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Ningbo Buddhist Paintings

“Ningbo Buddhist Painting,” a term created by Japanese scholars in the 1960s, refers to a large corpus of paintings produced in the Chinese port city Ningbo (in nowadays Zhejiang Province) during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) Dynasties. Painted in a colorful and meticulous style and usually produced in sets, these paintings feature themes of Chinese Buddhism and Buddhist folklores, such as “Five Hundred Arhats” and “Ten Kings of Hells”. Known from the inscriptions, the paintings were commissioned by individuals for Buddhist rituals, for instance, the ritual of “Water-Land Retreat”, and produced as ready-made art products in professional painting studios in the Ningbo area. They were not only circulated in the Chinese art market during the Song and Yuan Period but also exported to Japan and other lands along the “Maritime Silk Road”. As a matter of fact, all the extant Ningbo Buddhist Paintings were preserved in Japan, though since the late 19th century, many of them have entered into the major museums in the West. These paintings provide precious material for the study of China-Japan cultural interaction, Song-yuan period artistic production, Buddhist art and rituals, and regional artistic tradition of Zhejiang area.

In the Chinese Song Dynasty Gallery of Boston Museum of Fine Arts, two paintings belonging to this category are now on view: “Lohan in meditation attended by a serpent” and “Lohan manifesting himself as an eleven-headed Guanyin”. Both paintings were sold from Daitokuji, a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto, Japan, to western collections in the late 19th century. Originally, they belong to a large set of paintings called “Five Hundred Lohans” produced by a Ningbo painter, Zhou Jichang 周季常, in about 1178 AD. Interestingly, the images of the patron of this art project, the leading monk, as well as the painters could be found in one of the paintings. With the development of Buddhist belief in China, such an art project was believed to be an act of merit which would ensure a better after time and a better future rebirth.

Further Reading:

Yukio Lippit, “Ningbo Buddhist Painting: A Reassessment”, Orientations, Volume 40 -5, 2009.

Phillip E. Bloom, “Ghosts in the Mists: The Visual and the Visualized in Chinese Buddhist Art, ca. 1178”, The Art Bulletin, 98:3, pp297-320, 2016.

Lohan Paintings from Ningbo in MFA:

Chinese Song Dynasty Gallery of MFA:

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