By Denise Patry Leidy

The sixth to the eighth century—a period marked by the flowering of lacquer Buddhist sculpture throughout East Asia—also saw the development of distinctively Sinitic Buddhist practice traditions and their adoption in Korea and Japan. These included Pure Land, dedicated to the Buddha Amitabha; Tiantai, based on the Lotus Sutra; Huayan, based on the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsaka); and Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Devotion to the founders of these practice traditions, combined with intense interest in relics and their mysterious manifestations,[i] spurred the development of religious portraiture at this time.[ii] Like sculptures and paintings of Shakyamuni, such portraits, either actual or imaginary, preserved and disseminated the charisma and spiritual understanding of enlightened teachers. Painted or sculpted in clay and lacquer, portraits were displayed in temples, palaces, and other special spaces, serving as foci of devotion, transmitters of practice lineages, and purveyors of miracles.

A buddha sculpture seated in a room with a panting behind
Figure 9

One of the earliest preserved examples of a clay portrait remains in Cave 16, the fabled library cave, in the great complex at Dunhuang in Gansu Province, China (fig. 9). It is a life-size sculpture of Hong Bian (died 562), whose biography is recorded in a nearby stele dated 851. He served as the chief of monks in the area, helped to restore the site, and was awarded a purple robe, a symbol of status, by the emperor. The sculpture, which shows an individual seated in meditation with a full face, pursed lips, and wrinkles around his eyes and forehead, is an example of a bone-ash image,[iii] in which the cremated remains of the individual are incorporated or inserted into the clay portrait sculpture. In Hong Bian’s case, his cremated ashes, in a purple silk bag, were placed with other consecratory objects and a dedicatory text in a small open cavity in the back of the sculpture.

Self-mummification, in which the corpse of an enlightened being is accidentally or deliberately preserved, and sometimes covered with lacquer, is undeniably the most dramatic practice to emerge from the parallel interest in relics and portraiture in East Asia from the sixth to the eighth century.[iv] The famous monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (circa 602–664) recorded seeing such self-preserved beings during his journeys through Central Asia and India in his Great Tang Records of the Western Regions (Da Tang Xiyu Ji), written around 646 after his return to China.[v]

The earliest records of the use of lacquer to make sculpture predate any extant examples. Those regarding self-mummified individuals also record examples from earlier periods. Four are listed in the Biography of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng Zhuan), compiled around 530 by the monk Huijiao (447–534): Heluojie (died 298), Shan Daokai (died 360), Bo Sengguang (died circa 385), and Zhu Tanyou (died 390).[vi] By the late sixth century, when the body of Zhiyi (538–574), the founder of the eponymous tradition, is said to have been found miraculously intact in his tomb on the south side of Mount Tiantai, the notion that the physical body of spiritually advanced practitioners would not decay was well established.[vii]

Moreover, it is interesting to note that evidence for the use of lacquer to help conserve such mummies first appears in the early seventh century, at around the same time that visual evidence for the use of the hollow-core lacquer technique, such as the sculptures in the Freer and the Metropolitan, were created. Nearby villagers discovered the body of Daoxiu (died 627), an ascetic who lived in a hut near Mount Li in Shaanxi Province, sitting upright in meditation. To preserve the corpse, they covered it in cloth soaked with lacquer. His body subsequently was moved to a mausoleum in the unnamed village.[viii] That of Daoxin (died 651), a Chan patriarch, was similarly protected and displayed on Mount Huangshan in Hubei Province, as were the bodies of other masters in this East Asian tradition.[ix]

seated mummy in monk's robes
Figure 10

The earliest extant example of a self-mummified corpse is that of Huineng (638–713), the sixth patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and author of the influential Sixth Platform Sutra. His corpse remains today, garbed in a yellow robe and a red shawl (fig. 10), in the Nanhua Monastery, where he taught, in Shaoguan in Guangdong Province.[x] The Biography of the Great Master of Caoqi (Caoqi Dashi Zhuan, circa 781) states that on September 8, 714, Huineng’s corpse was taken out of an urn in which it had been desiccating for over a year and then covered with glue and lacquer before being enshrined in a stupa.

Scientists found a mummy (fig. 11) inside a private collection’s lacquer sculpture of a seated monk (fig. 12) while working on the piece at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands in 1996. This astonishing discovery provides evidence for the use of hollow-core lacquer sculpture to house and safeguard the bodies of the self-mummified.[xi] An inscription written on the bolster (fig. 13) that supported the mummy identifies the figure as Zhang Liuquan, a prelate in the Chan tradition, who died at thirty or forty years old in around 1100. The sculpture shows a partially bald monk seated with his hands resting on his knees. He wears a Chinese-style robe (a garment that became standard attire for monks in China around the tenth century) under a monastic shawl tied with a clasp at the right. Lush floral scrolls fill both the robe and the shawl, and raised coiling dragons, presumably of lacquer and putty, decorate the sleeves and the waistline.

Imaging of the sculpture showed that Liuquan’s organs had been removed and replaced with substitutes similar to those sometimes found in sculptures of buddhas. Carbon 14 testing of the remains yielded a date range from 1092 to 1149, while a similar test for the textile used in making the covering sculpture provided a range between 1272 and 1284. It seems likely that the hollow-core lacquer sculpture, made more than a hundred years after Liuquan had self-mummified, was intended to preserve this sacred icon in much the same way that lacquer had traditionally been used to coat mummies. The distinctive features, particularly the broad nose and receding hairline, suggest that the artist followed a sculpted or painted portrait that was available in the thirteenth century and is now lost.

