Localizing Sacrality: Imagery of Buddhist Divine Monks in Ninth to Twelfth Century Chinese Visual Culture

Ma, Cho Wun, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wong, Dorothy, AS-Art (ARTD), University of Virginia

Depictions of historical Buddhist masters as divine personages played a key role in the localization of Buddhism because they allowed devotees to engage and negotiate their relationship with the sacred world. This dissertation investigates the images of the best-known divine monk Sengqie (–710), an eminent master who emigrated from Central Asia to Tang China. Dated to the late ninth through the early twelfth centuries, when China fragmented into multicultural polities, sculpted and painted images of Sengqie flourished in cave shrines, cliff surfaces, and pagoda crypts in the border zones of China. These images conveyed his identities as emanations of Buddhist deities and historical figures through a variety of iconographic features and compositions, as well as spatial and architectural contexts.

This study treats the images of Sengqie as visual nexuses of iconographic traditions, hagiographies, and territorial identities. It examines how did Sengqie as depicted in cave shrines and pagodas crypts offer audiences an experience of sacred place. By installing images that linked a known figure associated with a particular place to a bodhisattva not attached to a particular place, how did visual arts affect and transform local Buddhists’ understanding of their communities and the place they lived in?

This study of divine monk imagery also foregrounds the movement of population and local religious needs. Considering Sengqie as an immigrant, why and how did Buddhists represent and worship him in particular? For the multiethnic and migrant communities in the border zones of China, how did representations of Sengqie capture their experiences of relocation? In what ways did the portrayals of Sengqie enable devotees to create spatial and temporal affinities with the ancient homeland of Buddhism? Taking artworks as visual devices negotiating movement and relation of places, this project demonstrates how Buddhists drew upon or modified the visual paradigms of transmission lineage, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, relics worship, and miraculous manifestation. It is the awareness of the flexibility of Sengqie’s movement and stories, as well as regional visual traditions and liturgical practices, that ultimately allowed the images of Sengqie to affirm a local-centered territorial identity.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Divine monk, Tang Dynasty, Song Dynasty, Buddhism, Localization, Rock carving
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