Celestial Musician

  • China, Hebei province, Wuan
  • China, Northern Qi period
  • about 560
  • Limestone
  • H-50.5
Catalogue Entry

Simply rounded forms chiseled from gray limestone create this engaging relief of a celestial musician, known as an apsaras in Sanskrit or tianjen in Chinese, depicted playing the sheng. This instrument is a mouth organ consisting of a number of bamboo pipes of different lengths, a pipe for blowing in air, and fingering keyholes.1 The musician gently holds the sheng in both hands, and his closed eyes and beatific expression convey a sense of rapture in its heavenly sounds.

Apsarases, usually represented as females, are flying celestials, often musicians or dancers, hovering in attendance to Buddhas and bodhisattvas in paradise scenes. Paradise cults offered Buddhist believers salvation in the form of rebirth into a paradise where attainment of nirvana was easy and certain. The available evidence from the mid-sixth century and later, such as the large relief depicting the Paradise of Amitabha now in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., as well as a number of votive stelae, indicate the rising influence of paradise cults in China at this time.2

By the mid-sixth century, more ascetic ethereal forms with complex cascades of drapery and scarves had shifted to the rounded, more expansive forms defined by closer fitting and simpler garments, as in this example. Xiangtangshan, one of the important early Buddhist cave temple complexes in northern China, which was opened in the mid-sixth century, preserves excellent examples of these later stylistic features. The Xiangtangshan cave temples are believed to have been established by two Northern Qi emperors, both great devotees of the Buddhist religion. These caves temples lie across the frontier of two provinces: the northern group of caves is in Wuan prefecture, Henan province, and the southern group in Zixian prefecture, Hebei province.3

The Shumei musician was probably removed from a wall of the northern temple group at Xiangtangshan. Examples of sculpture from Xiangtangshan are extremely rare outside of China; two more fragmentary relief sculptures are in a private collection in Japan: the head and shoulders of a lute player and a flute player, both of which share stylistic features with the Shumei example.4

1. Sheng became visible in tombs at least as early as the Western Han period, with examples preserved in lacquered wood in Tombs 1 and 3 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, c. 168 B.C. (see Pirazzoli-t'Serstevens 1982, p. 54). The instrument was also quite common in tombs during the Three Kingdoms-Six Dynasties period.
2. See Pal 1984, pp. 272-73; Wright 1971, p. 59 and n.2; and Davidson 1954, pp. 58-61. The large relief now in the Freer Gallery was probably taken from Cave II of the southern group of Buddhist cave temples at Xiangtangshan and shows remarkable resemblance to composition found at Borobudur (see Soper 1960, p. 95). For an additional Northern Qi example see Shanghai 1996, no. 38.
3. Mizuno and Nagahiro 1937, pp. 1-10.
4. Ibid., introductory essay, pl. 4. Both the fragmentary lute player and the flute player are in the collection of Shoichi Fujiki, Tarazuka, Japan.