The Face of the Buddha, William Empson, edited and introduced by Rupert Arrowsmith, Oxford University Press, 2016, 224 pp, 74 black and white illustrations, 25 colour plates, £30.00 (hardback)


In the days of typewriters, many book manuscripts only existed in one copy. Therefore, if this copy were mislaid, it might be gone forever, which nearly happened with William Empson’s. Composed between 1932 and 1947, with a hiatus during WWII, Empson passed his typewritten copy of The Face of the Buddha with its illustrations to his friend John Davenport before departing on a foreign trip. Alas, Davenport, later drunk in charge of the manuscript, believed he had left it in the back of a taxi, which he could not bring himself to admit to Empson until years later. He had, in fact, given it to the Ceylonese poet Tambimuttu, who in his turn gave it to a fellow editor at Poetry London named Richard March, who died shortly after. March’s papers were acquired by the British Library only in 2003, and in 2005 a curator found the long-lost manuscript, which eventually led to the author’s children identifying it. This background alone makes The Face of the Buddha extraordinary, but the story of how Empson came to write it is even more so, since the man behind Seven Types of Ambiguity was no common English professor.

In his introduction, editor Rupert Arrowsmith draws the parallel between Seven Types of Ambiguity and Empson’s theory of asymmetry in the faces of certain Buddhist statues. Arrowsmith uses Empson’s letters and other primary sources to reconstruct the story of how, in 1929, the young scholar was expelled from his Cambridge fellowship for possession of condoms, but was rescued by his mentor I. A. Richards of ‘practical criticism’ fame, who snagged him an English professorship in Tokyo. There, the young Empson had an epiphany when he beheld some Buddhist statues at Nara, and so began a kind of pilgrimage during the 1930s through Korea, China, Cambodia, Burma, Ceylon and India to retrace their development. For many readers, Arrowsmith’s introduction might be the most entertaining part of the book, with its rollicking account of Empson’s hardships and adventures as he sought to solve the mystery of the asymmetrical Buddha faces.

Empson’s revelation about Buddha faces came at the then dilapidated Yungang grottoes in China’s Shanxi Province, when many of the statues’ heads had been ‘very wickedly’ hacked off. The decapitation of many Yungang statues had the happy effect, however, of spreading them to collections around the world, so that Empson was able to study some specimens on his later travels, such as the 1935 London Exhibition of Chinese art. In fact, a Yungang head was Empson’s main piece of evidence for his theory. With it and other examples from around the orient, he took photos of each half of the face and doubled the negatives together to produce ‘right-right’ and ‘left-left’ images, which Arrowsmith places on facing pages of his book so that the reader can see the contrasts.

Empson published a short essay entitled ‘Buddhas with Double Faces’, which Arrowsmith includes as an appendix. It compresses the main arguments of the book into about 2,000 words, chiefly that at Yungang grottoes fifth-century sculptors developed a practice of giving Buddhas and bodhisattvas faces with different expressions on the left and right sides. The practice spread to the rest of East Asia, and was common until the tenth century, after which Buddhist statues’ faces became a symmetrical and conventional type. This, Empson claimed in both his essay and his book:

‘is done by the high eyebrow, soaring outwards; by the long slit eye, almost shut in meditation, which would be a frighteningly large eye if opened; and by a suggestion of the calm of childhood in the smooth lines of the mature face … they carry the main thought of the religion; for one thing the face is at once blind and all-seeing … so at once sufficient to itself and of universal charity.’

Empson had a theory of why this happened in China, not in Buddhism’s country of origin: The Indians with their tendency to asceticism had put the emphasis on the Buddha’s complete withdrawal from the world; they did not want him human. Whereas it is clear at Yun-kang [Yungang], and anyway from the Chinese temperament that the Chinese did want him human; and the easiest way to make a statue lively is to make the two sides of the face different. Overall, the facial dichotomy ‘convey[s] [Buddha’s] detachment from the world after achieving peace, and [ability] to help the worshipper’. Empson continues to speculate that this might have been related to ancient Chinese fortune telling, which interprets character and destiny by the two halves of the face. He brought this up to date with modern research, such as Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, plus Sir Cyril Burt’s and Werner Wolff’s theories.

The third, fourth and fifth chapters form the core of Empson’s book. Chapter 3 is entitled ‘Survey’, and lives up to its name by being the one in which Empson provides a run-down of how Buddhist sculpture developed, from Afghanistan to Cambodia and India to Japan via Korea. Then chapter 4, ‘Expression’, moves closer to the point with its minute analysis of Buddha faces, ‘especially the eye, nose and mouth, and the way they work on the spectator’. Here, Empson repeats his key point that the Buddha face became widespread ‘because it was found expressive on non-racial grounds’. Nonetheless, he immediately follows up by declaring that ‘the Buddha type … is really more suited to the Far Eastern outlook than to any other’. This ambiguity of Empson’s is coextensive with his overall thesis: that the Buddha face is both racially non-specific and East Asian simultaneously. It is a point that connects with his frequent comparisons to medieval Christian art, which are discussed below.

