Visual Culture and Buddhism

Buddhist faith is common in the Asian region. Over time, Buddhism has evolved from a easy doctrine to a complicated cosmology with several figures and symbols (Danto, 1991). This is the identical course that any religion would follow. The evolution of the Buddhist faith has seen it proliferate into an institution with specialists. Where understanding was open to all, it is now guarded by “esoteric orders” (Danto, 1991). This is the Mahayana practice. The Theravada takes the thought a little further and broadens the scope of Buddhism to a whole new degree where priests are wanted to maintain records about all the expertise (Danto, 1991). This increase in complexity of the simple faith has given rise to a different brand of contemporary Buddhism with the same tenets as the original religion.

The core tenet of the Buddhist religion is compassion to all sentient beings. Buddhist doctrine has been spread in the Asian region, with a central origin in India. The adaptation of Buddhist religion in all these other areas has given rise to variations of the same religion. For instance, the Tibetan Buddhism differs quite significantly from that in China and that in India. However, all these variations still retain some elements of similarity. For instance, all forms of Buddhism embrace visual culture as a major medium of expression. However, there is a slight variation also in how each adaptation uses the visual culture.

Visual culture refers to the use of images to represent the shared beliefs and expressions of culture. The field itself has many different objects enshrined within it. The range of expression is therefore quite broad, and a lot of information can be deduced from the visual culture of a group of people. The visual culture of any community involves a lot of artwork. Amongst people, art plays various functions. These functions are broadly classified as either symbolic or literal (Richie, 2014). Visual art is symbolic and conforms to certain standards, useful in its interpretation (Juhyung, 2003). In the case of religious groups such as the Buddhist community, art in more than just a means of self-expression. The long-standing beliefs and the cultural context of Buddhism are the frameworks within which meaning is drawn from the visual art. The visual culture of the Asian Buddhist religion exhibits a high degree of symbolism.

The Buddhist religion embraces some forms of visual culture more than others. For instance, statues are very common elements of Buddhists visual culture. Although Buddhists also have other forms of expression in visual culture such as the drawings and other sculptures, the statues of religious figures are the mainstay of Buddhist religious identity. These images can give a lot of information about an adaptation of Buddhism. Buddhist art represents concepts and truths that are considered momentous and urgent (Danto, 1991). Even in today’s worlds where Buddhism is still spreading into the western world, these aspects of Buddhist culture remain central in the religion.


An analysis of the visual culture of the Buddhist religions can show the evolution of different adaptations of the same religion from a common one. This paper explores Chinese Buddhism. China is an Asian country with one of the largest populations. Historical records show that China was a great empire that exerted significant influence over the other surrounding nations. Her numbers also gave China significant influence on other matters such as trade. However, like other Asian countries, China only adopted Buddhism. The royal prestige of the Chinese empire gave them significant social influence over affairs in the Asian region too. This paper seeks to illustrate that Buddhism is one of the fields that was also affected by this Chinese influence. Chinese Buddhism has evolved over time, as evident from its visual culture


The research applies a detailed analysis of related literature to illustrate the evolution of Buddhism in China. The selected literature is on the topic of Buddhism. The information harnessed from this compilation is then synthesized to create the historical context that influenced the evolution of the Buddhism and also to illustrate through the use of the visual art, the changing face of medieval Chinese Buddhism.

Literature Review

The intricate nature of the Buddhist religion and its rapid evolution over time have attracted much interest. Like most other Eastern religions, Buddhism is often considered a religion that connects with nature. To the scholar, the complexity of the religious establishment and the rich heritage represented in the culture is a rich subject for inquiry. Much research has therefore been conducted into the nature of Buddhism and the heritage. The literature review in this section considers the visual culture of the Chinese Buddhism under the subheadings of origins and analysis of the visual culture.


