China & Inner Asia: Table of Contents

Session 23: The Luohan Sculptures from Yizhou

Organizer and Chair: Marilyn Gridley, University of Missouri, Kansas City

Discussants: Richard Smithies, International Air Transport Association; Denise Patry Leidy, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the early twentieth century a masterwork of Chinese religious sculpture—a set of at least eight ceramic life-size luohans—came to light southwest of Beijing in Yizhou (Yixian), a strategic region the Liao captured from the Song in 989. From the time of the sculptures’ discovery and their dispersal to museums and collections around the world, they have been the subject of controversy.

In the last few years, scholars from Europe, China, and America have been engaged in an increasingly intense effort to answer questions about the cultural context of the sculptures and about the circumstances of their discovery. Scholars in the west have relatively easy access to the sculptures: seven are on display in public museums in major metropolitan areas in the United States, Canada and England.

The panel’s diverse group of specialists focuses on the luohans to examine the implications of their historical, religious, and architectural context.

Paul Goldin shares startling discoveries from research into literary records. Nancy Steinhardt brings expertise in architectural history to bear on the controversy over the caves in which the sculptures purportedly were found. Janet Baker examines how these sculptures reveal their complex religious heritage. Denise Leidy will discuss the import of the papers for the museums housing the sculptures today. Richard Smithies will reveal the whereabouts in Japan of a long-lost luohan of the set and discuss the current plans for collaborative research with Chinese scholars on this subject of the Yizhou Luohans.

Background to the Study of the Luohan Statues from Yizhou

Paul Rakita Goldin, University of Pennsylvania

This paper presents information relevant to the study of the several earthenware luohan statues discovered by Friedrich Perzynski near modern-day Yixian, Hebei Province, approximately eighty years ago.

The first section deals with the history of medieval Yizhou, especially as recorded in two extant local gazetteers (compiled in 1502 and 1747). Owing to its large population and strategic location, the region was the object of numerous military campaigns throughout the tenth century, until it was finally secured by the Liao state in 989. The sources indicate that the period of Liao rule (which lasted until the 1120s) was the most prosperous in Yizhou’s history. A survey of historic buildings in Yizhou undertaken in 1935 revealed that most were built or restored under that dynasty.

The next part of the paper discusses an inscription from 1102 or 1103 commemorating the donation of a group of sixteen earthen luohan statues by a private citizen to a Buddhist institution that had recently been completed. Are these the statues that we know today? If so, as many as half of the statues have been lost.

Finally, I intend to bring to light the substance of a previously unknown correspondence from the mid-1920s between Perzynski and Langdon Warner, a Harvard historian of East Asian art. This exchange opens grave questions about the veracity of Perzynski’s accounts. Warner evidently placed these letters inside his copy of Perzynski’s book—which ultimately made its way to Harvard’s Rübel Library. I happened to be the first person ever to check out the book.


Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, University of Pennsylvania

An intriguing aspect of the Yizhou luohan problem is the "discovery" of them in a cave. Although Buddhist images are common in caves, luohan caves are rare. Not only is there no entry for luohandong in standard Buddhist encyclopedias such as Foguang dacidian, the term does not appear in any of the volumes. This paper seeks to explore the architectural component of the Yizhou luohan problem, the grotto in which they are said to have been housed. If the existence of luohandong is rare, is it still possible that the glazed-ceramic statues were made for a rock-carved cave? What does the answer suggest for the Liao-period date or Northern Chinese provenance of the statues?

At present, extant wooden buildings or evidence of wooden architecture is available at nine Liao-period monasteries in Hebei, Shanxi, or Inner Mongolia. Texts specifically mention or strongly suggest the existence of luohandong at two of them, both in the Liao western capital, Datong. In at least one case, the reference is to eighteen statues in groups of nine on either side of a wooden hall. So far, no records of luohandong are known from Liao monasteries where only brick pagodas remain. Is the data a fluke of survival, or are luohandong primarily a Liao form? If so, is the existence of Liao-period luohandong sufficient evidence to confirm Perzynski’s elusive source of the statues in nearby northern Hebei?

Chinese Luohan Portraits: Supernatural Beings or Ordinary Monks?

Janet Baker, The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art

Images of disciples and monks provide a particularly fruitful vehicle for a close study of the issue of Chinese vs. non-Chinese ethnicity and the issue of realism vs. idealism in portraiture.

This paper will consider works of art from India, Central Asia and China of pre-twelfth-century date in order to reveal the early Buddhist sources for such works of art as the images of luohans from Yizhou.

The means of expression chosen for these figures can be linked to a rise in Chan Buddhism marked by philosophical changes in the cosmological status of luohans as omnipotent immortals rather than ordinary monks. The changing prevalence of different sects of Buddhism affected the choice of personages depicted, as well as the methods of representation for different types of images. The paper will examine how these changes and later reassertion of more native Chinese sensibilities rooted in Confucianism and Daoism are expressed in the Yizhou luohans.