The insertion of an earlier mummy into a hollow-core lacquer sculpture may also provide insight into two enigmatic terms: ren zhong fo, which has been translated as “buddha in the flesh” but literally reads “person inside buddha,” and ren zhong xiang, or “person inside image.”[xii] This term first appears in the early sixth-century Biography of Eminent Monks, in a record of a sixteen-foot-tall gilded image of a ren zhong fo. A monk named Sengquan installed the image on Tiger Crest Mountain in Jiangxi Province in the late fourth or early fifth century. Additional sixth-century records include ten such images commissioned by the monk Daoxin, as well as a sculpture displayed in the audience hall in the mansion of a certain Prince Jinghao, which reportedly astonished people by walking around at night until it miraculously disappeared in 534. The latter is described as a hollow-core lacquer sculpture, and the use of the description ren zhong fo suggests, tantalizingly, that the buddha in question held relics or remains of some kind. The use of the hollow-core lacquer technique would certainly have enhanced the capacity of any sculpture to house multiple types of relics, as well as, possibly, a self-mummified individual. The description of some of the ren zhong fo and ren zhong xiang as very tall, however, precludes any assumption that they all held mummies.[xiii]

Sculpture of a monk, with some red and dark coloring
Figure 14

While now found only in extant Japanese examples, the use of hollow-core lacquer to make a sculpture that served both as a portrait and a relic was presumably also found in China and Korea in the seventh and eighth centuries. A life-size portrait (fig. 14) of the Chinese monk Jianzhen (in Japanese, Ganjin, 688–763), made about a year after his death, is thought to have been produced after his attempt at self-mummification, possibly inspired by his visit to see Huineng’s mummy around 748, failed.[xiv] It also has been suggested that the textile used in the making of the sculpture was originally one of Jianzhen’s garments.[xv]

Jianzhen finally reached Japan after six attempts, which failed due to government intervention or challenges inherent in travel. Blinded during his sixth, successful, voyage, Jianzhen went on to establish Tōshōdaiji in Nara. He is revered as the founder of the Ritsu tradition, noted for its emphasis on the monastic code. Chinese artists who traveled to Japan with Jianzhen worked at the Tōshōdaiji and other temples. Foreign artists contributed to the construction of hollow-core lacquer sculptures, such as the Tōshōdaiji’s monumental Buddha Vairochana, one of the most famous sculptures in Nara.[xvi] Indian and other monks were present at the consecration of this important national icon.

seated sculpture of a monk
Figure 15

At least one additional Japanese hollow-core lacquer portrait dates to the second half of the eighth century: a life-size image of the monk Gyōshin (fig. 15), an abbot of Hōryūji in Nara, who played a critical role in the cult of Prince Shōtoku Taishi (574–622) in Japanese Buddhism. Like Jianzhen, the bald and middle-aged Gyōshin is depicted in meditation and holding a staff. The portrait of Jianzhen remains in the founder’s hall at the Tōshōdaiji; that of Gyōshin is in the Dream Hall, or Yumedono, that he built at Hōryūji. Both images preserve not only the appearance but also the charisma of these two important abbots, and they continue to serve as the foci of devotion.


By the late eighth century, wood had replaced hollow-core lacquer as the preferred material for sculpture in Japan. While artists continued using lacquer to add details to such pieces, no Japanese examples of hollow-core lacquer sculptures date to after the eighth century. In China, however, this technique continued to be used for sculptures of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and luohans for centuries, albeit rarely. Presumably, given the laboriousness of the technique, such sculptures were primarily for imperial or other high-ranking patrons.

sculpted head
Figure 16
seated Luohan with a reddish face and greenish robes
Figure 17

Some of the most important Chinese examples of lacquer sculpture known today are also held in American collections. Five heads of luohans—one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; two in the Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 16); and an additional two in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art—were most likely once part of a spectacular set of sixteen life-size sculptures.[xvii] An interesting sculpture of a luohan dated 1099 in the Honolulu Academy of Art (fig. 17) has a rare inscription giving the name of a donor, a certain Jiangsheng. It also explains that in addition to commissioning the sculpture, Jiangsheng chanted, presumably before it, to fulfill his penance.[xviii]

A seated bodhisattva
Figure 19

An elegant piece in the Walters Art Museum (fig. 18) shows the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Water-Moon (Shuiyue Guanyin) manifestation, an important theme in the visual arts from the tenth to the fourteenth century. A seated bodhisattva in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art (fig. 19), which illustrates contemporaneous Indo-Himalayan traditions, also was most likely also an attendant figure and part of a larger group.

Bodhisattva with his arm on his knee
Figure 18

Finally, a sculpture showing Buddha Shakyamuni at a non-canonical moment in his hagiography, when he descended from mountains after years of arduous practice (fig. 20), in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology exemplifies the capacity of cloth and lacquer to elegantly render facial features and drapery folds. This piece also provides additional information on the making and use of hollow-core lacquer sculptures in China. Study of the construction of this life-size sculpture shows that it is formed around a wooden pole covered with clay, paper, and pieces of cloth coated with lacquer.[xix] A wooden door on the bottom, also covered with a textile, supported the central pole.

Buddha seated with his chin on his knee
Figure 20

Several Chinese-language sutras, a fragment of a text written in Tibetan on blue paper, a bag of perfumed ashes, and another that held five reproduction organs in silver filled this sculpture.[xx]

Although it is now lost, the bag of ashes is particularly intriguing. It seems likely that the ashes, like those placed in the clay portrait of Hong Bian discussed earlier, were those of an individual. This raises the fascinating possibility that least some other iconic sculptures (as opposed to portraits), such as the hollow-core lacquer pieces in the Freer and the Metropolitan, may also have contained actual as opposed to symbolic relics, or even mummies.

Next: Conclusion

Previous: Lacquer and Buddhist Sculpture in East Asia, Sixth–Eighth Century