These two formidable figures are lokapala [lo-kah-pah-lah] or Buddhist Heavenly Kings who guard the four cardinal directions. Here, they appear as powerful military figures with fanciful armor decorated with mythical animal imagery. Lokapala served as protectors from evil and would have been placed inside Chinese temples or tombs at the four cardinal points. The decorative nature and heavy glazing of these two figures indicate this particular pair’s intended use in a tomb setting as a type of mingqi or funerary sculpture. In the Tang dynasty, funerary lokapala sculptures replaced the earlier Taoist figures that were used in Han dynasty tombs.
Part of the Buddhist tradition, lokapala [lo-kah-pah-lah] are the heavenly guardians of the four cardinal directions. Lokapala served as protectors from evil, and four figures would have been placed inside Chinese temples or tombs at the four cardinal points. Lokapala sculptures are typically made of stone, wood, or ceramic. Stone and wood examples are usually found in Buddhist temples. This pair of lokapala is made of clay built over armatures with decorative shapes applied to the surface. These materials and the decorative glazing indicate the figures’ intended use in a tomb setting. Funerary lokapala sculptures replaced the earlier Taoist fangxiang or evil-averting entities that were placed in the four corners of the Han dynasty tombs.
This pair of Lokapala appear as powerful military figures with fanciful armor, fantastic helmets, and raised hands that would have once held weapons. Their fierce physiognomy or physical characteristics seems to refer to the foreign warriors the Tang Chinese would have battled. These figures wear decorative armor rather than field armor, indicating their likely status as court guards and, therefore, the importance and high rank of the person in whose tomb they would have been placed. Their armor includes exotic animal symbolism that would have transferred the associated strength and power of animals such as elephants, tigers, and lions to the wearer. The phoenix, a common symbol in Asian art, appears on the headdresses of the two heavenly guardians. Mythical creatures also decorate the upper armor of the figures, and one figure’s legs emerge from the mouths of elephants. One guardian stands atop a reclining bull and the other a struggling demon which symbolically represent the guardians’ triumph over ignorance. The iconography of stomping on demons or beasts is borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist images, which often show a deity atop similar figures. This indicates these religions’ influence on Tang dynasty China.
Within the context of a tomb, lokapala are a type of mingqi or funerary sculpture. Early mingqi were either unglazed or decorated with simple green- or brown-glazes. The sancai or three-color technique used to create the colorful glaze of these two Tang figures flourished during the first half of the eighth century. Sancai is a hallmark of Tang dynasty clay sculpture, and by the eighth century, these lead-based glazes expanded to include hues of green, amber, yellow, brown, white, and blue. However, the most common combination is green, cream, and brown. The colors were created by adding metallic oxides like iron and copper to the lead glazes. The glaze was then splashed, streaked, and dappled over the surface of the figures. This shift towards more dynamic decoration was accompanied by figures that were more elaborate in sculptural detail as well.
Tang Chinese believed that the soul of the deceased had two distinct parts, one part that remains with the human body at death and one that traveled to paradise. The part of the spirit that remained on earth must be reassured in familiar surroundings and protected from evil forces, hence the elaborate tomb furnishings. The part of the spirit that made the journey to paradise was given provisions such as food and money. Many tombs of royals and nobility were ostentatiously decorated, and funerary art became a means for the public display of wealth in funeral processions that paraded these objects through the streets before the burial.
Mingqi or “spirit objects” are pottery or wood figures buried with the deceased in underground tombs in the form of attendants, animals, and objects of everyday use. The practice of placing mingqi in Chinese tombs was popularized during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220). Buddhist lokapala figures became part of this ancient tradition of funerary art as the religion permeated Chinese culture during the Tang dynasty. Lokapala and other types of mingqi were placed in the tombs of royalty and noblemen and believed to soothe the part of the spirit that remained on earth to ensure it stayed with the body. Some of the larger tombs were palatial in size and filled with hundreds of mingqi. Mingqi became so popular and funerary art so abundant that authorities eventually gave orders limiting the number and size of mingqi allowed in a tomb. These regulations varied according to the rank of the deceased and appear to have been largely disregarded.
The mingqi tradition replaced the earlier practice of sacrificing live humans or animals on the tomb of a royal or nobleman to serve the spirit of the deceased and dissuade evil spirits from entering the tomb. The use of mingqi in tombs reached its peak during the Tang dynasty, but continued on a lesser scale for several centuries. After the fall of the Tang dynasty in the ninth century, mingqi decreased in number and burials became more austere.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) unified China and is often referred to as the golden age in Chinese history. The Silk Road’s advancement of trade and international communication during the period established China as a cosmopolitan center with a rich and highly developed cultural climate. The capital at Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) was one of the key stops along the Silk Road and became a center for religious, scholarly, and artistic life. In 756 A.D., a series of rebellions broke the power of the hereditary aristocracy, and the emperor and many prestigious members of the aristocracy fled the capital. Although the Tang Dynasty continued until 907, its political structure was substantially weakened. Various parties began competing for political power, and when the Tang dynasty fell, uncertainty prevailed until the establishment of the Song dynasty in 960.
