- Authentic Replicas: Buddhist Art in Medieval China by Hsueh-man Shen
When Walter Benjamin wrote on the issue of original and replicas in 1935, he demonstrated how premodern replicas are able to retain "the unique value of an 'authentic' work of art" with their basis in the fabric of tradition.1 Hsuehman Shen's Authentic Replicas is the first real attempt to systematically examine Buddhist material practice in Medieval China through the lens of his theories. Having traced the duplication of scriptures, images, and relics between the seventh and eleventh centuries, this book demonstrates the Buddhist concept of the replica as an extension of the source imbuing with the innate authenticity of the original, and the act of replication as a means of achieving spiritual fulfillment. It is these perceptions, argued by the author, that allow the copies to retain their authenticity as much efficacy as the originals, sustaining the aura of the artwork in Buddhist large-scale material production.
The strength of Shen's Authentic Replicas is in its presentation of a broad range of materials combined with an erudite understanding of Buddhist doctrine. Shen deploys an interdisciplinary arsenal to demonstrate the mechanics of replication in Buddhist art. Her study moves away from remarkable masterpieces and monumental projects and towards large-scale material productions, including calligraphies or printed scriptures, wall or silk paintings, terracotta or bronze tables, wood, bronze or stone sculptures, which appear to have been a mainstay of Buddhist devotional practice. To investigate the authenticity of replicas in Medieval Chinese Buddhism, Shen brings the making of replicas, as well as their usage and re-usage as templates to create further replicas, into consideration. This provides a new approach to the discussion of the replication of sacred objects in China, which demonstrates the nature of sacred objects as occupying a space between the sacred and secular worlds and presents readers with the vivid and colorful social lives of these now silent artefacts.2
In the Introduction, the author tackles the linguistic dimensions of the concept of replicas and replication. In Chinese there is no word for "authenticity" or "originality." The closest term for "authentic" is related to the concept of absolute truth or reality. The author seizes on this translation difficulty to challenge the dualistic mode between an original and its replicas, because Buddhists do not consider the original to be absolutely "authentic," but only "the first in a chain of objects representing the truth" (p. 8). Shen discusses five types of replication, sorting the various forms by the relationship between replicates in their spatiotemporal relations. The first three types of replication—sequential production of substitutable copies, concomitant [End Page 336] installation of multiples, and composition of designs from multiples—show a clear relationship between the original and its copies in the process of material production. The latter two forms—repeated performance of ritual and sacred acts and fabrication of replication stores—respond to the presence of ritualistic precursors and the religious interpretations of the sacred objects.
Overall the book is divided into three parts that respectively focus on the replication of scriptures, images, and relics. Part one is "Reproducing the text." In drawing her broader conclusions about manuscript culture, Shen examines the broad range of excavated scriptures in various forms and formats from cave temples, monastic pagodas, and lay tombs. Examples from the Korean Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) and the Japanese Heian period (794–1185) are also discussed alongside Chinese canon. The findings outline two methods for reproducing the sutras, each of which has a different functional emphasis. The replication of sutras through the creation of woodblocks for printing created an authentic version for the latter replications. Hand-copied sutras are remnants of individual attempts to attain merit and achieve individual wishes. The author argues the popularity of these two measures lay in the ability of the one to preserve the doctrine and of the other to sanctify the individual. This negates the modern pragmatic understanding of the large-scale material production...