Category Archives: Chinese Art

Friday Fave: Buddhist Stele

Buddhist Stele with the "Thousand Buddhas"; China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE; sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment; Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler; S1991.157

Buddhist Stele with the “Thousand Buddhas”; China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE; sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment; Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler; S1991.157

For my first assignment as a summer intern at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I was asked to research this monumental Chinese Buddhist stele, which is being considered for a future exhibition on Buddhist art. Steles were created to commemorate the Buddhist faith and proliferated during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE). At the bottom of this stele, the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni sits cross-legged with hands in dhyani mudra, flanked by bodhisattvas and ascetic figures.

The stele’s repetitive pattern is known as the “Thousand Buddhas” (qianfo), characterized by rows of small Buddha figures on the front and back. It’s one of the most important motifs in Northern Wei Buddhist art. According to scholars, it reflects the notion that the cosmos is filled with innumerable realms, which are all simultaneously inhabited by Buddhas. The motif supports the omnipresence of Buddha and Buddha-nature. Many experts propose that the motif is related to the practice of visualization and recitation during Buddhist practice. While there is room for debate on the meaning of the Thousand Buddhas, the inscription provides a concrete example of the hopes of the stele’s sponsors, including their good wishes for the emperor, hope for the spread of Buddhism, and request for peace.

After about a month of reading and researching, I was finally able to view the stele in Sackler storage. It is a remarkable experience to see an object after learning about its many details. It reminded me of meeting a penpal for the first time or reuniting with a childhood friend. I was immediately able to relate all of my research to the physical object in front of me. For instance, I knew to look for the bodhisattva to the right of Shakyamuni who holds a bottle of healing water, indicating that he is Avalokiteshvara. Once I finally saw the stele in person, a wave of complete comprehension and appreciation washed over me. What began as a simple research project evolved into a rewarding, thought-provoking experience.

Vote for the Cosmic Buddha in SI’s Summer Showdown!

Cosmic Buddha (Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence); China, probably Henan province, Northern Qi dynasty, (550-577); Limestone; Purchase; F1923.15

Cosmic Buddha (Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence); China, probably Henan province, Northern Qi dynasty, (550-577); Limestone; Purchase; F1923.15

Voting begins today for the Smithsonian’s Summer Showdown. Last year more than 90,000 people from across the country voted for their favorite object in the Smithsonian. This year, Freer|Sackler is represented by the Cosmic Buddha, one of our most iconic images that is currently on view in the exhibition, Promise of Paradise: Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture.

Like all Buddhas (fully enlightened beings), this life-size limestone figure of Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha, is wrapped in the simple robe of a monk. What makes this object exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface. They represent not only moments in the life of the Historical Buddha but also the “Realms of Existence,” a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. Heaven appears at the top toward the shoulders, while various hells are at the bottom, along the hem of the figure’s robe. Humans, animals, spirits, and demigods reside between the two.

With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha also exists as a 3D model. This format enables scholars to study the work as never before, and it provides worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture.

Vote for this amazing object in #SIShowdown!

Friday Fave: Chinese Bells

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

My favorite part of physics in high school was the physics of sound. I was part of several ensembles then and ended up studying music in college. Years later, as a graduate student, I initially learned about Chinese bronze bells through a course on the music of Asia. The following quarter, my first art history course was on Chinese bronzes. This time, I learned about the bells from an art historical perspective.

Naturally, on my first visit to the Freer and Sackler with a friend in 2011, I was delighted to see a bronze bell on display. There it was: over a foot and a half tall; lens-shaped mouth; thirty-six studs jutting out from its body; a slight patina running down the middle, hinting at age; the taotie motif—fangs, horns, and brows snaking around protruding eyes—near the lip.

Clapperless and struck instead with a mallet, these bells were an integral part of ancient court rituals. A full set consists of more than sixty bells of varying sizes. Acoustically, each bell is capable of producing two tones depending on where it is hit: Striking along the side produces one tone, and striking along the middle results in a tone three degrees—or the equivalent of a major or minor third—away. Even in modern times, bronze bells have been used in important ceremonies, such as the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and in the theme music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

These bells highlight China’s advanced state of technological advancement and early mastery of bronze casting: Bells of this complexity would not begin to be produced in Europe for another millennia. Bronze bells were included in the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects, and the Freer|Sackler has one of the finest collections of these bells in the world.

