In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Portraiture in East Asian Buddhist Art

  • Introduction
  • The Place of Portraiture
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Portraits and Mummies
  • Portraits of Abbesses
  • Robes, Regalia, and Ritual Objects
  • Transformations and Self-Portraits

Buddhism Portraiture in East Asian Buddhist Art
Elizabeth Horton Sharf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0233


In English, the word “portrait” is generally understood to indicate an image of a specific person, place, or thing. Cognate terms and phrases (portraiture, portraitist, portrait painting, portrait sculpture, self-portrait, portrayal) and numerous kindred words used in English today (picture, drawing, sketch, impression, depiction, representation, vignette, profile, likeness, study, miniature, oil, photograph, statue, model, carving, statuette, effigy, bust, head, cast, figure, figurine) conjure up busts of Roman emperors, old masters drawings, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, public statues of national heroes, and celebrity photographs. As in the West, in East Asia there are numerous terms for portraits and a wide variety of portrait subjects. We find emperors and empresses, courtiers and court ladies, poets and scholars, saints and clerics, semi-legendary figures, and military heroes. The most obvious subjects that fall under the rubric “Portraiture in East Asian Buddhism Art” are ecclesiastical, but lay, imperial, and military subjects enshrined or stored in Buddhist temples are included too; many are portrayed in monastic robes, having taken the tonsure. Most extant and recorded East Asian Buddhist portraits especially before the modern period are of elite persons and portray many more male than female subjects. Fewer scholars have studied extant portraits of lay Buddhist women and nuns. Are portrayals of deities or of semi-legendary figures also portraits? Most studies of buddhas and bodhisattvas, guardian figures, and other classes of divine beings in East Asian Buddhism are omitted here because Buddhist deities are generally not viewed as portrait subjects. Any given image, however, may be called a portrait. Perhaps there is a perception of naturalistic representation or specific identity. Or, as in the case of sculptures in the lineage of the Udayana Buddha image, the latter carved while the Buddha was alive to function as a surrogate, the image is traditionally identified as a portrait. In fact, the Udayana image is extoled traditionally as an exact double. Likewise, portraits of abbots and abbesses functioned as icons, and mummies of prelates were also worshipped. In light of the dominant iconic function of portraits in East Asian Buddhist art, scholars in recent decades have come to highlight ritual context both over conventional art-historical formal analysis (which, by focusing on style, tends to isolate the object from its context) and over the scouring of texts to find facile identifications of subjects, motifs, or iconographic and biographical details. East Asia encompasses China and its cultural satellites, Japan and Korea; the reader will notice that far more coverage goes to Japan than to Korea, in part owing to the number and antiquity of celebrated Buddhist portraits extant in Japan. Abundant sources in foreign languages are found in the notes and bibliographies of cited works.

The Place of Portraiture

For many different reasons, Buddhist portraits are comparatively absent from galleries and publications. Only isolated studies of Chinese portraiture are available before the 1990s, when several seminal studies appear. These include Wu 1992, which revisits the celebrated funerary banner from Mawangdui featuring one of China’s earliest extant portraits to explain anew what it is and how it functioned, and Spiro 1990, a study of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove theme as it took form in China in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. Spiro 1990, one of the first book-length accounts of Chinese portraiture in either China or the West, describes how portraits evolved in body type and facial individuation from ancient classical norms. One reason portraiture has been marginalized is because the genre, from ancient times a venerable discipline, eventually came to be viewed by the educated elite as inferior to poetry, calligraphy, and ink landscape painting—the literary arts; “artisans” produced portraits, not “artists.” Bush 2012 traces this transition to the 11th century. This transition is briefly noted in Rawson 1992, which offers a token synopsis of Chinese portraiture (p. 107) in a chapter (“Calligraphy and Painting for Official Life”) highlighting the esteem for the scholarly arts over decorative and didactic painting. Another reason may be the distinct mortuary context of formal portraiture. Siggstedt 1992, which opens with a synopsis of the history of formal portrait painting and how it declined in prestige in the course of the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, argues that formal portraiture informed by the art of physiognomy was essential for the proper carrying out of ancestral rites. Not simply a painting, the portrait becomes the ancestor and therefore must be an exacting likeness. Clunas 1997 presents a little-published group portrait of Chan abbots extant in Japan, noting the fluid boundary between monk and scholar in Yuan China; the author follows portraiture as it regains its footing as an elite genre in later centuries. Many assume that the body of well-known portraits extant in Japan reflect their original numbers; in fact, great numbers of portraits have been lost to natural attrition and to the disappearance of caring communities. Despite this neglect, many portraits are held in the highest regard. Paine and Soper 1990 presents a sensitive selection and description of Japan’s best surviving portraits and portrait-like objects. Kieschnick 2003 does not address portraits directly but its chapter on the sacred power of the icon in Buddhism is a must-read for understanding the appeal of portraits as icons. See General Overviews for other resources on the place of portraiture in East Asia.

