December 2. Seunghye Lee

Whose Bodies Were They?: Enshrining Relics of the Buddhas and Saints in Eleventh Century China

 Seunghye Lee

Ph.D. candidate, University of Chicago

Friday, December 2, 4-6 p.m.  CWAC 156

In Chinese Buddhist sources, the term “relics” is often modified by other terms, implying the particular nature of the body present in the relics. This paper will investigate how the “remnant body relics,” one of such terms, was conceptualized and materialized in the relic deposit of the Ruiguang Monastery Pagoda in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. A reliquary set, named Jeweled Pillar of the Remnant Bodies of All the Buddhas and Saints 諸佛聖賢遺身舍利寶幢 (1013 C.E.) from the deposit will be the focus of this presentation. I will examine two crucial issues that have been overlooked in past scholarship: what the relics are and how the relics relate to the reliquary set. Acknowledging the impossibility of tracing the sources of the relics, I would rather examine the identity of the relics, given in the inscriptions, against the discourses and practices of relics in Tang-Song China. My investigation reveals that this entity, composed of relics and reliquaries, exemplifies a crucial change that had occurred in the cult of relics from the eighth century onward. It demonstrates a more inclusive notion of relics that encompasses relics of the Buddhas and those of the monastic dead culled from funerary pyre. The relationship between the two, I argue, was complementary. When they were deposited together, the relics of the Buddha certainly lent sacredness to the relics of eminent monks. Yet the influx of monastic type contributed to the continued cult of the jewel-type relics of the Buddha, alongside the cult of palpably corporeal type that came to prevail in China since the eighth century. The pivotal factor orchestrating such a fusion was the shared materiality of the two: radiant jewels that were thought to be capable of wonders. The identity of the relics seems to have guided the designer of the Jeweled Pillar to choose a motif that had never been incorporated into the reliquary: a statue of the monk Sengqie (617-710) whose divine status elevated from a monk to a saint, and a Buddha who had left grains of jewel-like relics by the eleventh century. The strategic positioning of the Sengqie image within the pillar-cum-pagoda was intended to provide not only a symbolic protection but also visual sanctification for the relics enshrined.

November 18, Katherine Tsiang

Dr. Katherine Tsiang

Associate Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia, University of Chicago

Visualizing the Divine — Chinese Religious Imagery of the Medieval Period


Religious art was the major form of art in the medieval period in China as in Europe. The emergence of Buddhist and religious Daoist imagery and mortuary art related to the cult of ancestors are the most notable developments in Chinese art during this period. This study takes an overview of the emergence of types of images of divinity that were recognized as meaningful, representative of religious beliefs, and worthy of veneration. It considers the complexity of types in relationship to specific doctrinal ideals and also to Chinese cultural contexts. It includes a wide range of visual material human and non-human forms, visions of heavenly and earthy space and place, textual material, and implied narratives. Rather than attempting a historical survey, this study is based on typologizing imagery of the sacred in  China order to develop analytical perspectives that can be related to broader issues in the History of Art and Visual Culture.

Friday, November 18, 4-6 p.m.  CWAC 156

November 11, Eileen Lam

Eileen Lam

Research Fellow of the Art Institute of Chicago

          A Case Study on Jade Imitation:                                           

Jade Vessels from the Western Han Tomb at Shizishan in Xuzhou


Imitation was a prevalent and constant practice in the material world, once distinctions of value occur among various materials. There are myriad examples of imitation throughout the ancient China, such as ceramic ding tripod, wooden bi disc etc., showing that it was popular and understandable to use inexpensive material to imitate objects made of valuable primary material. Jade imitation; however, seems to be a case of an inverse of this logic.

Jade is esteemed as a premier artistic medium in China, and among jade artifacts created in early imperial times, vessels are especially sumptuous in the large quantity of raw material and extraordinary craftsmanship required to craft them. Indeed, fewer than twenty jade vessels have been excavated to date.  Focusing on the Western Han tomb at Shizishan in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province (ca. 175–154 BC), the discussion seeks to explore the notion of imitation not only for its astonishing jade excavation with four jade vessels: one ear-cup, one goblet zhi, and two stem beakers; but also for the fact the ear-cup and the goblet zhi are mingled with some lacquer counterparts. By comparing substantial data from widespread sites, this paper attempts to bring to light patrons’ incentives for selecting jade as a medium for these vessels. More broadly, it will also examine the contemporary status of jade, in relation to the changes in value and position among various materials of the mortuary repertoire.

