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Cultural History of Statues in Early China

KIM Minku

RGC General Research Fund 14619519

This project investigates the statues and their cultural implications in early China from an arthistorical
perspective. With the main objectives broadly addressing to religious, social, and
cultural problems, the project aims to contribute to the understanding of meanings and
functions of early Chinese statuary and their long-term historical development, mainly, from
the Springs-and-Autumns period to the end of Eastern Han. The latter moment is taken here
as the watershed of the inquiry not only because it generally coincides with the beginning of
the Medieval era in China, but also because from this point and onward a critical rupture in
the perception of statuary is noted along with the newly introduced catalyst of Buddhism.
Arguably, before this intervention of Buddhism, there seem no “cult statues” institutionalized
in the mainstream of early Chinese rituals. This influx of Buddhist statuary was thus an event
of phenomenal import to bring about some fundamental shift in religious practice and
material culture in the ensuing centuries. In order to take full account of this historic event, it
is prerequisite to comprehend the preceding status quo of statuary in Chinese society before
and around the moment when this crucial juncture was made. But in our previous discussion
of this transition, the factor of statuary itself has been largely and problematically omitted,
whereas many researchers have approached the rise of Buddhist statuary in terms of stylistic
and iconographic diffusion as well as of sinicization that ensued in China. Therefore, by
highlighting the centrality of statuary as a problem proper, this study exactly plans to fill in
this gap in historiography.
By statuary, I refer to three-dimensionally fashioned artifacts, whether carved, built, or cast,
principally expected to be experienced in the round. Among an array of themes of statuary, I
primarily focus on mimetic human figures. In comparison to other themes of animals or
imaginary entities, naturalistically rendered human figures are relatively scarce through the
longue durée and, if they do exist, they typically depict low social ranks. This suggests us an
important ritual and political aspect pertaining to statuary in pre-Buddhist China. Statues
functioned in service of various religious and socio-political purposes, but their possibility as
a cult object (or an end purpose of religious devotion itself) had hardly been factored in early
Chinese ritual landscape. In essence, statuary in early China was a rhetorical medium and
equipment to symbolize and consolidate prevalent social structure.

  • Conferences

    1. “The Slashed Effigy of Ding Lan: Iconophobia and Image Anxiety in Eastern Han China,” Text, Artifact and Context: A Workshop on Cultural Practices in Early China, Hong Kong Baptist University, December 13, 2017.
    2. “Early Buddhist Image-Making in China: Recent Discoveries and New Interpretations,” read at the international conference organized by Jonathan A. Silk, Chinese Buddhism and the Scholarship of Erik Zürcher, Universiteit Leiden, The Netherlands, February 12, 2014.
  • Talks

    1. “Sculpture for Worship: The Buddhist Influx and the Cult of Images in Medieval China,” Department of the History of Art, Yale University, 19 March 2012.