The Ssu-Wei Figure in 6th century Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

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The Ssu-Wei Figure in 6th century Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

The Ssu-Wei figure is a pensive figure in Buddhist iconography that spread from China to Korea and then onto Japan. It is a pensive figure which differs from other Chinese figures in his clothing and his posture.

He sits on a high stool with his right leg crossed over a pendant left leg; his left hand rests on his left foot while he gently touches his right cheek with one or two fingers of his right hand. He wears a tunic that is tightly belted at the waist with a flowing skirt. A large torque encircles his neck and will generally wear a small crown with long trailing ribbons.

These figures were generally positioned on smaller altars “capped by entwined dragon trees filled with apsaras, stupas, and other images. They are frequently attended by bodhisattvas, monks, and figures wearing conical caps; images of spirit kings”.

These figures evolved in north India, in the Gandhara, sometime in the 4th century BCE. They are closely rated to the sculptures found at Mathura located to the southeast of Gandhara and there have been painted versions of the Ssu-Wei figures on cave walls in Central Asia at Kucha and Kizil.

The earliest Chinese portrayal of a Ssu-Wei figure was on a small bronze hand mirror that was found in Japan and dating to the 4th century CE.

Ssu-Wei figures are heavily featured in Buddhist iconography, especially during the 5th century CE and can be found in temples all over China, including the cave-temples at Tun-huang in Kansu province and at Yun-kang in Shansi province. At this point, they are shown being seated separately, sometimes with a kneeling horse, or with as attendants to Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.

During the 6th century, however, they have only been found so far in only two of the caves at Lung men in Honan province: once in the Wei-tzu Tung (516-528) and twice in the Lien-hua Tung (516-528). At both sites, these representations are the centre of a procession of patrons promoting the development of the cult of the Ssu-wei figure in the later part of the 6th century in these parts.

“The confusion between ssu-wei figures and Maitreya found among the inscribed sculptures from Hsiu-te Ssu is symptomatic of the uncertainty centring on the iconography of the pensive figure in Chinese Buddhist art. The term ssu-wei has a long history in China. In non-Buddhist literature, it first appears in the biography of Tung Chung-shub in the Han Shu in reference to his consideration of the past; while in Buddhist writings it was originally found in the title of a lost sutra entitled the Ssu-wei Chingy which is believed to have been translated by the prolific Parthian monk An Shih-kaoe in the second century”.

Ssu-wei has not been found as an epithet of a Buddha or a bodhisattva in the extant version of the Chinese Tripitaka and, because of such, it is hard to know what the Ssu-Wei figure really means – making it one of the most tantalizing issues of Buddhist iconography.

Bibliography:

Leidy, Denise Patry (1990) The Ssu-Wei Figure in Sixth Century A.D. Chinese Buddhist Sculpture,  Archives of Asian Art, University of Hawaii Press for the Asia Society.

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