- Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain by Wen-shing Chou
Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain is a richly detailed and beautifully illustrated study of mid- and late Qing representations of Wutai shan 五台山, a sacred mountain range in present-day Shanxi province, that has been venerated as the earthly abode of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī since around the fifth century CE. Key for the transferral of Buddhism from India to China, and visited by pilgrims from all of East and Central Asia, Wutai shan has always been a meeting place for different cultures on Chinese soil. Yet it was not until the Qing dynasty that the mountain became “China’s Tibet” (p. 7). The lavish patronage of the Qing emperors, Tibetan religious dignitaries, and countless Inner Asian Buddhists not only transformed the mountain into a flourishing center of Tibetan Buddhism, but also spurred the production of countless culturally hybrid artistic and literary reinventions of the site.
Chou’s study focuses squarely on these reinventions of Wutai shan. She argues that they are best understood as objects of translation. By this she means that they render Chinese accounts of Mañjuśrī’s miraculous emanations at the mountain in the visual, literary, and religious languages of Mongolia and Tibet; they reimagine Wutai shan in terms of the tantric cosmology of Tibetan Buddhism; and they transfer the presence of Mañjuśrī from the mountain to artfully constructed simulacra in the capital of Beijing and the persona of the emperor himself. They are, in Chou’s words, “permeable conception[s] of the mountain” (p. 10)—objects that simultaneously speak in many visual idioms, and incorporate multiple perspectives and vantage points. Mount Wutai is not, strictly speaking, a book “about” a mountain, but rather about a set of objects that refer to and “translate” it.
In the first chapter, “Imperial Replicas,” Chou traces the translations of multiple replicas of Wutai monasteries and copies of a famous statue of Mañjuśrī housed in Wutai’s Shuxiang temple 殊像寺. The Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 (1711–1799) commissioned these in order to transfer the presence of Mañjuśrī from the mountain to the imperial summer residence and the capital. During the process, an important court artist, Ding Guanpeng 丁觀鵬 (fl. 18th century), created a replica of the Mañjuśrī statue as a painting, and a second, “perfected” copy of the replica. This perfected copy seems to depict Qianlong as an emanation of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, adding another genre of Qianlong-as-Mañjuśrī images to the famous series of thangkas that David Farquhar introduced to us in 1978.1 [End Page 145] Chou’s discussion clearly builds on Patricia Berger’s prior analysis of Ding’s painting, and indeed on her interpretation of Qianlong’s obsession with copying as his quest for “perfection.”2 She expands Berger’s discussion by tracing the various stages of transformation of the replicas through carefully surveying surviving pictorial evidence.
In the second chapter, “Miracles in Translation,” Chou examines the connection between a Tibetan pilgrimage guide to Wutai shan and its Chinese antecedent. The guidebook was initiated by the imperial state preceptor and religious teacher of Qian-long, Rölpé Dorjé (1717–1786), in 1767, and completed posthumously by Rölpé Dorjé’s disciples in 1831. While previous scholarship was certainly aware of the close relationship between this Tibetan guide and the Chinese-language gazetteers of the mountain, Chou is the first to establish, through a line-by-line comparison of the Tibetan and the Chinese, that the Tibetan guide represents in fact a full-fledged translation of one of the gazetteers. On the basis of her comparison, Chou argues that Rölpé Dorjé reframed the miracle stories and biographies of eminent Chinese masters from the gazetteer into an Indo-Tibetan worldview, rendering the Chinese records of the mountain accessible to an Inner Asian audience. As Tibetan translation activity has historically centered on India, Chou’s chapter...