Buddhism arrived in China around the 1st century AD (although there are some traditions about a monk visiting China during Asoka’s reign), and through to the 8th century it became very active and creative in the development of Buddhist art, particularly in the area of statuary. Receiving this distant religion, China soon incorporated strong Chinese traits in its artistic expression.
In the fifth to sixth century the Northern Dynasties, rather removed from the original sources of inspiration, tended to develop rather symbolic and abstract modes of representation, with schematic lines. Their style is also said to be solemn and majestic. The lack of corporeality of this art, and its distance from the original Buddhist objective of expressing the pure ideal of enlightenment in an accessible, realistic manner, progressively led to a research towards more naturalism and realism, leading to the expression of Tang Buddhist art.
Following a transition under the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist sculpture of the Tang evolved towards a markedly lifelike expression. As a consequence of the Dynasty’s openness to foreign trade and influences through the Silk Road, Tang dynasty Buddhist sculpture assumed a rather classical form, inspired by the Greco-Buddhist art of Central Asia.
However, foreign influences came to be negatively perceived towards the end of the Tang dynasty. In the year 845, the Tang emperor Wu-Tsung outlawed all “foreign” religions (including Christian Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism) in order to support the indigenous Taoism. He confiscated Buddhist possessions and forced the faith to go underground, therefore affecting the ulterior development of the religion and its arts in China.
Glazed or painted earthenware Tang dynasty tomb figures are famous, and well-represented in museums around the world. Most wooden Tang sculptures have not survived, though representations of the Tang international style can still be seen in Nara, Japan. The longevity of stone sculpture has proved much greater. Some of the finest examples can be seen at Longmen, near Luoyang, Yungang near Datong, and Bingling Temple, in Gansu.
One of the most famous Buddhist Chinese pagodas is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652 AD.
During the Song dynasty (960–1279), landscapes of more subtle expression appeared; immeasurable distances were conveyed through the use of blurred outlines, mountain contours disappearing into the mist, and impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. Emphasis was placed on the spiritual qualities of the painting and on the ability of the artist to reveal the inner harmony of man and nature, as perceived according to Taoist and Buddhist concepts.