Buddha triad, Eastern Wei dynasty (534-550), Courtesy of Aurora Museum, Shanghai

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The image of Buddha went through continuous transformations as it synthesized with cultural contexts over time, revealing a nomadic, plural and progressive notion of beauty.

“Your form is a jewel to see,
your speech is a jewel to hear,
your teachings are a jewel to reflect upon.
Truly, you are a mine bearing the jewels of goodness.”
—Matrceta’s Hymn to the Buddha
Buddha has inspired many through time. Or is it his image that has done so? Is there an adequate notion of beauty in Buddhist art?

What follows is a quest for beauty as emergence out of nomadic order based on some of the highlights of the Aurora Museum’s collection. At the center are works of Buddhist art from the 6th century, found in today’s Shandong province in eastern China. Belonging to a brilliant and strange moment in Buddhist art history, they embody transitory states of worldview characteristic of the nomadic, non-Chinese reign of the time. This is to be paralleled by a cultural philosophical reading of the works, taking the nomadic as a metaphor for pure vital speed, irreducible to preset structures.
Buddhism sprung from the Indian subcontinent and was introduced to China at the beginning of the Common Era. It was in China that it widely developed, synthesized with local thinking systems. Our view of Buddhism today and its associated imagery resources is inevitably colored by its recent past, which is all the more reason for revisiting its lesser-known past to set our perspective, once again, in motion.
One of the most effective agents for spreading Buddhism was the Kushan Empire (30–375), formed by nomadic people originally from the Steppe, who settled in the southern part of Central Asia and northern part of Indian subcontinent. Being at the nodal point of trade coming from the Roman Empire, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, and all the way to China, the Kushans negotiated between and adapted themselves to different religions and cultures. It is well known that Hellenistic influences on Buddhist imagemaking resulted in the amazing syncretic Greco-Buddhist style from Gandhara in today’s Afghanistan, then part of Kushan Empire. But we should not overlook that the works were patronized by the Kushans and therefore bear traits of their nomadic culture as well. For example, statues of the Buddha in Kushan times often stand with two feet pointing outside, which mirrors a typical posture of horse-riding people.
In early Chinese Buddhist history, the religion was known as Xiangjiao (“teaching of the icons”), indicating a culture of reverence for icons that is to endure until today. But it was a considerable challenge transmitting Buddhist imagery in the formative years, given the meager means of travel and communications. It seems that early practitioners collected and communicated with descriptions and sketches, as well as through cult images carved onto stone, clay, wood and bronze, sometimes in the form of coin and ornament. Archeological findings of such coins from the Kushan Empire would seem to support this “transmission” hypothesis.
From here on, we will borrow the image of historical Central Asia nomads as metaphor for a cultural philosophy. According to Deleuze and Guattari, what distinguishes the nomadic and the sedentary order is that in the latter, space is distributed to people, and in the former, people are distributed to space. The distribution is in itself undertaken through constant movement—the nomadic people settle in place, but always move on. The nomadic culture sees no boundaries, is not constrained to structured governance, and does not fall into stagnated forms of representation.
Furthermore, historical Central Asian nomads were goldsmiths on the move. For them, metallic jewelry and ornament were not detached from nomadic activities, but were born out of mobility. They attached fibulas, gold or silver plaques and pieces of jewelry to small movable objects. Not only were the resulting objects easy to transport, they also “pertain to the object only as object in motion,” write Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1987). “These plaques constitute traits of expression of pure speed, carried on objects that are themselves mobile and moving.”
The early cult images carried around on tokens shared certain affinities with nomadic jewelry and ornaments. Though its content was more specific, thereby pertaining less to pure transverse speed, it was still of the nomad order insofar as it had little signifying functions: it was not used to represent Buddha, but rather as mere “reminders” of his teaching. In the above verses of Matrceta, the salute to the beauty of Buddha and his teaching comes out of a kind of subject-less identification rather than treating the Buddha and his image as is. As such, early cult images were occasioned by movement in senses both literal and abstract, without being overlaid with representational framework that governed what and how it should look like. There was, so to speak, not one dominant standard of beauty. Thus, as these tokens traveled and were traded, the devotional practice and image of Buddha synthesized with the various cultural contexts they encountered. The crucial question is: Does the nomadic spirit stay alive in these transformations?
Taking this notion of nomad-as-metaphor further, we will examine a curious array of Buddhist sculptures in the eastern contingency of the old nomadic world in the Northern Dynasties period (386–581). These particular works are from the province of Shandong in eastern China, and are part of the Aurora Museum collection.


