The Transboundary Origin of a Gilt Bronze Buddha

6 minute read

Imagine walking into a museum and paying close attention to an object and its accompanying label, which would indicate its origins. The label may attribute the object’s origins to a certain region. However, is the origin of an object as simple and singular as it might seem? A gilt brass figure of Buddha at MAA problematizes this notion of a single origin for objects and tells a more complex story. Is it from Tibet, or is it from inland China? Or is it from both?

A gilt, bronze figure of Buddha.

Figure 1. Gilt brass figure of Buddha. Purchased by Louis C.G. Clarke. MAA 1935.347

This statue of a Buddha is described in the museum catalogue to have originated from Tibet and was donated by Louis C. G. Clarke (1881–1960) in 1935. The original accession register simply describes it as a Gilt figure along with four other Tibetan Buddhist objects. 

A spread from a large ruled notebook.

Figure 2. The registration of objects donated by Louis C. G. Clarke to MAA in 1935. The gilt brass Buddha is registered in No. 347 and is described as a ‘gilt figure’ amongst 4 other Tibetan Buddhist figures. 

However, considering the details of the statue, it appears to include certain characteristics in the Han Chinese style.  

First, the Buddha’s robe is richly decorated with motifs of the ‘Interlocking Lotus Branches’ (缠枝莲纹, Chan Zhi Lian Wen). In Chinese, Lotus () is pronounced as ‘Lian’, which coincides with the pronunciation of ‘integrity’ (Lian ). The Interlocking Lotus Branches, therefore, symbolise honesty and uprightness. This motif first appeared in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) and soon became a common decoration motif in Han Chinese porcelains and sculptures. Second, this gilded brass statue appears like other Chinese Buddhist figures made of metal material, for example, the bronze cast statue of a Seated Buddha at the Fitzwilliam Museum (O.29-1991) made during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE)

A collage of two images. The image on the left is marked with red circles pointing to specific decorations on a gilt figure. the image on the right is a bronze figure of Buddha.

Figures 3 and 4. Pointing out the style of 缠枝莲纹 (interlocking lotus branches) decorating the robe of the gilt brass Buddha at MAA. MAA 1935.347. Right – Seated Buddha. Bequeathed (1991-04-29) by Henry S. Reitlinger. The Fitzwilliam Museum. O.29-1991.

Considering these observations, and despite the MAA record indicating its Tibetan origin, it is possible that the gilt figure of Buddha at MAA, was made in inland China instead?   

Another piece of information related to this statue is the donor: Louis C. G. Clarke. Clarke was a connoisseur and collector. He was a Curator at MAA from 1922 to 1937 and later the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum from 1937 to 1946. This gilt grass Buddha was donated by Clarke in 1935 amongst many other objects from various sources. Looking at objects associated with this statue in the catalogue, seven Buddhist figures can be found as part of Clarke’s donation to MAA at the same time (see Figure 2). Amongst this set of Buddhist figures, two were registered as from Siam (today’s Thailand), whereas this gilt brass Buddha as well as five other figures were registered as from Tibet. How was the statue identified as a Tibetan statue by the museum? Was the statue acquired in Tibet along with other statues? Or was it simply misidentified by either the donor or the museum staff? A lack of responses to these questions is in itself an unsolved mystery. 

Reflecting upon the confusion about this statue’s origin provides an opportunity for us to discuss the historical exchange between Tibetan and Chinese schools of Buddhism that led to the shaping of the Buddhist figure’s appearance. The earliest account of contact between Tibet and inland China dates to the 7th Century when the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) Princess Wencheng consorted to Songtsen Gampo, the first ruler of the Tibetan Tubo Kingdom (618–838 CE), establishing an alliance between the two empires. In Tibet, Princess Wencheng was known to have disseminated Buddhism by bringing a Statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, today considered the main deity of Jokhang, one of the main temples in central Lhasa.  

Later, Tibet and China were both conquered by the Mongols, bringing the two regions together to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) under Mongolian rule. During the conquest, the Mongolians converted to Tibetan Buddhism. They also established the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs (宣政院, Xuanzheng Yuan) in the capital city Khanbaliq (today’s Beijing) to supervise all Buddhist properties under the special power of Tibetan Buddhist monks. As a consequence of this, Tibetan Buddhism was widely introduced across China during the period. 

The dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism in China also influenced the next Ming dynasty (13681644). Although the Han Chinese rulers of this period never converted to Tibetan Buddhism, it was still widely patronized. For example, Mount Wutai, patronized by the Ming rulers, is one of the greatest sacred mountains in northern China worshipped by both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism as the Abode of Manjushri Bodhisattva. Although the first Tibetan monks were introduced during the Yuan Dynasty, a Great Pagoda designed in the Tibetan chorten style was built during the Ming Dynasty and became the tallest monument dominating the landscape of the sacred site. 

A giant pagoda surrounded by trees and buildings.

Figure 4. The Great Pagoda in Tibetan chorten style surrounded by a mixture of Tibetan and Han Chinese Temples in Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province, China. Photo by Xintian Ma.

During the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912), the Manchurian rulers in China also converted to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet became its vessel state (Fanshu Guo藩属国). Under the supervision of Lifan Yuan (理藩院), a Qing version of the Ming Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs, and the Qing imperial court, the official institution oversaw Tibet and Mongolia. Numerous imperial Tibetan temples were further constructed in northern China, particularly surrounding the capital Beijing. Those temples often combined both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist styles, creating a cross-boundary exchange situated in the Sino-Tibetan Buddhist artmaking tradition

Close-up of roof of an East Asian-looking building.

Figure 5: Rooftop of the Great Hall at Pusading (菩萨顶) in Mount Wutai. Pusading was founded as the imperial temple of the Qing dynasty during the 18th century. The Great Hall features a Chinese hip and gable roof combined with Tibetan prayer flags and wooden plates carved in Tibetan language. Photo by Xintian Ma.

Clearly, the relationship between Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism was one of mutual influence, a process of exchange and convergence that gradually blurred the boundary differentiating the two. Linking the history between Han and Tibetan Buddhism to the gilt brass Buddha at MAA, it is evident that the religious exchange undoubtedly influenced the making of this figure and opened different possibilities for the audience to ponder its provenance. Could it be made in Tibet with an influence from Chinese Buddhism? Was it made in inland China from a Tibetan Buddhist temple? Or was it made in China but brought to Tibet before being acquired by Clarke? Although the answer remains a mystery, this statue exemplifies a complex and transboundary background situated in the interface between Tibetan and Chinese schools of Buddhism. The often-assumed single origin of an object, as this figure suggests, becomes a complex story that combines multiple possible sources in an interchanging religious context. 


Rui En Pok writes about another object at MAA, a 多穆壶 (duomuhu), with similarly dual origins, both from Tibet and China.


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