Visual Culture of Song Dynasty Buddhism


A review of Descent of Deities: The Water-Land Retreat and the Transformation of the Visual Culture of Song-Dynasty (960-1279) Buddhism, by Phillip E. Bloom.

In his excellent dissertation, Phillip E. Bloom offers a convincing interpretation of the Water-Land Retreat—“a massive, icon-filled ritual of decidedly cosmic pretensions” (p. iii)—through an analysis of previously neglected visual and textual materials. Building on Daniel Stevenson’s now classic study on the Water-land Retreat, Bloom diverges from the conventional view of art and ritual, wherein artworks merely serve as backdrops for ritual performance. Instead, Bloom considers a broad range of materials crafted “in the context of the Water-Land Retreat” in order to “excavate a shared visual, even multi-sensorial, imagination embodied in image, text, and performance” (p. 30). The result is an engaging study that provides a comprehensive view of the social elements of ritual, the transformation of visual culture, and the bureaucratic visions of the Song Dynasty, linking text, image, and performance.

The dissertation consists of three parts, which are subdivided into seven chapters and the introduction, where Bloom lays out his basic premise. Addressing what he calls “an understudied paradox of Song-dynasty Buddhist ritual practice and its visual culture” (p. 12), Bloom points out the coexistence of two seemingly contradictory phenomena: the expansion and bureaucratization of the Buddhist pantheon, and the simultaneous dissolution of the boundary between the supramundane realm and the human world, with ghosts and deities becoming an increasingly prominent part of daily life. Bloom contends that these concurrent trends were especially problematic for the visual artists of the time, who were “tasked with creating works that not only might function in ritual but also might depict, argue for, or comment on those same practices” (p. 12). He elucidates these phenomena and the resultant changes in Buddhist visual culture of the Song Dynasty by considering the transformations in religious practice and visual imagination embodied in the Water-Land Retreat.

In Part 1 (Faint Traces), consisting of three chapters, Bloom reconstructs the practice and the place of the Water-Land Retreat in Song society through an anachronic examination of source materials. In Chapter 1.1, Bloom surveys three major traditions of late-imperial practice of the Water-Land Retreat by examining various ritual manuals, including the canonical Fajie shengfan shuilu shenghui xiuzhai yigui (initially compiled by Zhipan and later revised by Zhuhong), the Tiandi mingyang shuilu yiwen, and Chongguang shuilu fashi wuzhe dazhai yi (recently uncovered and examined by the modern scholar Hou Chong). Here, Bloom articulates two major recurring themes of the dissertation: first, ritual exists as a “modular framework” (p. 57) or “basic performative syntax” (p. 57) that can be transformed according to the needs, desires, and means of its sponsors; and second, the Water-Land Retreat is defined by its all-embracing, cosmic intention. He convincingly demonstrates that the manuals, like the ritual they prescribe, are inherently malleable. Chapter 1.2 delves into both the historical and mytho-historical traces of the Water-Land Retreat prior to the Song period, with a particular focus on the ninth century, which saw the rise of numerous rituals related to ghosts of the rancorous dead. According to Bloom, a precursor to the modern (i.e. Song and after) practice of the Water-Land Retreat emerged during the late Tang through Five Dynasties, in response to the numerous war dead, obsession with ghosts, large-scale persecution of Buddhism and resultant destruction of resources that occurred in this war-torn period. In Chapter 1.3, Bloom first reconsiders the Buddhist compendia that have been extensively used in past studies on the Water-Land Retreat of the Song period, before presenting literary and epigraphic materials that more clearly convey the “open, modular, and malleable syntax” (p. 129) of the ritual since the Song. Bloom’s analysis of various sources provides insightful information on multiple dimensions of the Water-Land Retreat, including the patrons, places, and functions of the ritual in Song society. He concludes the chapter with a survey of the visual sources related to the Water-Land Retreat. First, he introduces a group of Southern Song paintings, which accords well with the typical composition of the Ming-Qing “Water-Land paintings” (Shuilu hua) in which a number of beings descending amid clouds. These include paintings depicting sixteen or eighteen arhats, paintings of the Six Paths, and other paintings, most of which are held in Japanese temple and museum collections and have been closely examined by art historians Ide Seinosuke, Taniguchi Kōsei, Takasu Jun, and Yukio Lippit. Another source is the cliff carvings from Niche 253 at Bei shan in Dazu County, Chongqing, datable to the Five Dynasties or the early Northern Song, which Bloom asserts may be narratively linked to the Water-Land Retreat. The final visual sources are the famous set of one hundred Southern Song hanging scrolls known as the Daitoku-ji Five Hundred Arhats, as well as a less familiar group of carvings from thirteen niches at a Northern-Song site known as Shizhuan shan, located in Dazu County.

