Chinese Buddhist paintings

Buddhism probably arrived in China during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and became a central feature of Chinese culture during the period of division that followed. Buddhist teaching ascribed great merit to the reproduction of images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, in which the artisans had to follow strict rules of iconography.

A twelfth-century catalogue of the Chinese imperial painting collection lists Daoist and Buddhist works from the time of Gu Kaizhi (around AD 344-406) onwards. However, no paintings by major artists of this period have survived, because foreign religions were proscribed between 842 and 845, and many Buddhist monuments and works of art were destroyed.

What has survived from the Tang period (AD 618-906) is an important collection of Buddhist paintings on silk and paper, found by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in Cave 17, in the Valley of the Thousand Buddhas, near the oasis town of Dunhuang, at the Chinese end of the Silk Road. Since Dunhuang was under Tibetan occupation at this time, its cave shrines and paintings escaped destruction. The largest and most elaborate paintings on silk found in Cave 17 are the paradise scenes. These show a complex array of figures in an architectural setting. There are also banner paintings with hanging streamers, representing individual Buddhist divinities. Banners such as these were carried in processions and hung from buildings.

Related galleries