Chinese books state that between the fourth and the eighth centuries “the art of painting man and things underwent a vital change.” By this they alluded to the intervention of Buddhist art, which made its appearance in China toward the fifth century in the form of the Graeco-Indian art of Gandhara, already modified by its transit across Eastern Turkestan. This by no means indicates that purely Indian origins might not be found for it. At Sanchi, as well as in Central India and at Ajantâ such characteristics are preserved. But the Greek dynasties which had settled in northwestern India in the train of Alexander, had carried with them the canons of Hellenistic art. The technique and methods of this art were placed at the service of the new religion. They gave to Buddhist art—which was just beginning to appear in the Gandharian provinces—its outward form, its type of figures, its range of personages and the greater part of its ornamentation. [9]

Buddhism found the expiring Hellenistic formula which had been swept beyond its borders, ready at hand at the very moment the new religion was gathering itself together for that prodigious journey which, traversing the entire Far East, was to lead it to the shores of the Pacific. Once outside of India, it came into contact with Sassanian Persia and Bactria. With Hellenistic influences were mingled confused elements springing from the scattered civilizations which had reigned over the Near East. Thence it spread to the byways of Eastern Turkestan.

We know today, thanks to excavations of the German expeditions of Grünwedel and von Lecoq, the two English expeditions of Sir Aurel Stein and the French expedition of M. Pelliot, that in that long chain of oases filled with busy cities, Buddhist art was gradually formed into the likeness under which it was to appear as a finished product in the Far East. Here it developed magnificently. The enormous frescoes of Murtuq display imposing arrangements of those figures of Buddhas and Bôdhisatvas which were to remain unchanged in the plastic formulas of China and Japan. Meanwhile conflicting influences continued to be felt. Sometimes the Indian types prevailed, as at Khotan, at others there were Semitic types and elements originating in Asia Minor, such as were found at Miran, and at length, as at Tun-huang, types that were almost entirely Chinese appeared.

The paintings brought from Tun-huang by the Stein and Pelliot expeditions enable us to realize the nature of the characteristics which contact with China imposed upon Buddhist art. It had no choice but to combine with the tendencies revealed in the painting of Ku K’ai-chih. The painter trained in the school of Hellenistic technique drew with the brush. He delighted in the rhythmic movement of the line and the display of a transcendent harmony and elegance of proportion such as are seen in the frescoes of Eastern Turkestan. Perhaps through contact with China—herself searching for new expressions—but probably through a combination of the two influences, Buddhist painting, at the opening of the T’ang dynasty, gives us heavier types in which compact and powerful figures take on a new character.

From then on we perceive the nature of the great change to which the early books refer. Chinese painting had already known the genii and fairies of Taoism, the Rishi or wizards living in mountain solitudes, the Immortals dwelling in distant isles beyond the sea. It now knew gods wrapped in the ecstatic contemplation of Nirvana, with smiling mouth and half-closed eyes, revealing mystic symbols in a broad and apostolic gesture. It had more life-like figures, attendants, benign and malignant, terrifying demons. Before these impassive gods, in a fervor of devotion it bent the figures of donors, men and women, sometimes veritable portraits. With even greater breadth it portrayed the disciples of Sakyamuni, those anchorites and hermits who under the name of Lohan [10] have entered into Chinese Buddhist legend. Indian priests with harsh, strongly marked features and wrinkled faces, preachers of a foreign race, disfigured by scourging or else the calm full visage of the ecstatic in contemplation,—such are the types that appeared. Chinese painters took up the new subjects and treated them with a freedom, an ease, and a vitality which at once added an admirable chapter to the history of art.