening with a plug of the same material -- wood, clay, stone or metal -- so the prayer would remain an active supplication within the statue.
The Cave Collection
The Mogao caves at Dunhuang on the Silk Road are a great wall of hundreds of individual Buddhist shrines carved out, decorated and used for worship from the 5th to the 14th Centuries. The caves were bright with colorful wall murals, jewel-encrusted Buddha and bodhisattva statues, painted silk wall hangings and other treasures. Many of the more than 2,000 cave effigies are clay, modeled over wood frames, but the larger statues have a stone core. They were painted in polychrome with distinctly Chinese facial characteristics and arranged with a great Buddha in the center, flanked by slightly smaller bodhisattvas. The walled-up Library Cave was packed with thousands of scrolls containing Buddhist sutras and accounts of domestic life, trade and history. When it was discovered in the early 20th Century, western archaeological plunderers removed all the scrolls and portable artwork they could divert to European museums, including a nearly three-foot tall statue of a kneeling Guanyin.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Chinese Religious Sculpture
- NPR: China's Leaders Harness Folk Religion For Their Aims
- Smithsonian Institution: Promise of Paradise - Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture
- John Carroll University: Cave Temples
- Art Institute of Chicago: Divine Manifestations of Yin - Goddesses and Female Saints
- Michigan State University: Windows on Asia
- Cave Temples of Mogao; Whitfield, Whitfield and Agnew
- China Photos/Getty Images News/Getty Images