Chapter 5, ‘Asymmetry’, is the book’s climax, starting with the argument that the different expressions on the left and right sides of Buddhas’ faces chiefly manifest ‘a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper’. This technique was ‘the chief novelty of the Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture’, going beyond what was initially achieved in India and other Buddhist countries, which ‘[made] the face more human’. More specifically, Empson’s perception was that ‘the power to help the worshipper is on the right, and the calm … inherent nature … is on the left’. He saw the overall effect of these faces as having an ‘ironical and forceful politeness’. This was necessary because the ‘crucial doctrine’ of Buddha and his early followers ‘is that man is a muddle with no unifying principle, a thing that needs tidying away’; while denying that his theory could completely explain Buddhist sculpture, Empson claimed that it overcame the paradox that ‘there is no such thing as character at all’. This, he implies, might be the basis of all sculpture around the world.

In his first chapter, Empson defines the quintessence of Buddha statues in opposition to Lafcadio Hearn’s assertion that they are expressionless and G.K. Chesterton’s impression that they are ‘sneering’. While conceding that the conventional later Buddha looks ‘complacent’ and ‘superior’ because he has overcome the world, Empson insists that he tells viewers that they can achieve the same state by following his unselfish example. Yet Buddha also possesses an un-Christlike ‘impersonality which belongs to Asia as opposed to Europe’. He further declares that ‘even an unrealistic Buddha does more than a head of Christ to impose itself as a real person in the room’. Indeed, Empson’s allusions to Western medieval art are arguably the most intriguing aspect of his book. Arrowsmith states that Empson was never excited by Western classical and Renaissance sculpture, so he includes colour illustrations of the ‘Madonna of the Pillar’ in Chartres Cathedral and the Giotto-like ‘The Dead Christ and the Virgin’ painting from Italy circa 1340, which are the kinds of Western art Empson discusses.

Significantly, Empson asserts that the Buddhas of Gupta-era India were influenced by Greek sculpture, and that these introduced the ‘slit eye’ characteristic that was carried eastward until it was perfected at Yungang. Indeed, he insists that Buddha’s face is not a purely mongoloid one, and became widespread ‘because it was found expressive on non-racial grounds’:

‘… the sculptures of Yun-kang and those of Chartres make a real parallel in their use of the half-shut eye, or at any rate the ladies in those two places do. They are not using it to be ‘mystical’ … the point is that they are keeping a certain reserve of social force. They can remain conventional and yet act independently of conventions; they remain modest though they are decisive. There seems to be a feeling that the last achievement of the mystic is something that a really well brought up girl knows already. It may seem very unlikely that Chinese monks should feel this, and yet China not long after [the fifth century] was to take the mysterious step of turning Avalokitesvara … into an upper class woman (that the sculptors of Chartres had this sort of feeling about the Virgin is I suppose hardly in doubt). In other ways too I think one is haunted by parallels to the medieval in the early Buddhist work of the Far East.’

Other examples of East-West comparisons include the Yungang influence giving a Japanese Kannon (or Avalokitesvara) ‘something close to the “Greek archaic smile”’, and modern French painting ‘dissolving different things into one art object’ in the antique Asian manner. In a further remark on Japanese sculpture, Empson states that ‘[t]he statues [of the ninth century] are ‘mystical’ in the same sense as Leonardo’s faces, and use the slit-eye for subtlety like some of Giotto’s saints’.

Naturally, there is much more to East Asian and gothic religious art than just mystical slit eyes. However, the quotes above show clearly that Empson found a point in common between East and West that transcends space, time and race. In this, he was a true pioneer. In fact, he could be said to have theoretically solved the asymmetry between East and West, just as he did for poetic metaphors in Seven Types of Ambiguity. Therefore, Empson’s lead can be followed by cross-cultural and comparative studies today. In addition to that, people who admire dedication to a cultural quest will appreciate Empson’s determination to solve the mystery of Buddhas’ facial asymmetry. Thanks to Arrowsmith’s introduction and Empson’s analysis, readers can pursue their own cultural quests with renewed vigour; the whole volume is a thought-provoking inspiration.

Hal Swindall is a California native who earned his PhD in comparative literature at UC Riverside in 1994. Since then, he has travelled East Asia as a vagabond English prof, and is presently at Jinan University in Guangzhou (Canton), China. His dissertation was on fin de siècle British, French and Italian novels, but he has found new interests in the orient. His most recent publication is a co-translation with Jicheng Sun entitled The Verse of Shao Xunmei (Homa & Sekey, 2016). Hal’s interests include translating, editing, art history, temples, French food, long walks and classical music.

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