Friday Fave: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

First-time visitors to the Sackler Gallery are often surprised and delighted by Chinese artist Xu Bing’s sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The impressive installation comprises a series of twenty-one interlocking laminated wood “monkeys.” They hang from the ceiling of the Gallery’s atrium and descend, one beneath another, through the center of the three-story stairwell to end suspended above a reflecting pool at the bottom level.

What I particularly love about this work is the seamless integration of sculptural forms, multiple writing systems and languages, and storytelling. It starts with a Chinese folktale that describes a group of monkeys in a tree that decide to capture the moon. By linking their arms and tails, they form a chain down toward the moon, only to discover that it is a reflection in a body of water at the base of the tree. Xu’s monkeys certainly look the part, despite being heavily abstracted. They have tails and arms and faces that are clearly identifiable. But each one also spells out the word “monkey” in a different language, in scripts as diverse as Urdu, German, Chinese, and Braille. People, children especially, will often work their way through the entire installation, carefully matching each monkey to a key that shows which one represents which language.

By bringing together these different languages and writing systems into such a coherent form, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon speaks to me about universal connections between peoples of different cultures. It is a fitting way to welcome visitors to an institution devoted to such a culturally and artistically diverse part of the world.

Friday Fave: Elephants in the Museum

Lidded ritual ewer (huo) in the form of an elephant with masks and dragons; Middle Yangzi Valley, China, Shang dynasty, Late Anyang period, ca. first half 11th century BCE; bronze; Purchase, F1936.6a–b

Lidded ritual ewer (huo) in the form of an elephant with masks and dragons; Middle Yangzi Valley, China, Shang dynasty, Late Anyang period, ca. first half 11th century BCE; bronze; Purchase, F1936.6a–b

A search for “elephant” in Open F|S yields 135 results. This trumps the less engaging turtle or rabbit (65 and 83, respectively) but really can’t compare to the stalwart horse or fantastic dragon (528 and 652). I love searching the collection this way—the objects returned come from wildly different periods and cultures, and are executed in nearly all the media represented in the museums’ collections.

The “elephant” category includes a certain number of objects that are made of ivory (made centuries ago and acquired by the museums when it was legal to do so) or that have the word “elephant” in their title. These, however, aren’t actually depictions of elephants. The elephants in the F|S collection are nearly equally divided between two-dimensional works on silk or paper—from China, Japan, India, and Iran—and three-dimensional pieces, mostly in bronze or stone from China, with a few from Southeast Asia. They date from 1200 BCE to the middle of the twentieth century.

Equally striking are the differences in the elephants: some are mischievous, some are complacent—aware of their magnificence as they parade across the page—while some look disgruntled and even sad. Scanning nine pages of results, we see the full panoply of this animal that so has intrigued artists, travelers, royalty, and others over the centuries.

The elephant pictured here is one of my favorites. It is a ewer (or vessel) intended for ritual use, cast from bronze with elaborate surface ornamentation. Made in China, probably around 1100 BCE, it is of modest size. When this vessel was made more than 3,000 years ago, elephants were probably much more prevalent in China than they are today. The little elephant perched on the vessel’s lid and the use of the animal’s trunk as a spout give the object a whimsical quality that belies its ritual significance. It is also an incredibly rare vessel, the only surviving example with its original lid. We know that the lid and base belong together because of similarities in the decoration.

Acquired by the Freer Galley in 1936, the elephant ewer has been the subject of study over the years, but lately it has been receiving a new kind of attention as a recent addition to the Smithsonian’s 3D imaging project. This innovative program creates 3D models of objects from across the entire Smithsonian, allowing us to discover new insights with cutting-edge technology. The research potential is extraordinary, but it’s also just fun to explore the object in this new way, turning it around on the screen, looking at it from new angles, and zooming in to see the elephant in ways we couldn’t do in the gallery.

A special thank-you to Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at Freer|Sackler, for advising on this post.

