An Early Chinese Sculpture

By: H. E. F.

Originally Published in 1934

View PDF

DECORATED stone pedestals for the support of Buddhist statues are among the best of the early sculptures of China. The Museum has for some years owned two of the most famous of these pedestals and has recently come into possession, through the Randal Morgan Fund, of a third one, a stone which is already known to many lovers of Chinese art through the rubbings which have been taken from it. This new pedestal [Plates VI, VII and VIII] is a rather simple oblong block of limestone with a slot-like socket in the top for supporting the statue, and is decorated with scenes in low relief on the four sides and with symbolic designs on the top around the socket. The striking and unusual feature of the decoration is the abundant use of the palmette design, a motive in Chinese art generally attributed to the indirect influence of Hellenistic art.

Long sides of Chinese limestone pedestal showing the Prince giving away his possessions and a variety of animals in the jungle
Plate VI — Chinese Statue Pedestal of Limestone, Fifth or Sixth Century A.D.
Museum Object Number: 34-7-1

The composition and style of carving are typical of the period called Wei, and may be tentatively assigned to the fifth or sixth century A. D., the early period of Buddhist art in China. There is no inscription by which a more definite date can be established. That the statue for which this pedestal was designed was an important one we may conclude from the fact that all four sides of the base were decorated, showing that it stood not against the wall of a temple, but on a central altar, which would allow the circumambulation demanded by the Buddhist ritual.

The low relief on the top, around the socket, features a squared version of the egg and dart motive, a border of repeated luxuriant palmette pattern, and, across the front, two slim scaled dragons, arranged antithetically, with tails intertwined and breathing out great palmette scrolls.

The front face, which is one of the long sides, presents in the middle the usual subject; two lions guarding an incense bowl which is upheld by an earth god, while on either side, at each end of the panel, stands a dvarapala, or guardian king (representing Brahma and Indra.) The lions are great shaggy creatures; their tails rise into three-fold scroll patterns. Every available space between lions, figures, and bowl is filled with palmette designs.

Side of Chinese limestone pedestal showing the Prince give away his cart to four Brahmin
Plate VII — Chinese Statue Pedestal of Limestone, Fifth or Sixth Century A.D.
Museum Object Number: 34-7-1

It is the other three sides, however, which are of special interest, for on them are presented scenes from the Vessantara Jātaka, a story of one of the Buddha’s previous incarnations. This story is related at length in the Buddhist scriptures. The future Buddha, who had been born (in India) as the Prince Vessantara, was given to what would seem to us an excessive generosity. He fell into disfavor in his father’s kingdom because he gave away to Brahmins a magic white elephant which could produce rain. For this he and his family were banished to the forest. Before leaving the city, he gave away all his belongings except a cart and four horses, with which he and his wife and their two children departed; then before he had arrived at the forest, he met five Brahmin beggars who were arriving too late to share in the disposition of gifts, so he parted with the horses and cart. While staying in the forest, he was induced to give away the only possessions he had left, namely, his two children and, finally, even his wife. For these supreme acts of generosity he was rewarded by having his wife and children restored to him and, finally, by being recalled by his father to receive his throne.

Space does not admit of an identification of every detail in the three panels on the pedestal. The first shows the departure, with the prince himself pulling the cart, in which may be seen the two children, while his wife follows meekly behind. The four Brahmins, ugly, disagreeable-looking men, have appeared at the left, and the foremost one has even seized the cross-bar between the shafts of the cart. The other two panels show details of life in the forest, where the very small mountains are overrun with very large animals: deer, bears, tigers, wild boars, monkeys, snakes, and even a buffalo are represented quite out of proportion to the landscape and to each other, yet possess amazing character and life. The contrasts between the various kinds of trees are strikingly rendered, and every space that threatened to be left empty has been filled with a palmette design. Traces of yellow ochre, dark brown, and dark red paint may be seen in several places. The limestone is of the dark gray variety, which takes a high black polish and is often called Chinese marble. The dimensions are ample, the pedestal being nearly three feet in length, two feet in width, and ten inches in height.

Chinese limestone pedestal showing the Princes two children in the jungle with animals
Plate VIII — Chinese Statue Pedestal of Limestone, Fifth or Sixth Century A.D.
Museum Object Number: 34-7-1

Dr. J. C. Ferguson, who knew this stone only through rubbings, gave its provenance as Li Ch’eng, near the eastern border of Shansi. Li Ch’eng is a hsien in Lu-an Fu, and is about sixty miles due west of Yeh, the capital of the Northern Ch’i dynasty, which was a great center of Buddhist sculpture in the middle and last half of the sixth century.


Cite This Article

F., H. E.. "An Early Chinese Sculpture." Museum Bulletin V, no. 2 (March, 1934): 48-53. Accessed April 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to