Ninety feet in diameter and soaring ninety feet high, the Chinese Rotunda houses one of the finest collections of monumental Chinese art in the country. The large-scale artifacts on view are a testament to the artistic achievements of the Chinese people, particularly in early Buddhist sculpture, and the continuity of artistic evolution during the early, pre-Song periods (before 1000 CE). Gallery highlights include the Tang Horse Reliefs, the Chinese Crystal Ball, and the Buddhist Murals.
The Chinese Rotunda showcases our impressive collection of sculpture collected in the early part of the twentieth century, and unlike many of the collections at the Penn Museum, the Chinese collection mainly consists of donations and purchases rather than pieces acquired through sponsored expeditions.
Early Artistic Traditions
Pieces of sculpture from early Chinese tombs and temples are sources of information about early artistic traditions. From the Han period on, pairs of qilin–a mythical hybrid said to be descended from a lion and a dragon-were placed at the beginning of the avenue leading to the grave area of an important royal family. The qilin glorified the deceased while protecting the tomb from evil spirits. The two qilins from the Wei Dynasty (4th to 5th Century CE) which are in the center of the Chinese gallery are typical of the colossal guardian animals that lined the "spirit way" to the tombs. When complete with tail and legs, each figure would have been approximately nine feet long and seven feet high.
Chinese Buddhism is well represented in the gallery. Buddhism, imported from India probably in the 2nd century CE, reached its peak of popular acceptance in the early 6th century, particularly under the Wei Dynasty (386-535 CE) of Northern China. The Buddhist message of salvation was carried through images, stelae, narrative reliefs, and painting as well as the written word. A huge stone carving of the future Buddha, Maitreya, dedicated by a district chief in 516 CE, is a central figure of the gallery. He is flanked by a pair of 29 foot long murals (circa 1279-1368 CE) of Tejaprabha Buddha, who protects against natural calamities, and Bhaisajyaguru Buddha, who protects from untimely death, nightmares, evil apparitions, vicious animals, robbers and invading states. Nearby, four stone stelae are carved with scenes from two texts, the Lotus Sutra and the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. These texts were important to the spread of Buddhism throughout China.