Sacred Images in Medieval Chinese Buddhism


A review of Quest for the True Visage: Sacred Images in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Art and Concept of Zhen, by Sun-ah Choi.

As in other major religions, icons in medieval Chinese Buddhism, more than merely representations of divinities, were regarded as sacred images that could manifest a higher reality. The paramount importance of icons in Buddhism is perhaps best expressed in one of the religion’s epithets, xiangjiao, or teachings of the icons. The topic of sacred images is certainly too critical to be studied only by art historians, and scholars in different fields over the past decades have also begun to engage Buddhist icons, addressing issues ranging from their role in the spread of the religion and functions in a ritual context, to divine powers that icons were allegedly said to have possessed. In her well-researched and written dissertation, Sun-ah Choi touches on several of these issues, inquiring most directly about the very ontology of sacred images and, in particular, the slippage between icon and the deity it represents.

In the western tradition, an image is often considered as separate and distinct from what it represents. Much as the world is deemed a simulacrum of the ultimate reality, as explicated in Plato’s Republic, an image at best is still inferior to the real. In Quest for the True Visage, Choi reopens the question of the relationship between the prototype and its copy by exploring the various ways in which medieval Chinese Buddhists unceasingly pursued the “true visage” of the divine in figural and iconic form. Here the phrase “true visage”—a literal translation of the Chinese phrase zhenrong that can refer to both the true presence of the divine and the material form that manifests its presence—is deployed in the dissertation to precisely capture the complexity of the topic. As it turns out, the image and its original in Buddhist discourse may not have been as distinct from each other, nor their relationship as simplistic as previously believed.

It is with the last point in mind that Choi begins the introduction by framing her topic through an interdisciplinary approach. Scholars in religious studies, history, and anthropology have reminded us that the manufacturing of icons is concerned more with the sacred rather than the aesthetic. In this view, art historians may have been guilty of casting a “modern gaze” over the religious images of the past, and of overlooking their spiritual potential in their proper context. Rather than through certain visual properties, these scholars insist, it is in a specific site, ritual, or system of practice that an icon could be enlivened and empowered with the ultimate essence of the divine. Still, as Choi argues, the quest for the true presence in medieval China, no less importantly, also involved the “mode of representation” (p. 10). An icon of the ineffable presence could be treated “simply as presence itself” because it was believed that its material form partook and participated in both shaping and visualizing the essential qualities of that which it represented (p. 12). In other words, sacred images have to be examined in a more holistic analysis of the practice, discourse, and visuality of the divine should we wish to better reveal their ontology in medieval Chinese Buddhism.

To this end, four carefully selected case studies of Buddhist sacred images from the period between the fifth through the twelfth centuries are discussed in four main chapters. At the center of each of the studies are the various debates and understandings in their respective historical moments of the divine and its visual manifestation. As the author demonstrates, even the very notion of a “living image” needs to be historicized, as the meaning and ontological status of icons were never fixed but shifted in history to reflect the changing conception of icons and Buddhist divinities in medieval China.

In Chapter 1, the chief question raised is why Buddhist images were needed at all. To answer, Choi combs through the scriptural and epigraphic sources to reconstruct the canonical and practical aspects of the early discourse. Sacred images such as those of the Buddha were most often used as devotional objects, the making and worshiping of which were meritorious and salvific. In the world without the Buddha, his transcendent presence could not be accessed without his images, although doctrinally the latter could never adequately represent the former. In the legend about the first image of the Buddha, King Udāyana was said to have faithfully made a statue that helped him recall the master during his absence. Yet as the legend was circulated and transmitted in China, the significance of the manmade icon that was said to have portrayed the “true visage” of the Buddha increased for both its likeness and potential to substitute the real. In this development, the inherent gap between the Buddha and his image was gradually narrowed. By the seventh century, during the Tang period, it had become possible for the Chinese to reconcile the absence of the Buddha with the presence of its image, since “the worship of the Buddha of the distant past and in India [was] replaced by the paying of respect to the images of the Buddha now and in China” (p. 58).

In Chapter 2, Choi turns to a specific statue of the Buddha in India to further substantiate the reconciliation between the absent real and its visual presence. The statue in question portrays the Śākyamuni Buddha at the moment of attaining enlightenment, identified by its earth-touching mudrā. It was enshrined at the Mahābodhi Temple in the city, Bodhgayā, where the Sage’s enlightenment occurred. From early on, Chinese pilgrims had visited the sacred site and venerated the statue, providing us with firsthand accounts of it. Interestingly, as Choi observes, the statue, recorded in some early accounts as an image that looked as if real, was termed the “true visage” by later pilgrims such as Yijing (635-713). Called as such, the statue (seated cross-legged with his right hand gesturing the earth-touching mudrā), now conflated and identified with the true presence of the divine, was believed to be able to reenact the moment when Śākyamuni summoned earth-spirits to witness his enlightenment. But the story didn’t end here. Copies of the Buddha statue at the Mahābodhi Temple were made and brought back to China. Yet different from the original statue in India, the Chinese copies have additional jewels depicted around their crowns, heads, and arms, recalling the actual ornaments lavished over the Indian model by the devotees. Although idiosyncratically combining the iconography and elements not intended as part of the statue, the Chinese copies derived their authenticity by being faithful representations, not of the divine itself, but of its material image that was venerated and recognized as the true visage of the divinity.