Taoism was founded in China by Lao-Tzu (Low-Dzuh) in the sixth-century B.C. Characterized by a concentration on nature and the forces of the universe, Taoism calls for living one’s life in harmony with the Tao, or Way, which is the predesigned and ultimately correct path for followers of Taoism. Taoism’s followers believe one should lead a life of non-action and serve their role as a part of the design of the universe, free of personal ambitions and desires, to achieve harmony.
Taoism began as a philosophy but later in the third and fourth centuries A.D. became a religion focused on the achievement of immortality. Taoist philosophy generated a large amount of literature emphasizing natural themes, which artists used as subjects in their work. Religious Taoism quickly became separated from its philosophic origins because of its principal concern of gaining immortality. The pursuit of a hermetic lifestyle, important in the quest for immortality, also played a key role. By the eighth-century, there were over 1600 active Taoist monasteries, and the religion had developed a pantheon of gods in addition to creating scriptures and monastic orders.
These lokapala, though derived from the Buddhist tradition, would be introduced into the principally Taoist tomb environment and serve a similar purpose as other mingqi funerary sculptures.
Buddhism originated in India in the sixth century B.C. and is based on the teachings of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, or Enlightened One. He taught that all life is suffering, but renouncing desires and the self can lead to a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Although no longer widely practiced in India, Buddhism has spread through South and Central Asia and as far as Japan through trade and missionary activity. Today it is one of the world’s largest religions.
Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Most scholars date Buddhism’s introduction to China to the second century A.D. Monks and traders along the Silk Road initiated its extension eastward from India, introduced first into the Himalayan region of Nepal and then spreading through mainland China. The Tang dynasty’s liberal and tolerant atmosphere accepted many foreign religions from abroad, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Of the three, Buddhism left the most lasting impression on Chinese culture. During the Tang dynasty many emperors patronized Buddhism, and monasteries were established throughout the empire. Buddhism differed greatly from the indigenous systems of Taoism and Confucianism, and the three competed for followers. However, Buddhism accommodated and incorporated many practices of the others to the extent that it became uniquely Chinese. Buddhism lost popularity in the later Five Dynasties Period (907-960), which shunned outside religions and promoted the native philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism.
1. What adjectives would you use to describe these figures?
2. Lokapala are heavenly guardians of the four directions in the Buddhist tradition. What other protectors or heroes do you know of from other cultures or contexts?
3. What are adjectives you would use to describe a hero? Are these the same or different from the ones you chose to describe these figures? How are these figures similar to or different from other protectors and heroes with whom you are familiar?
4. These lokapala figures are funerary art and were buried in tombs with the body of the deceased. What objects are associated with funerals or burials in your culture?
1. In a short essay compare and contrast the Lokapala
with another protector from the DMA collection. Consider Vishnu as Varaha
, or select another work of art.
2. Lokapala protect the tomb and the deceased. They were meant to ward off evil spirits, and their visual elements communicate their role as ferocious guardians. Draw an image of a protector figure, complete with all of the elements you believe necessary to serve the purpose of defender (i.e. clothing, weapons, tools, transportation, assistants).
4. Based on class discussion and your own personal knowledge brainstorm with your classmates a list of at least five hero figures. Next, brainstorm a list of ten adjectives that could be used to describe a hero (i.e. strong, wears a cape, has a side-kick, etc.). Then, create a table that connects the five heroes to the appropriate adjectives. *Younger students can create a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts Vishnu as Varaha
with another hero figure. What does each figure have that is unique and where do their adjectives or attributes overlap?
|Learn about Tang dynasty China.|
|Curator Anne Bromberg discusses these sculptures called lokapala.|
Capon, Edmund. Tang China: Vision and Splendour of a Golden Age. London: Macdonald Orbis, 1989. Pages 29-29 and 113. DS721.C243 1989.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 39.
Tomb Treasures from China: The Buried Art of Ancient Xi’an. San Francisco, Calif.: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1994. NK1069.S528T66 1994.
Watson, William. Tang and Liao Ceramics. New York: Rizzoli, 1984. 738.0951 W339t
Books for Students:
Cotterell, Arthur. Buller, Laura. Eyewitness Books: Ancient China. DK Children, 2005.
Sullivan, Laurence E. Religions of Humanity: The Cosmos and Wisdom of Taoism. Chelsea House Publications, 2001.
Wilkinson, Philip. Eyewitness Books – Buddhism. DK Children, 2003.
Access extensive information and teaching activities for study of the Tang and Song dynasties.
Explore international influences through Tang culture and art.
Learn about the Tang Dynasty through a summary and timeline of art and culture.
View and read about several Chinese burial sculptures in the collections of the Met.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”