Friday Fave: Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

It’s not a piece I paid a lot of attention to at first. At first glance, the statue is almost forlorn, a robed Buddha missing head and hands. I appreciated it abstractly but never looked very closely at it.

The project that would become SmithsonianX3D changed all that. The Cosmic Buddha was chosen as one of the pieces to showcase for the launch of the 3D site, and I had the chance to learn so much more about this fascinating statue while working with Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art, and the Smithsonian digitization team. For example, the decoration on the stone robes is not just abstract imagery, but rich illustrations depicting the Buddhist “Realms of Existence” and scenes from the past lives of the Historical Buddha. The stories are told in bands stacked up the front and back of the Buddha. Wear and tear on the low relief carvings show that the Buddha was cleaned and cared for, and probably had scholars taking rubbings of the imagery.

Now, the Cosmic Buddha—as well as Promise of Paradise, the exhibition in which the sculpture is featured—are my favorite things in the Freer. I still love to wander through the gallery and study the Buddha, and try to picture what the missing head and hands were like (we don’t know, though we can make an educated guess from existing depictions of the Vairochana—the Cosmic Buddha).

Next time you’re at the Freer, look closer at the Buddha. Don’t forget that you can explore it online, too, and learn more at

Celebrate the Lunar New Year at Freer|Sackler

Sheep and Goat; Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); China, Yuan dynasty, ca. 1300; ink on paper; Purchase, F1931.4

Sheep and Goat; Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); China, Yuan dynasty, ca. 1300; ink on paper; Purchase, F1931.4

Greetings from the ImaginAsia family program!

To ring in the Year of the Sheep, we are hosting our first annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 21, from 11 am to 4 pm. Throughout the day, visitors of all ages can learn, play, and indulge in culinary delights to mark the new year in China, Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and many other countries.

Visitors can explore the Freer|Sackler’s rich collections through educator-led tours, sample and learn how to make Lunar New Year-themed recipes with author Pat Tanumihardja, and discover the history and traditions of the holiday through book readings hosted by the DC Public Library. Other activities include creating festive good-luck figures with handmade paper and pop-up greeting cards with Sushmita Mazumdar, a local book artist.

This event, held in the midst of the fifteen-day holiday, is co-organized by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Can’t wait for Saturday? Send a Lunar New Year e-card now!

A Matter of Life and Death

Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities; 550-577; China; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110

Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities;
550–77; China; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110

Rachel Bissonnette, a student at the University of Michigan, recently interned in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department at Freer|Sackler.

The Freer|Sackler and the University of Michigan jointly publish an annual periodical called Ars Orientalis, which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year. Ars Orientalis isn’t exactly “light reading,” but it is an esteemed academic journal that produces pioneering articles on the arts of Asia, the Islamic world, and the ancient Near East. Ars Orientalis themes each of its issues, and Volume 44’s theme is “Arts of Death in Asia.” This exciting issue examines pan-Asian cultures, religious traditions, and the art that honors the deceased and warns of death’s inevitability. The print volume has just been released, and the first digital version of Ars Orientalis will be released soon!

However, you don’t have to wait for the publication to learn about some amazing funerary art. The Freer Gallery has a wonderful Sogdian funerary couch base on display. The couch, called a shichuang, is made of multiple marble slabs. The museum has three slabs on display, which were purchased by Charles Lang Freer in 1915; five other parts of the shichuang are now dispersed throughout various museum collections. Our couch dates to 550–77 CE, which was prime time for Silk Road trade between the Middle East and China. The ancient kingdom of Sogdiana (present-day southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan) traded luxury goods with the Tang dynasty in China. This profitable trade resulted in our wonderful funerary couch.

Shichuangs were used as burial furniture for the repose of the deceased. The couches were typically decorated with elaborately carved scenes inspired by teachings of Confucius or protective spirits to guide the dead in the afterlife. However, the Freer Gallery’s funerary couch is decorated with Buddhist themes, musicians, and dancers. The characters are in non-Chinese garb (boots, tight pants, and belted jackets). These costumes and Buddhist themes are likely due to the Sogdian influence from the Silk Road.

Explore the couch along with other spooky objects during our Halloween-themed Fear at the Freer event tonight!