Standing Bodhisattva, Eastern Wei dynasty (534-550), Courtesy of Aurora Museum, Shanghai_650
The Northern dynasties were a series of kingdoms in today’s northern China, established by peoples of nomadic ancestry who coexisted with the Han (i.e., ethnic) Chinese regimes that ruled the Southern dynasties in southern China. Northern Wei (386–534) united a good part of northern China and ruled steadily until it split into the Western Wei (535–556) and Eastern Wei dynasty (534–550). The latter was eventually succeeded by Northern Qi (550–577). Throughout this time of political turmoil, religious activities, arts and culture continued to prosper.
The Buddha triad from the Eastern Wei period consists of an attendant Bodhisattva on each side of the central Buddha figure. The Buddha emanates a courtly, serene aura, while one of the Bodhisattvas bears a light-hearted, almost childlike smile. Each is furnished by a touguang (head nimbus). On the lower part of the work, each of the lotus blossom pedestals holding the two Bodhisattvas seems to spring from the mouth of a dragon. The dragon is meticulously depicted, its fine hair easily distinguishable. Though seen elsewhere in early Buddhist art, the masterful depiction of dragons is a trademark of Qingzhou.
The Buddha is in traditional monk attire, consisting of the upper robe (shangzhuoyi, or in Sanskrit, uttarāsaṅga), inner robe (neiyi, or antarvāsa) and outer robe (jiasha, or saṃghāti). The outer robe is attached loosely to both shoulders and drapes down to the waist, creating a U-shaped curvature on the chest. Underneath the outer robe, one can discern the upper robe, which leaves the right shoulder open and is fixed by a sash above the waist. Both robes hang loosely to form flat, stylized curvatures at their lower edge.
Buddhist art scholar Su Bai sees this set of attire, prevalent in Buddhist art in the Northern and Eastern Wei periods until the first half of the 6th century, as inspired by traditional Confucian official attire. In the latter half of the 6th century, this was to be superseded by much thinner and lighter attire, suggesting a shift in cultural consciousness.
It’s been postulated that the oval form of votive imagery found in Qingzhou was likely inspired by preceding iterations cast in bronze. Bronze votive images of this form were popular in early 5th century and featured similar typology of one Buddha and two Bodhisattvas united by a mandorla, each with a nimbus composed of concentric circles. Other studies suggest that the depiction of folds in the Buddha’s robe, particularly pronounced in the Northern Qi period, is to be found in these earlier bronze figures, which were found in Hebei province, adjacent to Shandong province where Northern Qi was based, and hence perhaps the fount of craftsman immigrants.
For the purposes of our cultural-philosophical speculation, this connection to bronze votive images is rather stimulating. As mentioned earlier, working avidly and deftly with metal was part of nomadic life. The transformation of metal and metallurgy occurs beyond the two thresholds of material and form (such as clay and mold), but the material always contaminates the form, always distorts it. Following this, “the succession of forms tends to be replaced by the form of a continuous development.” Hence the nomadic art forms come in series and are always part of a continuous transformation.

Beauty does not happen within the event of mutation:
it is the event of mutation.

