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Faculty Voices: Where India and China Meet

1Where India and China Meet: Buddhist Art Exhibition in Palace Museum, Beijing  

By Jinah Kim, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University

Kim received a SAI Faculty Grant for her research on Indian painting.

A first major loan exhibition of Indian art in Beijing, China is currently held in the majestic Meridian gate tower of the Palace Museum (September 28, 2016- January 3 2017) of the Forbidden City (see a virtual tour of the exhibition here.) “Across the Silk Road: Gupta Sculptures and their Chinese Counterparts during 400 to 700CE” is an ambitious exhibition conceived by the senior curatorial fellow of the Palace Museum, Dr. Lou Wenhua, after his visit to India over 3 years ago. Fifty-six sculptures from nine Indian Museums are on display against a red backdrop in one gallery, while two adjacent galleries are filled with over one hundred Chinese Buddhist sculptures against blue backdrop. Bringing this exhibition together is an impressive feat by the organizers in Beijing, which, of course, was not possible without collaborative efforts from many museum personnel and officers in India.

When the China-India bilateral relationship is not as rosy and warm as anticipated (i.e. India’s failed entry into the NSG at the Seoul plenary, CPEC [China Pakistan Economic Corridor] developments—part of President Xie Jinping’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Maritime Silk Road projects), the exhibition reminds us of the age old connections between the two countries, notably activated and solidified through the transmission of Buddhism. It also opens up new possibilities of trans-regional connections for the future that may benefit tremendously from mutual understanding of each other’s culture and history.

The time frame of the exhibition, from 400 to 700CE, is the period in which three Chinese monk-pilgrims to India, Faxian (337-c.422CE), Xuanzang (602-664CE) and Yijing (635-713CE), visited India.  Their travelogues are enthusiastically mined as indispensable records for understanding the history of Indian Buddhism and the history of early medieval India, at times unfortunately without any critical consideration of the Chinese monks’ own cultural prejudices and political motivations. The exhibition heralds “Gupta sculptures” as its main anchor perhaps unwittingly perpetuating a notion of the Gupta period (Gupta dynasty: c. 320-550) as the “classical” or “golden” age of Indian Art, formulated during the early twentieth century.  However, the selection is commendably wider in scope in terms of the range of dates and the variety of iconography (from a circa third century Buddhist sculpture, to a circa fifth century Jaina stele, to circa seventh century Hindu sculptures).

2The Palace Museum and the Forbidden City Cultural Heritage Conservation Foundation organized an international symposium to accompany the exhibition. I was invited to participate in it as an expert on Indian Buddhist art along with other foreign scholars from India and elsewhere (including Professor Leonard van der Kuijp from Harvard) and was met with generous hospitality. The three-day symposium was packed with speakers presenting on a variety of topics with about two thirds of papers on Chinese Buddhist sculptures of the period between 400 to 700CE.  It was an exciting opportunity to learn about discoveries of new art historical materials from recent excavations. On the India side, according to Dr. B. R. Mani, a respected archaeologist and the current director of the National Museum, New Delhi, a recent excavation at Sarnath, the celebrated pilgrimage site of Buddha’s first sermon, revealed material evidence for the hitherto-unnoticed existence of a sculptors’ workshop at the site.  Many more new findings in China were shared with much enthusiasm and excitement. Chinese archaeologists seem to be discovering and excavating many Buddhist sites and other related historical sites than ever before. The sheer amount of historical details and art historical evidence that emerge from these new excavations is incredible.

Close collaboration between archaeologists and art historians in the study of Chinese Buddhist art is something to envy for scholars working in India.  A similar collaborative effort can lead to more fascinating discoveries and improve understanding of historical sites in India.  A better coordination and centralized distribution of resources on this front will help the cause. It is a tall order, given the complexity of politics in center-regional government relationships in India, which partly accounts for the reduced number of the sculptures that made to the exhibition: over 100 objects were initially chosen for the exhibition which appear in their glorious photographs in the hefty two-volume catalog of the exhibition and only about half made it to Beijing.  However, it is not an insurmountable goal especially with confident leadership among the heads of the archaeological, museological and academic organizations. While management of archaeological sites and cultural heritage falls under the purview of the government at both central and state-levels, inviting private sectors to contribute in improving public understanding of the past will open up innovative ways to create critical historical knowledge for the future.

A number of papers by Chinese scholars discussed Indian examples for comparison with the goal of ascribing an origin to the Indian examples for a style or an image type developed in China. Over the course of the symposium, it became clear that there exists a rather schematic understanding of Indian art in Chinese scholarship.  In the same token, scholarship on Chinese Buddhist art by Indian scholars is nearly nonexistent and antiquated. Future generations in India would certainly benefit from understanding cross-cultural exchanges between India and China and ensuing local transformations in various parts of Central Asia and China throughout history. Promoting such cross cultural understanding can be mutually beneficial in the long run, as long as we remain mindful of pitfalls of unidirectional and hegemonic approaches that claim India as the origin of everything Buddhist elsewhere or those that treat India or China as a uniformed single cultural entity. The exhibition in a way marks a point of departure for a new era of cross cultural exchanges and mutual understanding between India and China. One certainly hopes similar initiatives continue to come forward. A similar international exhibition in India would certainly spark much Indian interests in better understanding China’s history and art.

On December 12, 2016, a delegation from Harvard University’s Fairbank Center joined Sichuan University’s Research Center for the Study of Western China (四川大学西部中国研究中心) in Chengdu to inaugurate a new collaborative partnership.

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