the spirit kings in sixth century chinese buddhist sculpture

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  • The Spirit Kings in Sixth Century Chinese Buddhist SculptureAuthor(s): Emmy C. BunkerSource: Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America, Vol. 18 (1964), pp. 26-37Published by: University of Hawai'i Press for the Asia SocietyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20067068 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 05:23

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  • The Spirit Kings in Sixth Century Chinese Buddhist Sculpture1

    Emmy C. Bunker

    Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado

    A group of curious looking male deities, at the most ten, usually referred to as the

    "Spirit Kings," appears frequently in Buddhist Sculpture of the sixth century A.D. in China, but, oddly enough, no adequate study has ever been devoted to them.

    The Spirit Kings were first noticed by Chavannes in an article2on the Eastern Wei stele of 543 in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, where they adorn two sides and the back of the base. The deities are identified by names inscribed alongside them and their own spe cial attributes.

    Fig. 1. Drawing of Lung-men, Pin-yang Cave (Cave III), Fig. 2. Drawing of Lung-men, Pin-yang Cave (Cave III), fore wall, left side, (From Mizuno and Nagahiro, fore wall, right side, (From Mizuno and Nagahiro, Lung-men, Fig. 19). Lung-m?n, Fig. 18).

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  • Fig. 3. Side of the Gardner base, Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

    1. Dragon Spirit King.3 Has a dragon head, and holds a lotus in his hand. (Fig. 3)

    2. Wind Spirit King. Holds a wind bag in his hands, and has windblown hair. (Fig. 3)

    3. Pearl Spirit King. Spews pearls out of his mouth into a dish held in his right hand.

    (Fig. 3) 4. Fire Spirit King.4 Flames issue from his head

    and he holds a flaming torch or va)ra in his

    right hand. (Fig. 4) 5. Tree Spirit King. Holds a tree in his right

    hand. (Fig. 4) 6. Mountain Spirit King. Sits in front of styl

    ized rocks which symbolize a mountain, and holds a flaming jewel. (Fig. 4)

    7. Fish Spirit King.5 Wears a fish around his neck. (Fig. 4)

    8. Elephant Spirit King. Has an animal head, and holds a lotus in his right hand and a

    flaming jewel in his left. (Fig. 5 ) 9. Bird Spirit King. Has a bird head, and holds

    a lotus in his right hand. (Fig. 5 ) 10. Lion Spirit King. Wears a lion-head helmet,

    and holds a lotus in his left hand and a

    flaming jewel in his right. (Fig. 5)

    The bottom two characters, Sh?n Wang, in

    each cartouche make up the title, which was

    translated as Spirit King, the best equivalent for the Chinese characters. Sh?n means a spirit or a god.6 Wang means a prince or king, a ruler.7

    The first character in each cartouche denotes the individual Spirit King intended.

    So little has ever been written about the Spirit Kings that it will be necessary to examine what ever material pertaining to them can be found before any definite conclusions can be drawn as to their origin, meaning, and position in the

    Chinese Buddhist pantheon.

    Fig. 5. Side of the base 543 A.D. Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

    Fig. 4. Reverse of the stele and base, 543 A.D. Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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  • Fig. 6. Side of the Eastern Wei base, Philadelphia, Uni

    versity Museum. Fig. 7. Side of the Eastern Wei base, Philadelphia, Uni

    versity Museum.

    The earliest known series of the Spirit Kings appears on the base of the carved wall surface at Lung-m?n in the Pin-yang Cave, dated by the Japanese in the years following 505 A.D.8

    The deities have no inscribed titles, only their attributes to identify them.9 (Figs. 1 & 2) From left to right, they are:

    1. Wind Spirit King. Holds a large bag and has windblown hair.

    2. Dragon Spirit King. Looks a dragon in the eye and wears his hair in an Indian topknot.

    3. Lion Spirit King.10 Wears a lion-head hel

    met, and holds a flaming jewel in his right hand.

