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  • Efficacious Underworld: The Evolution of Ten Kings Paintings in Medieval China and Korea by Cheeyun Lilian Kwon
  • Beatrix Mecsi (bio)
Cheeyun Lilian Kwon. Efficacious Underworld: The Evolution of Ten Kings Paintings in Medieval China and Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2019. viii, 210 pp. Hardcover $72.00, isbn-13: 978-0-8248-5602-1.

What happens to the deceased after death? This question still inspires fear and raises several questions for us living in the twenty-first century; therefore, it can be an interesting venture to look into the visual and textural traditions of East Asia and read about how they have imagined and constructed ideas about the netherworld. The book gives a very thorough overview of the earliest developments of the tradition of the doctrine of the Ten Kings in the Buddhist Purgatory who were believed to judge the deceased souls according to their deeds and merits and decide their destiny after rebirth, a doctrine that originated and amalgamated from South and Central Asian and Chinese beliefs forming in ninth century China and spread to the neighboring countries.

Efficacious Underworld: The Evolution of Ten Kings Paintings in Medieval China and Korea by Cheeyun Lilian Kwon is an exemplary study in the field of art history that introduces the tradition and shows the formation of the iconography of the Ten Kings in China and Korea.

Choosing the Ten Kings representations now housed in Tokyo, Japan at the Seikadō Bunko Art Museum as a case study and starting point of her research, Cheeyun Lilian Kwon brings us closer to a so far unidentified painting set, and she places it within a well-deserved position in East Asian art history and religious history, filling in a gap in our understanding of the tradition. [End Page 48]

But this book is far more than a case study and a mere identification of a painting set: it is a study that reveals, through meticulous research, the regional differences highlighting the importance of the socio-religious milieu in which such works were produced and sheds light on the splendid images that might have been lost during the turmoil of history.

The aim of the research was to show the possible provenance, origins, iconographic and stylistic origins, art historical implications, and historical and ritual contexts of the Seikadō Ten Kings paintings and to situate it within the existing Ten Kings painting tradition using the method of investigating relevant textual, scriptural, archaeological, and visual materials. The research was based on more than 500 extant examples of the Ten Kings representations from East Asia from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries and the textual traditions including sūtra texts1 as well as reports by a contemporaneous Chinese emissary to Korea2 and traveling monks to China.3

In prior decades, research on medieval Korean art gained a revitalized impetus, not only because of the growing awareness of Korean identity, but also because the unprecedented quality of Buddhist artworks produced during the time of the Koryŏ period (918–1392). The identification of such artworks as being made in Koryŏ signifies a great step towards our understanding of patronage and the development of unique iconographies and representational modes. So far only about 150–160 Koryŏ Buddhist paintings survived into the present due to the turmoil of history,4 and by studying those objects and the related textual sources we can get better knowledge of how these objects were used in a period when Buddhism was a royal religion in Korea. At this time in China, Confucianism became more apparent during the Song Dynasty period in the eleventh century, but in Korea at this time pompous Buddhist state rituals were held, commissioning religious scripts and objects, and building related architectural structures.

The Ten Kings painting set in the Seikadō collection is not only unique in the sense that the author could prove its provenance as being made in the mid-Koryŏ period. This in itself could also be an important discovery. However, the painting set reveals other important information about the development of the iconography and sheds light on a possibly lost Chinese tradition from where this Korean development might have rooted. References to Northern Song...


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