If the icon in the first two chapters was created to make the presence and divinity of the Buddha accessible across time and space to the medieval Chinese, the one discussed in Chapter 3 is different. The focus of the chapter is the image of Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, who prophesized his presence at Mount Clear and Cool for the sake of the path-seeker after the Buddha was no longer available in this world. Mount Wutai, located in the north of China’s Shanxi province, was identified as the Mount Clear and Cool mentioned in the scripture as early as the fifth century, and since then it had attracted pilgrims searching for the vision of the bodhisattva from all over China, as well as its neighboring states, including India. At the height of the Mañjuśrī cult during the Tang period, a skillful craftsman was called upon to sculpt an image of the bodhisattva, yet the task was not successfully executed until the vision of Mañjuśrī riding a lion manifested to him. Consequently, Choi argues that the icon, called the “true visage” of the bodhisattva, ought to be understood as a “materialized vision” in two closely related regards. First, as indicated in the legend of its creation, the icon made in Mañjuśrī’s presence was created to retain verisimilitude of the bodhisattva in material form; and second, since the icon looked exactly like the bodhisattva in the vision, it was now believed that the icon was “no different from what it represents” (p. 174). That is, the vision provided the raison d’être for the authenticity of the sacred image, which, as well as its later faithful replications, in turn could no longer be considered as any other icons of Mañjuśrī but the one that materialized the revelatory vision of the bodhisattva.

As demonstrated by the author in the first three chapters, in the pursuit of the real presence, one could not do without the intervention of the image, and this intervention, or agency, is perhaps best illustrated in the last chapter. In Chapter 4, Choi takes the reader to the Dali Kingdom (945-1253) in southwestern China for a statue of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, locally known as Acuoye. Different from other images of the bodhisattva, the Acuoye statue was said to be an accurate copy of the deity made after his appearance manifested in a vision. Unlike Mañjuśrī in the last chapter, however, Avalokiteśvara in this case transformed himself into not an apparition, but an iconic statue hovering in midair. This surprising turn was nonetheless suggestive of a changing ontology of icons. As the legend goes, metal was melted to cast the bronze statue accordingly and its style is distinctive to non-Chinese production of the southern region. The Acuoye statue was later depicted in a long scroll by the painter Zhang Shengwen that includes deities of the Buddhist pantheon venerated locally. The Acuoye, identified as the “True Body of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara” in an accompanying cartouche, was portrayed frontally exactly as an icon manifesting itself in midair. On the same scroll, another popular theme, “Avalokiteśvara Rescuing from Perils,” is also represented. Here, the true presence of the bodhisattva in his flesh-and-blood body is shown at the center of the composition as the source of power for his multiple manifestations through which he rescued the pious from various perils, which are depicted in surrounding vignettes. Interestingly, this flesh-and-blood body, supposedly the very prototype of the divinity, is portrayed exactly like the Acuoye image stylistically. Now the icon, the “true body” of the divine, stands for the real presence of its own accord.

These four chapters are brought together masterfully by the author to articulate the centrality of the issue of representing the real within the discourse surrounding icons in medieval Chinese Buddhism. Together, they also convincingly present a historical trajectory in which the ontological status of icons evolved over time, from the “representation” of the divine to its “manifestation.” In the process, the difference between the prototype and its image was gradually erased, or as Choi puts it, the image eventually “take[s] on the role originally played by the real” (p. 271). In Quest of the True Visage, the author seems to also suggest a parallel trajectory, if only more subtly: domesticating the initially foreign divinity in medieval China, its icons were created to make the absent real more accessible, to transport and transmit authenticity of the divinity, to localize the sacred presence, and to bring about a new origin. In other words, the issue of pursuing the true presence goes hand in hand with the concern of the Chinese with accessibility and ownership of the divine prototype.

In a broader scope, the dissertation has exciting implications for the study of Buddhist visual culture in medieval China. Indeed, as seen in the Buddha statue at the Mahābodhi Temple, the icon of Mañjuśrī riding a lion, or the Acuoye statue, visual components such as iconography, ornament, and style, among others, all factored in the meaning and understanding of each of the sacred images. These images also prompted in their form, content, composition, display, and use the very practices of seeing in which believers engaged. It is in this sense that we should take seriously Choi’s proposal for “the ‘visual culture of zhen’ in the study of medieval Chinese Buddhist art” (p. 25), which will concretely advance our continuing interests in exploring the visuality of the sacred in an expanded and more comprehensive cultural context.

Wei-Cheng Lin
Department of Art
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Primary Sources

Taishō Canon
Daozang 道藏
Beijing tushuguan cang Zhongguo lidai tuoben huibian 北京圖書館藏中國歷代拓本匯編
Nittō guhō junrei kōki 入唐求法巡禮行記
National Palace Museum, Taipei

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 326 pp. Primary Advisor: Wu Hung.

Image: Worshipper at Mahabodhi Temple Bodh Gaya India. Wikimedia Commons.

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