Journal of Global Buddhism 2023, Vol.24 (1)

Research Article

Reimagining a Buddhist Cosmopolis: Conveying Marble Buddhist Images from Burma to China, 1890s-1930s

Beiyin Deng ORCID logo

Arizona State University


Discussions about Buddhist connections between China and Southeast Asia in the late Qing and Republican periods often conform to a meta-narrative of Buddhist modernism that emphasizes the trajectories of eminent monks and reformative initiatives in and beyond China. Drawing on research on archives in China and Myanmar (Burma) and field visits to temples and museums in China, this article investigates the efforts to convey marble Buddhas from Burma to China by a broad spectrum of Chinese Buddhists from the 1890s to 1930s as a strain of Buddhist mobility that has receive scant attention in the studies of transregional Buddhist interconnectivities. It examines how the fascination with marble, which is vernacularly categorized as jade/white jade in Chinese, motivated such endeavors and how these icons shaped the perception of a developing Buddhist cosmopolis among Chinese Buddhists by helping them locate Burma in the Buddhist world in a spiritually and materially meaningful way.

In 1912, Buddhist Studies Magazine (Ch. Foxue congbao 佛學叢報), one of the earliest Buddhist periodicals in China, published a photo of a Buddha statue (Figure 1). Sitting composedly with his hands tied in the earth-awakening mudra, the Buddha was covered by a thick robe that was full of loose folds. His downcast eyes and tranquil smile conveyed to his beholders a sense of calmness. Chinese Buddhists could immediately tell the foreignness of this statue, as many stylistic features, such as the Buddha’s slim body, his oval face, the crown that he wears, and his right shoulder that was intentionally laid bare, were essentially distinctive from traditional Chinese Buddhist icons. The caption beneath proclaimed that “the jade Buddha preserved in Yufo Si (Ch. 玉佛寺) in Jiangwan1 was conveyed from India-Ceylon” (MFQ 2006: 1: 371). In 1919, a picture of another jade Buddha was included in Awakening Society Collectanea (Ch. Jueshe congshu 覺社叢書) (Figure 2). The editor only mentioned that it was enshrined in the Lama Temple, or Yonghe Palace, in Beijing, without revealing further information about its provenance (MFQ 2006: 3: 171). Unfortunately, not all the details about these jade Buddhas were accurate. Neither were their trajectories to China clearly recounted to the audience.

The arrival of these two Buddhas in China was the outcome of the reinvigorated exploration of the Buddhist cosmopolis by Chinese Buddhists since the late nineteenth century. The jade Buddha in Yufo Si was conveyed to China in May 1899 by a monk named Huigen 慧根, who was dispatched by Kunbao Henan 坤寶和南, the abbot of Puji Si (Ch. 普濟寺) on Mount Putuo, to search for Buddha statues abroad for his temple renovation project (Shenbao 申報,2 May 18, 1899).3 Dr. Joseph Edkins, Huigen’s contemporary and a British missionary Sinologist, described him as “an interesting man who had travelled much in Buddhist countries,” (Edkins 1896-1897: 203) and in their private conversation, Huigen mentioned that he spent most of his three-year trip in the Oudh State,4 where marble quarries were located and where those images were carved. Since Oudh was geologically classified as Gangetic alluvium where no rock or stone is found except nodular limestone (Meyer et al. 1908: 277), and the statues that Huigen procured were typical Mandalay-style Buddhas (see below), it is more reasonable to conclude that both the extraction of raw material and the carving were completed in Burma.5 Later, Huigen established Yufo Si in Jiangwan to enshrine two of the five jade Buddhas, one seated and one reclining, which he had left in Shanghai for exhibition before his departure to Mount Putuo.6

Figure 1: The Jade Buddha preserved in Yufo Temple, Jiangwan.” Buddhist Studies Magazine, Issue 3, 1912.