  • Bush, Susan. The Chinese Literati on Painting: Su Shih, 1037–1101, to Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang, 1555–1636. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

    See especially the section titled “Pre-Sung and Sung Views on Representation” (pp. 13–21), which highlights a transition in the Sung dynasty among artists of the scholarly class away from an early preoccupation with formal likeness.

  • Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Clunas’ brief treatment of religious portraiture (pp. 120–121) nonetheless captures how portraiture eventually became “marginalized as an aesthetic value among the literate élite.” See chapter 4, “Art in the Life of the Élite” for Chinese aesthetic theory. See p. 188 for “the revival of esteem” for portraiture in the 17th century.

  • Kieschnick, John. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    “Icons” (pp. 52–80) in chapter 1 treats the place, prevalence, manufacture, interpretation, and animation of images applicable to portraits venerated as icons, although portraiture is not singled out for discussion. Lucid exposition of central themes in Buddhist imagery. Suitable for undergraduates.

  • Paine, Robert Treat, and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. 3d ed. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1990.

    Originally published in 1955. Organized chronologically, touches on major surviving works of Japanese art and architecture. Portrait paintings and sculptures, and depictions of deities and masks associated with portraiture, appear throughout, sensitively described in terms of style and historical context. Suitable for undergraduates. “Chinsō portraiture” is indexed (pp. 121, 162, 164).

  • Rawson, Jessica, ed. The British Museum Book of Chinese Art. London: British Museum, 1992.

    Ancient portraiture belongs to the category of didactic, as opposed to decorative, painting; repeats debunked ideas about Zen portraits, noting portraits of Chan masters are “often given to [Japanese] disciples”; acknowledges ancestor portraits. Substantial coverage of Buddhist painting and eloquent account of the literary arts.

  • Siggstedt, Mette. “Forms of Fate: An Investigation of the Relationship Between Formal Portraiture, Especially Ancestral Portraits, and Physiognomy (Xiangshu) in China.” In Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Chinese Art History, 1991: Painting and Calligraphy, 2 vols. Vol. 2, 713–748. Taipei: National Palace Museum, 1992.

    Contends that portrait techniques of realism and verisimilitude owed their tenacity, even in later imperial times when the aesthetics of brushwork dominated mainstream Chinese painting, to the requirements of ancestral rites and to the belief in principles of physiognomy that accorded positive qualities to three-dimensionality in depicting the human subject.

  • Spiro, Audrey G. Contemplating the Ancients: Aesthetic and Social Issues in Early Chinese Portraiture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

    This reflection on the astonishing transformation in portraiture from formal Han Confucian archetypes to relaxed post-Han paradigms is instructive for anyone wishing to study Chinese Buddhist portraits, not only for her methodology, but also for shared forms and functions.

  • Wu Hung. “Art in Ritual Context: Rethinking Mawangdui.” Early China 17 (1992): 111–144.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0362502800003692

    A groundbreaking study of the full ritual context of an East Asian portrait. As a focus for prayers and other expressions of devotion to the deceased, the well-known Han dynasty funerary banner depicting Lady Dai and celebrated for its aesthetic complexities prefigures how portraits functioned in Buddhist funerals.

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