The Chinese Buddhism has grown to become a dominant religion in the region. However, Buddhism is a foreign religion in China that was only adopted and then adapted to suit the local context. Still, much about the original religion still influences the Chinese Buddhism as it did in the past. When Wang Xuance introduced the image of the Buddha in China, he did not know how readily this image would be adopted, and how fast it would grow in significance in the nation. Buddhism was quickly taken up even by the political class that propelled the religion to the center of Chinese lifestyle. A few decades later, Buddhism received its greatest momentum in Chinese history from its sanction by Empress Wu, who gladly welcomed Yijing with his collection of precious items and enshrined them in Foushouji Monastery (Choi, 2016). This practice started a long tradition of visual culture in Chinese Buddhism that serves the role of illustrating the heritage of the Buddhist belief.

While Chinese Buddhist tradition has grown to differ much from the original religion, a lot of links to the old religion are evident in the shared visual culture. For instance, the image of the Buddha seems to have undergone hardly any transformation over the years. This is a testament to a shared history between the two regions. Indian Buddhism is considered to be the origin of Chinese Buddhism based on historical textual and archaeological evidence. Buddhist images in different sections of India, such as the Sarnath region, are comparable to earlier sculptures in body typology. Kramrisch compares them to the images obtained from the site of Bodhgaya, dated back to 384CE (Ray, 2015). This period is among the earliest in the history of Buddhism.

Some significant detail in the belief system of Buddhist doctrine is also incorporated in the visual art and culture of both Chinese and Indian religion. The shared themes in the religions are more than just coincidences because of a shared connotation and textual illustration. The protector, Muchalinda, is immortalized as a snake in Buddhist sculpture. The Bodhi tree is also considered a sacred object of great significance in both religions(Richie, 2014). The subject of the lotus is common to both the Chinese Buddhist tradition and other Asian traditions. The lotus represents a coming to birth (Richie, 2014). The Buddha on the lotus in Asian tradition symbolizes the reincarnation. Furthermore, all Buddhist variations subscribe to the notion of one essence, which is best realized in enlightenment (Richie, 2014). All these elements of visual culture point to a shared origin in Buddhist doctrine.

Historical text suggests that the source of Chinese Buddhism visual culture and other belief systems lies in the adventures of one monk, Xuanzang, who traveled away from China to India, where he would collect scriptures and even study with Indian teachers (Choi, 2016). Xuanzang’s recollections in the scripture detail some of the observation on Indian Buddhism which later came to be idiosyncratic features of Chinese Buddhism. These features include the Bodhi tree, the Mahabodhi temple, and even the diamond seat (Choi, 2016). The greatest influence on Buddhist visual culture is the Mahabodhi Temple (Choi, 2016). The splendor of this structure has given itself to imitation. Although revered in Chinese belief, the archaeological evidence places these figures in Indian locations. There is also a lot of shared lore between the Chinese and Indian Buddhist belief. For instance, the instances where the image of the Buddha was made to perfection, both cultures attribute this work to the intervention of divine power (Choi, 2016). Xuanzang uses the term rhozen to indicate the life-like nature of the statues which he witnessed in India. The visual culture, therefore, points to India as the origin of Chinese Buddhism. However, adaptation over time has seen the Chinese adapt Buddhist visual culture to their setting and steer away from the original concepts.

Visual culture in Chinese Buddhism

The Buddhist lifestyle is one of asceticism. However, the followers of the religion honored Buddha and the Bodhisattva with wonderful art that is visible in many elements of the religion. For instance, historical accounts of Buddhist architecture indicate that the Buddhist temples were large imposing structures. One such temple houses up to 432 Buddha figures with 1460 relief panels (Choi, 2016). The sculptures of the Buddha were also increasing in size as the time passed. The implication of visual culture was often interpreted within a cultural context. For the Buddhist, the larger statues indicated greater honor to the Buddha. This was very much congruent with the medieval Chinese context, where the growing nation could embrace materialism even in religion.

