On the intercalary month of the tenth year of the Tianbao reign, Bhikkhu Yuxian, Bhikkhu Daoyou respectfully made a white jade [marble] statue for His Majesty the Emperor, and also for teachers, monks, men and women; all living beings of the Dharmadhatu, with souls and conscious, together attain Buddhahood over time.
The Northern Qi dynasty (550-577) was one of the most vibrant periods in the history of Chinese art, both religious and secular, as its openness towards foreigners, their ideas, beliefs and goods immensely enriched the local cultural climate. It was within this cosmopolitan climate that Buddhist sculpture experienced perhaps its most glorious moment. While in the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), manners of depiction were adapted from traditional South and Central Asian prototypes, in the Northern Qi they had matured and developed into distinctive native styles. However they still emanate the seriousness of strong religious beliefs, which were rooted in the political instability of the mid-sixth century, and had not yet moved towards the pleasant and more decorative imagery of the Tang dynasty (618-907).
The present stele is carved in the simplified style of carving in white marble found in Quyang, Hebei province, and is particularly notable for the sensitively carved face of the main figure. It features the region’s characteristic overall shallow relief treatment, with only the hands protruding in higher relief. The smaller attendant monks are carved in shallower relief and with even more restraint in detailing, creating a sense of harmony and veneration. The Palace Museum, Beijing, holds 251 pieces of similarly carved sculpture from Xiude Temple in Quyang which was excavated in 1953-54, of which a larger related figure seated in a pensive pose, inscribed and dated to the second year of Tianbao (corresponding to 551), is illustrated in Feng Hejun and Da Weijia, ‘Si.Tan. Hebei quyang xiudesi yizhi fojiao zaoxiang kaogu faxian’, Forbidden City, 2017 (5), p. 117. Of these Xiude Temple figures, more than 100 are inscribed with Northern Qi reign names.
Further related carvings of a central pensive figure flanked by attendants include one, in the Hamamatsu City Museum of Art, Hamamatsu, inscribed and dated to the eighth year of Tianbao (corresponding to 557), illustrated in Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku Bukkyō chōkoku shiron [Historical survey of Chinese Buddhist sculpture], Tokyo, 1995, vol. 2, pl. 396, together with two further examples, but more modestly carved, pls 429 a and b.
The pose of the central figure, seated with one leg down and the other crossed with the foot resting on the other knee, is known as the ‘pensive pose’ and is one of the most iconic Buddhist images of the period. Unless specifically named in inscriptions, the identity of figures seated in this particular pose has been the subject of debate and has traditionally been recognized as either Prince Siddhartha (later the Buddha Shakyamuni) or the bodhisattva Maitreya. While in the fourth and fifth centuries this pose was indeed used to represent the former, after 550 it was increasingly used in conjunction with Maitreya worship (see the catalogue to the exhibition China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004, p. 266).
According to Eileen Hsiang-Ling Hsu, in her detailed and illuminating analysis ‘Visualization Meditation and the Siwei Icon in Chinese Buddhist Sculpture’, Artibus Asiae, vol. 62, no. 1 (2002), pp 5-32, the social and political upheaval of the sixth century fueled the popularity of the belief in Maitreya and the hope of entering his Western Paradise, Tusita. The proliferation of pensive images coincided with the widespread practice of visualization meditation, whereby these sutras required devotees to participate and engage in a specific method of mental concentration which relied upon viewing or seeing specific objects and symbols in order to achieve their goals. The central text on visualizing Maitreya was the Foshuo guan Mile Pusa shangsheng Doushuaitian jing (Sutra on Visualising Maitreya Ascending to Tusita as Expounded by the Buddha), translated by Juqu Jingsheng in the middle of the fifth century. Hsu notes that the ‘creative Chinese patrons adapted the pensive image found in traditional Buddhist iconography, affixed the word siwei [‘think’, ‘contemplate’] to it and in the end gave the icon a new purpose… [T]he new image now represented the pious Maitreya devotee in seated meditational posture visualizing… himself in the company of Maitreya in Tusita’ (op. cit. p. 27). This visualization is significant because most meditation chapels were artistically decorated and physically furnished as Buddhist paradises. Thus, followers of the Maitreya cult commissioned such siwei figures to be enshrined in temples in the hope that by having these made they and their loved ones could be completely liberated from the suffering brought about by rebirth by being reborn in Maitreya’s Tusita heaven.
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