Reconceiving the Buddha's Realm: Buddhist Stupa/Pagoda Imagery of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589 CE), China

Zhao, Jinchao, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wong, Dorothy, AS-Art, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates the Chinese reception and appropriation of Buddhist stūpa worship during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386–581 CE) by examining stūpa and pagoda imagery and relevant textual sources. Despite the lacuna of actual building remains, surviving Chinese stūpa and pagoda imagery from this period exhibits remarkable diversity in terms of iconography, pictorial programs, and dedicational practices, entailing a much more complex and multifaceted process of integration and assimilation of the foreign symbol, motif, and concept into the Chinese religious landscape. Each of the two terms, “stūpa” and “pagoda,” have a broader reference and more contested history of use in various research contexts. The terminological obscurity persisted through the field over the past century. To avoid ambiguity, this study uses pagoda to refer to multistory structures whereas stūpa to all the other forms. Yet this diversity and its implications of the stūpa worship have not received sufficient discussion due to previous scholarship’s primary focus on reconstructing an evolutionary development of the structure from stūpa to pagoda buildings. The present study employs a contextual instead of an architectural approach to analyze the underexplored visual materials of stūpa/pagoda imagery in their pictorial, historical, and social contexts. It challenges the previous assumption of an unaltered transmission of stūpa/pagoda worship, explicates the complexity and diversity in its integration into the Chinese religious landscape, and illuminates the active role played by both the learned circles and the ordinary worshippers of the recipient culture in the dynamic process of integrating and assimilating foreign concepts, motifs, and symbols into the local societies. This study reconceives miniature stūpas/pagodas and stūpa/pagoda images as innovative modes of significance-making, criticizing the emphasis on morphologic likeness between buildings and images and proposing an indirect model of representation that generates both formal and conceptual correlations between the two practices. Furthermore, my research also addresses three important art historical topics: 1) the dissemination and reception of a foreign subject into a new cultural context; 2) the disengagement of the formal feature of the subject from its symbolic meaning when the subject enters a new context, and 3) the relationship between the built form and its representation in painting and relief.
This study consists of four chapters organized along the typological as well as chronological division. Each chapter further revisits and revises models employed in previous scholarship. Chapter 1 provides a typological analysis of surviving material evidence of stūpa and pagoda from pre-fifth century South Asia, Central Asia, and China to lay the foundation for the following discussion. The second chapter centers on miniature pagodas and pagoda imagery of the fifth century, expounding upon how the images and their arrangement on the surface of miniature pagodas reconfigure the teaching of the Three Ages theme and meditative practice. It further revises the regional model proposed in previous scholarship on Northern Wei sculptures, and elucidates a more complex and multi-directional process about the transmission, transformation, and reception of styles and iconographies at the time. The third chapter focuses on two new trends of making miniature pagodas in the sixth century. It also examines the concept of miniaturization, showing that the making of miniature pagodas emerged at the intersection of the veneration of pagoda buildings, the commissioning of devotional objects, and the displaying of Buddhist images. The fourth chapter examines the spread of stūpa imagery and miniature stūpas, which developed in both the north and the south from the late fifth century to the end of the sixth century. It revises the approach that generalizes the circulation of the stūpa motif and the significance it carries with a singular, clear, and well-defined interpretation.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
stupa, pagoda, china, miniature, northern dynasties, southern dynasties, pictorial program
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