The image of the Buddha is a central figure in Buddhist visual culture. The life of Buddha offers many lessons for the followers. Therefore, the images depicting all these stages of transformation are illustrated in art (Juhyung, 2003). The Buddha’s image converges to a definite stereotypical appearance, often considered effeminate, while those of some yogis are often frail and emaciated. Havell proposes that these differences are not just mere coincidences. Rather, they harbor some significance to the population that subscribes to Buddhism (Ray, 2015). The emaciated figures are representations of the journey to enlightenment (Ray, 2015). These yogis are trailing the path that the original teacher, Buddha, showed them. There is an emphasis on spiritual beauty that is common to all Buddhist doctrines and is often manifest in the physical (Ray, 2015)

Visual culture imposes a lot of significance to various elements of the statue. Even in Buddhist culture, the explanation of the iconographic implications of certain images is complex except in instances where the art is narrative (Juhyung, 2003). Iconography correlates the representational features of a work of art to otherworldly concepts (Richie, 2014). A lot of information can, therefore, be stored in the visual art and yet only be available to those who understand the cultural context of the art. For the image of the Buddha, the high regard attached to it makes its iconographic implications to transcend the human element and instead embrace a whole new spiritual dimension (Richie, 2014). The iconographic distinction of individual images communicated status (Juhyung, 2003). Consequently, the repeated representation of the Buddha’s image in the same form communicates a transcendence from human form. The viewers of the image, therefore, do not just focus on the physical characteristics of the statue but immerse themselves in thought to try and unravel the significance of the statue.

The very set up of the statue holds a lot of symbolic representation and meaning. Even the arrangement of the statues tells the narrative of Siddhartha Gautama and his journey to the establishment of a spiritual tradition (Richie, 2014). Symbolic features of the statue include the urna (a single curl located on the forehead and representing wisdom), the short hair representing asceticism and the bindu or the third eye being a representation of the absolute being (Richie, 2014). Elements such as the posture of the Buddha also have some meaning attached to them. For instance, the configuration of the fingers, which is referred to as mudras, relay certain spiritual meanings about Buddhist teaching. Additionally, the sitting position is considered an allegory of the spiritual journey while the standing position is considered a representation of the self-sacrifice of the Buddha when he offered to teach others to attain enlightenment (Richie, 2014).

Over time, the significance attached to the statue has grown, evolved and even changed from what it was. The Chinese Buddhists also show a great appreciation for visual culture. The great sculptures such as that in the Mahabodhi temple which had life-like qualities (ruo zhenrong) became the subject of reverence by medieval Chinese pilgrims (Choi, 2016). Xuanzang approaches this image with a deep sense of melancholy (Choi, 2016). This gesture is positive because it is a representation of the Chinese intellectual and cultural world in the seventh century. By the end of the century, the melancholy is transformed into admiration as the image becomes a replacement of Buddha rather than a representation. Therefore, medieval Chinese iconography in Buddhism was a way of transmitting Buddhist culture (Juhyung, 2003)

Chinese culture conflated with the Buddhist culture and created a variant of Buddhism. This variation had exhibits of Chinese materialism encroach into the ascetic Buddhist culture. The change is evident in the visual art. The image of the Buddha changed significantly. For instance, Buddha starts being depicted with ornaments in medieval China. This image is a contradiction to the original image where the Buddha was without any adornments. Buddhism is associated with asceticism. Asceticism is evident in original Buddhist sculptures where the Buddha has a bare shoulder (Richie, 2014). The choice to forego worldly pleasures is represented in this exposure of the body to the elements in original sculptures. However, in periods beyond the seventh century, the Buddha in China is adorned with lavish ornaments. There are crowns, bracelets, and necklaces that have grown to become a part of the image of Buddha (Choi, 2016).

Also, the Chinese depictions exalt the role of Buddha by including a larger number of followers in the sculptures of Buddha and the narration. The Chinese representation of the Buddha emphasizes his transcendent quality by use of several bodyguards and representing larger numbers of students. In the Thousand Buddha Cliff, the Buddha is represented as seating at the center of a room with several attendants, disciples, some bodhisattvas and he is well protected by guardians (Choi, 2016). All these alterations are absent in the original Buddhist visual art. This change in the iconography of the image can be traced to the period around the seventeenth century (Choi, 2016).

