Buddhist Sculptures from the Song Dynasty at Mingshan Temple in Anyue, Sichuan
Within the last few decades, Sichuan Province in China has been yielding large amounts of fantastic Buddhist sculptures which have been vital to our knowledge on the history of the faith in China. These stone carvings date from the late Nanbei Chao period to the Qing dynasty, a timeframe spanning some 1400 years.
For quite some time not, it has been believed that the Tang dynasty produced some of the best artworks (both religious and non-religious), but the sculptures found in Sichuan dating from the Song dynasty are making scholars reflect on this old notion.
The Buddhist sculptures found at the Mingshan Temple in Anye are some of the best examples due to their quality, state of preservation, time-span, and their greater diversity. Ignored for quite some time by scholars due to their location in the underdeveloped and remote countryside of the eastern section of the province, they have now come under the spotlight and scholars are amazed at the wealth of knowledge they have added to.
The Mingshan Temple is located in the isolated and eastern part of Anyue, situated on the peak of Mount Hutou where the remains of an old fortified temple can be found (now partially restored). There are 13 sculptural groups here, totalling 63 small and large images. The first group contains a pair of 4meter high images that are seated – a crowned Buddha and a deity clad in imperial robes, seated next to each other in a good state of preservation.
The Buddha sits in a lotus position with hands held against his chest in a local variant of the abhiseka-mudrd (guanding yin), in which the left hand clasps the right fist. His hairstyle is in the iconic bee-hive fashion with a large, embellished open-work crown.
The god seated to the right of the Buddha, “clad in the wide-sleeved and flowing robes of a heavenly dignitary, sits with both feet touching the ground. He has a youthful expression on his face and he wears an imperial hat of the traditional shape, i.e., featuring a high crown surmounted by a flat, rectangular top”. One scholar has named him Dongyue Dadi (‘The Great Emperor of the Eastern Marchmount, or Lord of Mount Tai) but does not explain why so we are still unclear as to who he is.
Group Three consists of the bodhisattva Manjusrieight minor images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas sculpted in relief on the cliff wall. Manjusrl has been carved with a benevolent expression on his face and wears a detailed carved “Five Buddha Crown”. On the cliff wall behind and above the bodhisattva is an inscription in large stylized characters reading: Xian shilifashen (The Manifestation of the Dharmakayao f Mafnjusri), something very rare as iconography in this fashion has not been found in this region.
These Buddhist sculptures have given us not only a wonderful insight into the religious history of the area, but shown that the Song dynasty artwork is just as powerful and glorious as it was under the Tang.
Sorensen, Henrik. H. (1995) Buddhist Sculptures from the Song Dynasty at Mingshan Temple in Anyue, Sichuan, Artibus Asiae, Artibus Asiae Publishers.