Image Worship in Early Chinese Buddhist Art


A review of The Genesis of Image Worship: Epigraphic Evidence for Early Buddhist Art in China, by Minku Kim.

Minku Kim’s dissertation is an ambitious examination of how Buddhism and its practices first became established in China, a question that has occupied some of the most eminent scholars of Chinese history and religion over the past century. Kim focuses on the spread of Buddhist material culture between roughly 100 and 320 CE, by which he means not simply Buddhist objects or images, but Buddhist practices pertaining to these objects — most importantly image worship.

Although scholars have long noted that many Buddhist cultural practices initially met resistance in China, the eventual success of image worship (as well as the attendant ideology that sponsoring the construction of Buddhist images produces religious merit) has rarely been problematized. Rather, Kim argues, scholars have assumed that the “technology” of image worship helped Buddhism become established in China by providing tangible foci for lay devotion. In contrast, Kim suggests that image worship was initially quite repellent to the Chinese, at least to those who identified with the elite culture. According to Kim, this antagonism explains why there are no surviving second- or third-century Chinese Buddhist images that were produced either to generate merit or that served for cult devotion.

Much like the “Buddhist” statuary found in gardening stores in the modern West, “Buddhist” images in China from the second and third centuries seem to appear in contexts entirely divorced from institutionalized Buddhism or its practices. Previous scholars have indeed observed this fact, most notably Wu Hung in his seminal 1986 article “Buddhist Elements in Early Chinese Art.” While much indebted to Wu Hung’s insights, Kim goes further, both by proposing a model for how more properly Buddhist approaches to images eventually spread, and by showing how early inscriptions for Buddhist icons, preserved in literary sources and pre-modern epigraphical collections, can be used to study Chinese Buddhist image worship during the late third and early fourth centuries, a period for which no actual relevant images or inscriptions survive. Perhaps because of the philological difficulties involved and the historical problems concerning the authenticity of inscriptions preserved only in literary sources, this material has not been widely studied by either art historians or scholars of Chinese Buddhism. Bridging the gap between textual study and art history, Kim bravely ventures into this arcane realm to lay a much needed foundation for the future study of these sources.

Kim presents us with four rich chapters, each of which draws from a wide range of literary and material sources. In Chapter 1 Kim raises his basic historical problematic, arguing that pre-Buddhist China was far more hostile towards image worship than scholars have generally realized. Drawing from early stories and depictions in Han Dynasty narrative art of the tale of Ding Lan, who supposedly venerated an effigy of his mother after she had died, Kim argues that prior to the arrival of Buddhism, worship of anthropomorphic images was actively shunned by Chinese elites as a foreign, and hence “barbarian” practice. Kim then proposes a model for how this attitude eventually changed. In rough outline, Kim’s hypothesis is that the Chinese became habituated to the practice of image worship through repeated exposure over a reasonably long period of time. Though Buddhist image worship in China was initially confined to enclaves of foreigners living in the capitals, at some point these enclaves began to commission local Chinese artisans for the production of their icons. This, Kim argues, provided a crucial gateway between the foreign communities and the Chinese population at large. Although Kim freely admits that the specifics of his model are conjectural, he rightly points out the need to explain the spread of Buddhist image worship not simply as the inevitable consequence of Buddhist presence in China, but as the result of active processes that would have required, in his words, “extended socio-cultural negotiation” (p.95).

In Chapters 2 and 3, Kim turns his attention to the large body of early (mostly second- and third-century) images and objects that previous scholars have often understood as “Buddhist,” and argues that scholars have generally applied this word too broadly, without considering the context for the production and use of the images or objects in question. In Chapter 2, he first addresses various non-anthropomorphic images, including lotus flowers, elephants, relics (sheli), stupas, and ūṛṇās (found on anthropomorphic figures). All of these motifs have been found in Chinese tombs from the second and third centuries, and all have been taken to indicate the influence of Buddhism. On the one hand, Kim argues that we should not read this material as indicating the spread of Buddhist social practices because the images in question were not used in the context of Buddhist image worship. Although Wu Hung had previously argued in a similar vein, he still acknowledged that the motifs themselves derived from Buddhist sources. Kim goes further and shows that it is often better to consider a wider Eurasian context that does not necessarily implicate Buddhism or its influence per se. Indeed, in many cases, scholars’ zeal to identify “Buddhist” themes in this material has led to serious errors of identification, and Kim documents these in exacting detail.

In Chapter 3 Kim turns to the many early Chinese “Buddhist” anthropomorphic images found on tomb-lintels, money-trees, “soul-jars,” and pictorial bricks from tombs. Again Kim argues that these images were not used for ritual worship and thus are, in a crucial sense, not really “Buddhist.” But more significantly, Kim theorizes, based on their shared iconography, that these images were based on only a few, or even a single prototype. Linking to his hypothesis from Chapter 1 concerning the diffusion of Buddhist image worship in China, Kim argues that these similarities can be explained by assuming that a few key cult icons did exist during this period among foreign Buddhist groups in the capital regions. Artistic motifs based on these few prototypes, learned and appropriated by the Chinese artisans working for the foreign communities in the capitals, then spread outward to places like Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, where we now find them in second- and third-century Chinese tombs.

Finally, in Chapter 4, Kim examines the epigraphical evidence preserved in literary sources for the first Buddhist icons used by Chinese Buddhists, which he argues appear only from the middle of the third century. He begins with a thorough discussion of the methodological problems attendant upon using this material. Kim here charts a careful path, neither rejecting outright the claims of pre-modern Chinese antiquarians concerning the provenance of these inscriptions (as some modern scholars have done), while also avoiding undue naïveté by discussing at length the very real problems of forgery. He then provides a series of case studies, looking at four of the earliest preserved inscriptions to Buddhist icons (dating from the early to late third century), and subjecting each to an exhaustive philological and historical analysis so as to fully justify their status as reliable historical evidence. Kim is here exceedingly thorough, and he documents the full history of how the inscriptions were recorded, the possible textual and philological problems (including those resulting from improper initial transcription by the collectors), and the reliability of the accounts in general. Those specializing in Chinese Buddhist art history will find that Kim has here set the bar very high, and there will not be many, I think, who like Kim can both decipher these early inscriptions and analyze their authenticity, while also using them to think about larger questions concerning the development of image-based practices in early Chinese Buddhism.

All in all, Kim has offered us a valuable and comprehensive study of Chinese Buddhist material culture in the second- and third- centuries. Even apart from the specifics of his theories, his dissertation will prove invaluable for having assembled together almost all the known material evidence from this period, and for having subjected it to careful, critical analysis concerning both its authenticity (in the case of inscriptions preserved in literary sources) and its precise significance for our understanding of the early spread of Buddhist image worship in China.

Eric M. Greene
Group in Buddhist Studies
University of California, Berkeley
3413 Dwinelle Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-2230

Primary Sources

Taishō Canon
Wenwu 文物
Nanjing Municipal Museum
Shike shiliao xinbian 石刻史料新編
Mahao 麻浩 tomb 1 – Leshan 樂山

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 787pp. Primary Advisor: Lothar von Falkenhausen.

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