- Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism
For most of the twentieth century, practically the only periods deemed worthy of study in Chinese Buddhism were prior to the Song dynasty (960-1278), under the assumption that the Tang dynasty (618-907) represented Buddhism's "golden age." Textual studies focusing on Buddhist doctrine likewise dominated scholarly discussion. Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism challenges these old assumptions and makes a convincing case for Buddhism's ongoing significance in the Chinese context after the Tang. The book consists of eight independent studies by different authors, plus an Introduction by the editor, Marsha Weidner. Most of the studies originated as presentations for a symposium held in conjunction with the exhibition Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism 850-1850, at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in 1994. Generally speaking, the studies are all well researched and of quite high quality. Because of the various multi-disciplinary approaches employed throughout, the volume [End Page 193] will be appreciated by a wide range of students and scholars. The greatest audience, to be sure, will be Chinese art historians and curators, whose contributions dominate the volume, but it will also be read by others, like myself, interested in the history of Buddhism in China and its religious and political functions in the Chinese context.
Unlike Buddhism in the Sung,1 the major ground-breaking work to focus on post-Tang Buddhist developments in a single dynasty and on literary records and figures, Cultural Intersections offers a much broader scope. Thematically, the eight studies are divided into three broad categories, reflective of the varied approaches and subjects covered: "Liturgical Culture: Image, Text and Ritual," "Literati Culture: Calligraphy and Poetry," and "The Political Sphere: Painting, Architecture, and Music." As described in the Introduction (p. 1), the studies in this volume are designed to move beyond "[h]istories based on canonical texts, biographies of great masters, and institutional records" that "provide only a partial account of Buddhism in China" and assert "the place of Buddhism in Chinese aesthetic life [as] much more complex than suggested by the selection of Buddhist objects and sites described in mainstream art historical scholarship." Not only are extracanonical materials examined, but they are examined in wide-ranging ways entailing that authors expand beyond the confines of their usual disciplinary domains.
Under "Liturgical Culture," T. Griffith Foulk discusses "Religious Functions of Buddhist Art in China" (pp. 13-29). While not a novel suggestion, Foulk's reminder that Chinese Buddhist artworks, like religious works of art in general, need to be understood in terms of their original settings and functions is useful. According to Foulk, it is insufficient "to see an image in a museum, identify it on the basis of its iconography, and then try to explain its meaning and function in classical Chinese culture by referring to the mythology of the figure presented in normative Buddhist scriptures" (p. 13). Foulk then provides what he terms a "rudimentary scheme of classification to elucidate the range of religious, economic, and social functions that Buddhist art has had in China" (p. 14): as icons; as decorations and illustrations; for merit-making; as background surfaces for inscriptions of eulogies, poems, prayers, and donation records; as repositories for scriptures, relics, and other religious paraphernalia; as talismans; as visualization aids in meditation; as a means of storing wealth; and as a form of conspicuous consumption signaling wealth and status. Foulk concludes with a discussion of "the difficulties of determining historical usage," and a section "concerning the religious meaning of Buddhist images."
In the second study, Daniel Stevenson focuses on the use of ritual manuals in local circumstances to explore the history of the shuilu fahui, the "Buddhist rite for deliverance of creatures of water and land" (pp. 30-70). Like Foulk, Stevenson contends that scholars have too frequently taken Buddhist scriptures as authoritative and constructed uniform interpretations irrespective of context and local [End Page 194] conditions. Stevenson contends that understanding the function...