Larger Than Life: Restoring the Empress Dowager

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

David Hogge is head of Archives at the Freer|Sackler.

In 2011, the Sackler acquired a life-size portrait of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) painted by Katharine Augusta Carl in 1904. That year, the painting was one of the Chinese government’s entries at the St. Louis Exposition. Then, it was given to President Roosevelt, who had it added to the Smithsonian’s collections. The painting was shown in the Smithsonian’s Art and Industries Building before being loaned to a museum in Taiwan in the 1960s, where it remained for more than forty years.

Though it was halfway around the world, the painting presented a perfect companion to the original Empress Dowager photographs in the Freer|Sackler Archives that were featured in the exhibition Power|Play: China’s Empress Dowager. I suggested that we should have the painting returned to the Smithsonian and continue to tell the tale of international diplomacy through portraiture. Bringing it back was a big risk: we learned that it was badly deteriorated, and the elaborately carved, half-ton frame was in equally poor shape. Nevertheless, the painting was shipped to Washington, DC, and sent to our storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. When we unwrapped the painting, our worst fears were realized: the canvas was in dreadful condition with tears, cracks, peeling, and layers of grime and discolored varnish.

The Empress Dowager, larger than life.

The restored painting of the Empress Dowager, with MCI conservators Jia-sun Tsang and Inês Madruga.

Since hiring an outside conservator would have been prohibitively expensive, at the time I assumed that we would have to box up the painting and put it away for good. Fortunately, Suitland is also the location of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI). Senior Painting Conservator Jia-sun Tsang was brought in to evaluate the painting. Rather than walk away in despair, she immediately saw the painting’s potential as well as its historical importance. Miraculously, Jia-sun requested and was granted the time and resources necessary to rescue the painting. While she and conservation fellow Inês Madruga oversaw a raft of analyses and treatments, Senior Furniture Conservator Donald Williams managed the repair of the frame. Overall, some twenty-three conservators, interns, art handlers, technicians, and contractors quietly labored away to restore the empress’s portrait. Last month, the painting and its frame were united once more. Thanks to these heroic efforts, in time, we hope to share this historic artifact with the public.

View a slideshow of the conservation process. Learn more about this and other images of the Empress Dowager and their role in rehabilitating her international reputation.

Remembering Collector Robert H. Ellsworth

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Former head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler, Paul Jett was with the museums for nearly thirty years.

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, a preeminent collector and dealer of Asian art, passed away on August 3 at the age of eighty-five. Long a friend and benefactor of the Freer|Sackler, Mr. Ellsworth gave his collection of Chinese calligraphy to the museums and also supported many of their fundraising efforts. In addition, he was the source for a number of important works purchased by the museums, such as the beautiful bronze figure of Nandi pictured above. Mr. Ellsworth said he found this work being used as decoration near a swimming pool at the home of the owners of the Tandy Leather Company in Texas. (In the Freer|Sackler, the piece earned the nickname “The Tandy Nandi.”)

When I met Mr. Ellsworth, I was a young conservator studying a particular type of Chinese Buddhist bronze from Yunnan, one example of which was in his collection. I was certainly not known in the field of Asian art, and yet Mr. Ellsworth treated me with a gracious, generous cordiality that overwhelmed me. He allowed me to visit his home and study the bronze, and then went on to show me dozens of other bronzes from his collection. It was breathtaking and the first of many visits I made to see his collection and talk about art. A raconteur of the first order, Mr. Ellsworth always had a story to tell, about his collection, his life, or the people he knew. He could be incredibly charming, funny, and welcoming.

For years after my first visit, whenever Mr. Ellsworth saw an article or news about Yunnanese Buddhist bronzes, he would send me copies of the information. I was stunned once to learn that Mr. Ellsworth had bought one of these bronzes for about five times more than anyone had previously paid, but it took him just a month or two to sell it for a significant profit. Mr. Ellsworth not only knew the art market well, but he also seemed able to forecast it. Knowing the art market is one thing; knowing art is something else. I have always believed that, in his prime, Mr. Ellsworth had an eye for art that was better than that of anyone else in the field I ever met.

The museums have lost a good friend, and there are many more who will mourn and miss Robert Ellsworth.