Friday, November 11, 4-6 p.m.  CWAC 156

VMPEA: October 21, Sun-ah Choi

Sun-ah Choi

Ph. D. Candidate, University of Chicago

Friday, October 21, 4-6 p.m.

CWAC 156

Materialized Vision: The True Visage of Bodhisattva Manjusri of Mt. Wutai and Its Tenth-Century Translation in Dunhuang


This presentation is derived from the third chapter of my Ph. D. dissertation, entitled “Quest for the True Visage: Sacred Images in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Art.” While I deal with four different cases of Buddhist images related to the concept of the real 眞 in my dissertation, this third chapter focuses on the cult of a sculptural image of the bodhisattva Manjusri, which was once enshrined at the Hall of the True Visage (zhenrong yuan 眞容院) at Mt. Wutai.


I trace two historical trajectories related to the cult of the statue. Firstly, I examine the cultural process through which the icon became the central focus in the cult of Mt. Wutai. Located in northeastern China, Mt. Wutai has been believed as the abode of the bodhisattva Manjusri, attracting a number of pilgrims who expected to witness miraculous signs of the deity, including the manifestation of the bodhisattva in his flesh form. Through a comparative reading of various textual sources ranging from mountain monographs to pilgrims’ testimonies, I highlight the shift in the pattern of touring the mountain, from wandering and wondering in search for fleeting visions of the deity to the worship of a particular icon, which was named “zhenrong”(true appearance) and sanctified by the legend on its miraculous birth as the materialized vision of the bodhisattva Manjusri.


Secondly, I relate the newly arisen cult of the bodhisattva statue at Mt. Wutai to the widely-spread practice of translating the sacred space out of its cultic center. Among various examples that translated and represented the cult of the mountain, I concentrate on the tenth-century visual materials remaining at the Mogao Grotto in Dunhuang. In particular, Cave 61 serves as the centerpiece in this investigation, with a focus on the relationship between the well-known panoramic depiction of Mt. Wutai rendered on the rear wall of the cave and a statue of the bodhisattva Manjusri which once stood on the altar. By reconstructing the link between the now-missing, thus hitherto-neglected bodhisattva statue in the cave and the increasing centrality of the zhenrong icon at Mt. Wutai, I argue that Cave 61 epitomizes the critical moment in the cultic center, a moment when the ontological statuses of vision and image were conflated.

October 14, Jimmy Yu

Jimmy Yu

Assistant Professor, The Florida State University

Friday, October 14, 4-6 pm

CWAC 156

Visualizing Self-Inflicted Violence in late Imperial Chinese Religions 


This paper examines two distinct practices of blood writing and female chastity mutilation and suicide in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries China. Thousands of men and women during this time exercised the instrumentality of their bodies to accomplish different goals. Nearly all gazetteers in every part of China produced during this time had sections devoted to pious children and chaste widows who engaged in self-inflicted violent practices. Graphic illustrations of these practices can be found in religious tracts, illustrated books, popular literature, fiction, and poetry during this period. Why did Buddhists and non-Buddhists slice open their tongues and fingers to copy scriptures with their blood? Why did young, chaste widows cut off their noses to permanently undermine their eligibility when forced to remarry? Why were these practices so alluring that writers and illustrators enthusiastically represented them? Visual and textual representations of self-inflicted violence both validate and complicate the supposed sanctity of those practices; they were multiple ways of reading acts of self-inflicted violence that contributed to their popularity in late imperial China. This paper provides a window into the lives of specific performers, their social-cosmic relationships, their conceptions of the potentials of the human body, their practices that affected the world around them, and the ways in which these practices were visualized and represented.


September 30, Quincy Ngan

Quincy Ngan

Ph.D. candidate, University of Chicago

Friday, September 30, 4-6 pm

CWAC 156

Painting the Land in Azurite Blue and Malachite Green: From Mind’s Craft to Vulgarity


In this presentation, I will argue that the blatant luxuriousness of the above two pigments structures the usage and perception of both heavily-pigmented and ink-monochrome landscape paintings, forming a complex politics among art buyers, art critics, and artists from mid-16th to mid-17th century China. Among these peoples, no one can manage to finesse a position that is free from disadvantages – while art critics and literati would lambaste painters and buyers of landscape painting in azurite and malachite if they could, their societal images are relentlessly jeopardized and coveted by the latter.

This narrative has its significance in challenging the hitherto understanding of azurite and malachite as materials which denote solely immortality – it is instead the luxurious quality of the two minerals that comes into play in visual communications.