    4. Tree Spirit King. Has a tree behind him and holds a flaming jewel in his right hand.

    5. Fish Spirit King.11 Holds a fish in his left hand.

    6. Bird Spirit King. Has a bird head. 7. Elephant Spirit King. Has an elephant head

    and holds the trunk with his right hand. 8. Fire Spirit King. Flames issue from his head,

    and holds a flaming object in his right hand. 9. Pearl Spirit King. Spews pearls from his

    mouth into his hand.12

    10. Mountain Spirit King. Holds a handful of rocks and trees which symbolize a mountain.

    The Pin-yang Spirit Kings are clothed in a Chinese type of sleeved gown with a sash at the

    waist. Some wear a collar caught at the shoulders

    by two discs, as does the Bodhisattva in the Ma?

    jusr? scene in the top register. The majority sit

    in the position of 'royal ease',13 a typical Indian

    position often given to Bodhisattvas and lesser

    Buddhist deities, and are given no landscape or

    architectural settings whatsoever.

    Chavannes noted another group of Spirit Kings at the base of the carved wall surface in Cave 3 at the late Northern Wei site of Kung Hsien, dated around 531 A.D.14 Unfortunately he did not list them and only photographed three; the Fish, the Elephant, and the Bird Spirit Kings. In 1915, in connection with the Isabella Stewart

    Gardner base, he recalled the Kung Hsien3 set

    suggesting that both sets were identical as far as

    he could remember.

    The Kung Hsien costumes are still Chinese in character, but a bit different from those of the

    Pin-yang deities. Each Spirit King is adorned with a scarf and a curved neckline with a pointed collar, frequently worn by Bodhisattvas. They sit cross-legged as do the musical gandharvas on

    another part of the Kung Hsien wall base.15

    A four legged stone base16 of the Eastern Wei

    period17 in the University Museum, Philadelphia, has six Spirit Kings carved on two of its sides.

    (Figs. 6 Si 7) Although there are no inscriptions, they can be identified by their attributes. The Pearl Spirit King holds a dish full of pearls in his lap, the Tree Spirit King holds a tree, the

    Mountain Spirit King a handful of rocks, the

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  • Wind Spirit King a bag, and the Elephant and Bird Spirit Kings have animal heads.

    The type of costume worn by the deities on

    both the University base and the Isabella Stewart Gardner base is identical, and consists of a scarf

    and a loincloth, which leaves the belly and chest bare. Like the Lung-m?n deities, they wear cir

    cular collars caught by discs at the shoulders.

    The Spirit Kings on the Isabella Stewart Gardner base sit with crossed ankles, with the exception of the Mountain Spirit King, who sits with his feet out to the side in front of a pile of rocks.

    The mountain deity on the University base sits in the same manner, but still holds his rocks in

    his hand like his earlier Lung-m?n ancestor.

    The Spirit Kings on the University base are sep- j^ arated by lotus flowers inserted between some of the deities, while those on the Isabella Stewart

    Gardner base are separated only by the pendant inscriptions.

    The Spirit Kings do not appear in any of the Northern Ch'i caves at T'ien-lung Shan, as far

    as I know, but they do adorn the bases of several

    Northern Ch'i stelae and can be found at the

    late Northern Ch'i caves of Hsiang-t'ang Shan. A stele, excavated at Ch'ii-yang in Hopei pro

    vince, dated Northern Ch'i by the Chinese, shows

    four Spirit Kings on the bottom tier of an ex

    tremely elaborate step pyramidal base. Presum

    ably there are others on the opposite side of the

    base. In spite of a poor photograph, the Elephant

    Spirit King with his elephant head is visible to the right, and the Fish Spirit King with a fish around his neck on the left. It is almost impos sible to make out their costumes, but they ap

    pear to wear loincloths and sit in the position of

    'lordly ease.'

    The base of a Northern Ch'i stele dated 56219 in the Cleveland Museum displays eight more

    Spirit Kings on the back and two sides. (F

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