By Denise Patry Leidy

Lacquer, which is an amazing material, was used as a protective covering in China as early as the Neolithic period. Many of the techniques used in the production of the three buddhas under discussion here, such as mixing lacquer with bone ash, were known in China as early as the Warring States period (475–221 BCE),[i] which saw the flourishing of lacquer to make coffins, boxes, and other vessels. The use of cloth between lacquer and wood, as well as the addition of bone, blood, and other substances, also occurred at that time, as did the hollow-core lacquer technique. The latter, first found in the fourth century BCE,[ii] was rare and apparently reserved for special, expensive, and important pieces.[iii]

The first record of lacquer Buddhist sculpture appears in sixth- and seventh-century texts discussing the production in the mid-fourth century of five now-lost “portable” images by Dai Kui (died 395), a gentleman-polymath and fervent Buddhist.[iv] Once displayed in the Waguan Temple in present-day Nanjing, these extraordinary sculptures, produced after years of thought and planning, were described as emitting continuous light, a reference to their potency and miraculous abilities. The description of these five extraordinary works as “portable” likely refers to the use of the hollow-core lacquer technique for their manufacture[v]: as mentioned in “Construction from the Inside Out,” once the core is removed, such sculptures are amazingly lightweight.

Written evidence for the use of lacquer in Buddhist sculpture first appears in a 406 CE rendition of the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma pundarika sutra) by the Kuchean exegete Kumarajiva (344–413), famed for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese. The 406 sutra is the first recension of this important text to list lacquer as an artistic medium for the production of icons. Additional references to lacquer sculpture are found sporadically in texts from the fifth and sixth centuries.[vi] It is interesting to note that most either refer to sets of sculptures or to the exceptional height of some of the works, suggesting that commissioning lacquer sculpture was inherently the purview of high-ranking individuals and clerics.

A dark, leaning bodhisattva, seated
Figure 8

The three life-size sculptures discussed herein, which date to the late sixth and early seventh centuries, are the earliest preserved examples of the use of lacquer to make Chinese Buddhist sculpture. The eighth-century bodhisattva head from a private collection analyzed in “Construction from the Inside Out,” along with two comparable works in London and a small eighth-century sculpture of an attendant bodhisattva (fig. 8), provide evidence for the use of lacquer throughout the Tang dynasty. Now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the attendant was most likely once part of a large assemblage of figures, presumably a set of two or more bodhisattvas that accompanied a buddha.

Despite the paucity of extant Chinese examples, evidence for the importance of lacquer sculpture, particularly the hollow-core technique, during the seventh and eighth centuries is also found in Korea and in Japan. This was an era of significant political, cultural, and economic ties among the nations of East Asia. Chinese translations of Buddhist texts, Chinese practice traditions, and Chinese styles in sculpture and painting (which echoed contemporaneous South and Central Asian imagery) served as the epicenter for a multinational artistic style, disseminated by monks and, at times, artists of various nationalities throughout East Asia. Developed earlier in China, the hollow-core lacquer technique also spread as part of this intense East Asian Buddhist exchange.

While no hollow-core lacquer sculptures dating to this period exist in Korea, the use of lacquer to embellish the surface of an early seventh-century Korean wood sculpture of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara indicates that this technology was found there as well. Now in the Hōryūji, this life-size work is known as the Kudara Kannon,[vii] a reference to its construction in Korea’s Baekje kingdom, which is credited with introducing Buddhism to Japan in the sixth century.

Also dating to the seventh century, sculptures of the guardians of the four cardinal directions in the Taimadera in Nara[viii] are the earliest preserved Japanese examples of hollow-core lacquer construction. Moreover, in the first half of the eighth century, hollow-core lacquer was widely used in ateliers at imperial temples such as Tōdaiji and Tōshōdaiji, based in the capital city of Nara, the center for Buddhist practice in Japan at the time.[ix]

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