Part 2 (Nebulous Intersections), also composed of three chapters, focuses exclusively on a single motif that Bloom calls the “liturgical cloud” and considers one of the defining visual features of the Water-Land Retreat during the Song period. Chapter 2.1 analyzes cloud imagery from a late-imperial mural at Qinglong si in Jishan County, Shanxi Province. The chapter also considers cloud imagery from the Tiandi mingyang shuilu yiwen, a manual with instructions for performing the ritual and producing images (e.g. the Qinglong si murals), utilized in northern China and Korea from the Yuan through Qing periods. Herein, Bloom incorporates recent studies on the northern tradition of the Water-Land Retreat by the art historian Dai Xiaoyun and others. Bloom concludes his analysis by writing that “clouds serve to imbue a scene with a sense of auspiciousness, to separate and suture the realms of different beings, to transport those beings from one realm to the next, and to structure vast pictorial compositions filled with differing groups of deities” (p. 272). Chapter 2.2 examines the historical development of the liturgical cloud in both image and text, starting with its distant origins in decorative motifs of the second century BCE and even earlier divinatory texts. Bloom then charts the increasing prevalence of clouds in Buddhist imagery of the Six Dynasties and Tang periods, before concluding his comprehensive survey with the consolidation of cloud imagery in paintings of the ninth and tenth centuries, as exemplified by murals in the Dunhuang grottoes and the portable banner paintings retrieved from Mogao Cave 17. Bloom argues that the liturgical cloud motif emerged in conjunction with “the contemporaneous rise and increasing codification of ritual practices that involved summoning vast pantheons of deities into confined ritual spaces” (p. 328), as exemplified by the Water-Land Retreat. Chapter 2.3 focuses on the issue of representation in the Song period, disclosing the ways in which Song artists and art connoisseurs conceptualized the shared mediational traits of both ritual and representation. Bloom argues that the cloud motif, particularly as employed in works related to the Water-Land Retreat, provided “a locus for reflection on the shared mediational nature of both ritual and representation” (p. 243).

Part 3 (Ordering the Cosmos) considers the Water-Land Retreat and its visual culture from a different angle, that is, “the conceptual perspective of bureaucratic practice and structure” (p. 372). In this final chapter, Bloom examines the bureaucratization of Buddhist ritual practice and liturgical art in the Song period through a review of bureaucratic documents associated with the ritual and various artworks that directly depict this bureaucratic vision, such as paintings of the Ten Kings and their courts, and paintings of various messenger figures. Yet, the bureaucratic mode of communication, in Bloom’s view, functioned dialectically both in the ritual practice and visual culture of the Water-Land Retreat. For example, the Buddha himself, while still serving as a model for the possible transcendence of worldly concerns, came to be regarded as a cosmic bureaucrat who issued edicts and pardons, akin to an ordinary monarch. The bureaucratic mode of communication, which was thought to be essential for ensuring the ritual’s efficacy, was ultimately to be transcended in the course of the ritual performance, thereby allowing both the performers of the ritual and the beings that they save to achieve a more transcendental Buddhist vision of the cosmos. Notably, Bloom argues that Buddhist monks concurrently became more bureaucratic in their performance of the Water-Land Retreat, but they eventually transcended that limited role.

Bloom’s outstanding dissertation presents a valuable and comprehensive study of Chinese Buddhist art and ritual encompassing a vast stretch of time. His meticulous analysis of the textual sources will be extremely helpful not only for art historians, but also for anyone who is interested in the art, society, culture, or rituals of the Song period. In sum, this dissertation significantly advances our understanding of the texts and images related to the Water-Land Retreat, as well as the entire cultural, religious, and historical landscape of the Song Dynasty.

Seunghye Lee
Academy of Buddhist Studies
Dongguk University

Primary Sources

Fajie shengfan shuilu shenghui xiuzhai yigui 法界聖凡水陸勝會修齋儀軌
Tiandi mingyang shuilu yiwen 天地冥陽水陸儀文 
Taishō canon
Five Hundred Arhats 五百羅漢圖 in the collection of Daitoku-ji 大德寺, Kyoto, Japan (ca. 1178-1188)
Shizhuan shan 石篆山, Dazu County 大足縣, Chongqing Municipality, China (Northern Song Dynasty)

Dissertation Information

Harvard University, 2013. 670 pp. Primary Advisor: Eugene Y. Wang.

Image: Kṣitigarbha and the Ten Kings 地藏十王圖. 13th century, Southern Song or Yuan dynasty. Ink, colors, and gold on silk. Hirokawadera 弘川寺, Osaka, Japan. Photograph by author. Permission granted to author by Hirokawadera.

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