The image of the Buddha also assumes a new role in medieval China’s visual culture. The Buddha images beyond the seventh century do not give accounts of complex narratives. Before the seventh century, these images would appear in narrative scenes that would highlight significant events in the life of Buddha Sakyamuni (Choi, 2016). In contrast, beyond the seventh century, the function of the image changed. Instead of focusing on the journey, the new iconic representation of the Buddha emphasized the destination of enlightenment (Choi, 2016). Rather than highlight the arduous journey to enlightenment as depicted in the narratives, medieval Chinese visual art focuses on the enlightened Buddha as a state to be admired and a standard to which people should aspire.

Furthermore, the image of the Buddha grew in significance over time. In the earlier times, the image of the Buddha was merely a representation of the Buddha himself. It inspired in Xuanzang a sense of remorse for the absence of the Buddha (Choi, 2016). In later times, the significance of the image grew in China to represent more than just the absence of the Buddha. The image became a replacement for Buddha. This is closely tied to the works of the Bodhisattva Maitreya who reconstructed the image very accurately and under such unusual circumstances that he came to be thought of as the reincarnation of the Buddha. Chinese sentiment in the late seventh century, represented in Daijin and his men, is different from that in the early seventh century seen in Xuanzang. The former group felt more positive about the image and branded it “the true visage” (Choi, 2016). This title implies that the image was not just a representation of the Buddha, but rather, was the image of the Buddha himself. This became the dominant perception of the image of Buddha in China way into the eleventh century (Choi, 2016).

Other materialistic elements crept into the iconography of the Buddha in its transmission from India to China (Choi, 2016). The evolution of the image shows that there is an adoption of ornamentation over time. Xuanzang’s account relates that the ornaments were initially only used to cover up unfinished sections of the statue. Over time, the Chinese representations of the images of the Buddha incorporated the carving of adornments onto the statue (Choi, 2016). This practice has evolved to become a votive action for the Buddhist devotees who seek to attain distinction through these actions of giving ornament to the Buddha statue. This is contrary to older practices where dedication of images rather than the ornaments was for the attainment of merit (Juhyung, 2003). The intentional nature of this variation is supported by historical texts that suggest that the difference between the statues was noticed very long ago, but the Chinese chose the new adaptation over the old.

In accordance with the culture of materialism, the Chinese tradition of paying tribute to auspicious images is also politically motivated (Choi, 2016). The practice was used to reinforce the political messages, being founded in ancient Chinese beliefs of xiangrui (auspicious sign) and tiaming (divine mandate). These images are seen to sanction the regimes and inspire the corporation of the people. Auspicious images in medieval China were created with a good degree of formal latitude, which permitted some room for imagination and consequent adaptation and transformation of original images by the artist’s culture (Choi, 2016). The Chinese image of the Buddha focuses on select qualities. For instance, puti ruixiang emphasizes the enlightenment and auspiciousness. This became the dominant figure of Buddha in China in the medieval era. The puti ruixiang encompasses all the materialist changes to the original Buddha image and represents a Chinese reimagination, rather than recreation, of this same image.


Buddhism originated in the region of India and quickly spread to become the dominant religion in most of Asia. Although China adopted Buddhism from India, adaptation to the local Chinese culture produced several changes in the visual culture of Buddhism in the medieval era. One of the most notable influences on Buddhist visual culture was Chinese materialism. This quality became manifest in the new visual culture with adorned structures, fewer narratives, and bigger statues.


Choi, S.-a. (2016). Zhenrong to Ruixiang: The Medieval Chinese Reception of the Mahabodhi Buddha Statue. The Art Bulletin, 97(4), 364.

Danto, A. C. (1991, December 16). Art. The Nation, pp. 788-794.

Juhyung, R. (2003). Early Mahayana and Gandharan Buddhism: An Assessment of the Visual Evidence. The Eastern Buddhist (New Series), 35, 152-202.

Ray, S. (2015). The Effeminate Buddha, the Yogic Male Body, and the Ecologies of Art History in Colonial India. Art History, 916-939.

Richie, C. (2014). Symbolism in Asian Statues Of The Budha. IMW Journal of Religious Studies, 5(1), 32-53.

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