The concept of beauty is progressive: Beauty does not happen within the event of mutation—it is the event of mutation.
On a metaphorical level, metal is the immanent corporeal material naturally assuming different shapes in the event appropriate to it as part of a transverse process. Or as Deleuze and Guattari speculated, “What metal and metallurgy bring to light is a life proper to matter, a vital state of matter as such, a material vitalism that doubtless exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden or covered, rendered unrecognizable, dissociated by the hylomorphic model.”
Let us go back to art history to find traces of such serial and continuous transformation.
The Standing Bodhisattva is a rare example of Qingzhou Buddhist sculpture carved in the round from the Eastern Wei period. The figure stands in a gentle and stately pose, his head slightly inclined. He wears a lavish crown and his hair is parted into three. His attire is the traditional monk’s robe in three parts as described earlier, elegantly draping down the Bodhisattva’s chest.
It is rare that a freestanding Buddhist figure is carved in the round: the prevalent style of Northern Wei sculpture was the triad, and during the Eastern Wei period, even when the figure is freestanding, it usually has a flat and sketchily worked back. It would not be until the Northern Qi period that the round-carved figures attained popularity and the articulation of corporeality becomes full-blown.
Northern Qi Buddhist figures found in Qingzhou depart from the schematic and flattened look of the Northern and Eastern Wei period, enlivening the figures by introducing a new emphasis on the rounded, fleshy, full-blown body, now teeming with dynamism and momentum. As mentioned above, the thick and layered attire gave way to thin robes closely fitted to the contour of the body, which drapes down the chest and forms light folds—or, in some cases, no folds at all. Now, we might ask, where does that come from?
This style of body and robe depiction is found widely in Mathura and Sarnath in north India, center of Buddhist art in Gupta period in 4th and 5th centuries. At around 4th century, the influence of this style could be witnessed in sites along the Silk Road in today’s Xinjiang, the Central Asian part of China. In the early 5th century, this style surfaced in Buddhist caves in Gangsu, within Northern Wei territory.
During the reign of King Xiaowen (471–499), however, Northern Wei experienced a shift in style. A fervent admirer of Han Chinese culture, Xiaowen moved the capital further south to former Han Chinese heartland, and Sinicized the language, names and dressing style. This resulted in the Chinese Confucian-inspired attire seen in Buddhist art from this period on, as exemplified by the Buddha triad discussed earlier. By the mid-6th century, this Indian-inspired emphasis on body and thin attire had resurfaced in Shandong, then under Northern Qi rule. Su Bai suggests that this was an act of resistance on the part of Northern Qi to Northern Wei’s Sinicization, an embracement of their non-Chinese, nomad roots. Their sources of inspiration are thought to be their contemporary Han Chinese Liang Dynasty in South China, who maintained contact with South Asia via sea routes. At the same time, Northern Qi had close relations with the oasis city-state of Kucha, located along the land-route of the Silk Road in today’s Xinjiang region, which boasted an art form that assimilated Indian, Sogdian and Persian influences.
If we are to juxtapose these Qingzhou Buddhist images and figures with a set of painted pottery figures from the Tang dynasty (618–907), where merchants from Central Asia are depicted, it’s amusing to see how a general audience would immediately read the former as “Chinese” and the latter as foreign. In truth, the latter is more Chinese in its patronage, artisanship and original model. Here, we have a mode of static representation, as confirmed in the meticulous composition of non-Chinese facial features. This marks the end point of serial synthesis, slippage and mutation, and so becomes instituted in a non-nomadic order. It is therefore crucial to differentiate nomadism in spirit from Otherness in form.
What do these strange historical connections tell us about the nomadic order and beauty in movement? The nomad metaphor applied here is not meant as proposition for how we can study works for art historical purposes, which tends to institutionalize the definition of beauty relative to a time period. Instead, this study shows how beauty could not have been defined in fixed terms for the nomad, but rather emerged from constant movement amidst fresh encounters and synthesis, with the new coming from matter of the old.
This is where we can derive a nomadic notion of beauty valid not only for the historical time of nomads, but also for us today. Beauty lies in the process, eventful at the moment when mutual becomings arise. Beauty is always actively happening; it never remains the same. To suggest that this nomadic notion of beauty might remain adequate today is to challenge the locus from which we look: we have to become nomadic subjects ourselves. This critical, syncretic, nomadic subject demands that we actively try to become other, to pluralize the subject, and make the subject, once again, nomadic.
Now, more than ever, our concepts of the world need to be untied from the structures that determine our relationship with it. We need Nomadology in order to resist representation, to find strange connections, to allow uncalculated idiosyncrasy, to be inventive, to always reach beyond. Only then will our notion of beauty be once again set in motion.


You Mi is a Chinese curator and writer currently part of the academic staff at Academy of Media Arts Cologne, where she lectures and researches on globality in the arts. She is currently curating a program around the Silk Road for Asian Arts Theater in Gwangju, Korea.

Painted Pottery Figure of Male Musician, Northern Qi dynasty, Courtesy of Aurora Museum, Shanghai
Standing Bodhisattva, Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550), Courtesy of Aurora Museum, Shanghai
Buddha Triad, Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550), Courtesy of Aurora Museum, Shanghai