World's Distinguished Collector: Unveiling Cao Xingcheng's Collection of Buddhist Artworks

In the previous interview, The Value invited the Master of Le Cong Tang, Cao Xingcheng, to talk about two rare porcelains from his collection. This time, he is going to take us on a tour of his home in Hong Kong and show us some of his Buddhist artworks. Ready to be amazed by his exquisite collection, dubbed the mini version of the Palace Museum.

A Gilt-Bronze Figure of Vairocana of the 15th Century

C: This figure of Vairocana comes from Densatil Monastery, possibly in the early Ming dynasty. From the photo taken in 1948, it was just like that. It is not put on any pedestal. Vairocana is one of the “Five Great Buddhas” or the “Five Wisdom Tathagatas” in Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore, there are at least five figures in the original set.

Q: What are the “Five Great Buddhas”?

C: Here are the “Five Great Buddhas”: Vairocana at the centre, Amitabha in the west, Akshobhya in the east, Ratnasambhava in the south and Amoghasiddhi in the north. Vairocana is the middle one so it is the principal deity. Siddhārtha Gautama is also the incarnation of Vairocana.

Thangkas of the Five Great Buddhas of Yuan Dynasty

C: These four are thangkas of the Five Great Buddhas from the Yuan dynasty, missing Vairocana at the centre. Together with Vairocana, these four Buddhas form the “Five Great Buddhas”.

Q: What is the difference among the “Five Great Buddhas”?

C: Their hand gestures are different.

This is Akshobhya in the East with Bhumyakramana-Mudra (earth-touching hand gesture) and it is also called “Immovable One”; 

This is Ratnasambhava in the South with Varada-Mudra (boon-granting hand gesture);

This is Amitabha in the West; 

This is Amoghasiddhi in the north with Abhaya -Mudra (protection hand gesture).

Q: What do the “Five Great Buddhas” represent?

C: They represent five types of wisdom that curb the “five poisons”. In Buddhism, afflictions come from the “five poisons”: Ignorance, greed, hatred, pride and doubt. When we are afflicted with the “five poisons”, it is like living in hell; With the salvation from the “Five Great Buddhas”, we are back in heaven. Put it in our understanding today, we are like living in a repeated cycle of wandering between hell and heaven every day.

Q: Can you tell us more about the five types of wisdom and the “five poisons”?

C: Vairocana curbs ignorance; Amitabha curbs greed; Akshobhya curbs aversion like anger and hatred; Ratnasambhava curbs pride and Amoghasiddhi curbs doubt.

Q: How is Buddhist artwork from the Yuan dynasty different from the Ming dynasty’s?

C: The design in the Yuan dynasty was wider and broader. Look at this thangka of Yuan dynasty. Thangkas of Ming dynasty were mostly very small, like everything squeezed together.

A Figure of Parnasavari of Densatil Monastery of the 14th Century.

C: This is a figure of Parnasavari dressed in leaves, also from Densatil Monastery. Parnasavari tastes medical herbs so she is like the Buddhist version of Shennong.

Q: How should we appreciate this figure of Parnasavari?

C: This figure of Parnasavari is in different dancing poses and it is really dynamic. It is an unorthodox design for artworks in that period.

A Stucco Head of Buddha Gandhara of Sui Dynasty

C: Buddhism reached its climax in China during Sui and Tang dynasties. Buddhist sculptures in Sui dynasty were colossal and a sculpture of sitting Buddhist is taller than any ordinary person. It is about one to two storeys tall for a sculpture of standing Buddhist.

Q: How should a good Buddhist sculpture look?

C: A good Buddhist sculpture should have an enigmatic smile on it, instead of a cheerful smile.  That’s what we called a state of “joy in the Dharma”. The smile is ambiguous and so mesmerising, like Mona Lisa’s smile.

Q: What is so special about this stucco head of Buddha Gandhara of Sui dynasty?

C: It is a manifestation of Greco-Buddhism and its nose is very sharp. When Alexander the Great marched eastward, he brought the art of Greek sculpture to Gandhara. It was then introduced to China during the 1st to 2nd century. This figure was made in the 6th century and it syncretized the Western and Eastern culture. The eyes are more of the Eastern style but the nose is still kept in the Greek style. All Buddhist sculptures are still keeping this feature.

Backstone Sculpture of Lioness. Tang Dynasty

C: There are mainly two types of stone lions: a male lion which has its front paw on an embroidered ball and a lioness with a cub. This one here is lioness.

Q: How did you acquire this stone lion?

C: It went to auction in New York in 1977. Later, I saw a photo of it and I was interested in it. Until five to six years ago, the owner put it on sale again so I bought it immediately. I had been thinking about it for 20 years.

Q: Did the lion that commonly seen in Chinese artwork exist in ancient China?

C: There were tigers but no lions in ancient China. The Buddhist version of the lion was originally introduced to China as the protector of dharma.

Cao’s comprehensive knowledge of Buddhist artworks and Buddhism is very impressive. In the next interview, Cao will share with us his passion and romance for collecting, as well as his thoughts on science and aesthetics.