Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 2020
Wen-shing Chou Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. 240 pp.; 88 color ills.; 31 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780691178646)

Located in northern China, Mount Wutai, or the Five-Terrace Mountain, is the earthly paradise of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, commonly known as the Mahāyāna Buddhist deity of wisdom. Since the seventh century, pilgrims have encountered various apparitions of Mañjuśrī on this mountain. Not until the publication of Wen-shing Chou’s book Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain did it become clear that Mount Wutai was also a key site in Inner Asian tantric Buddhist practices and lineages associated with the Gelukpa traditions that the Manchu court promoted during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Indeed, Chou’s well-researched and finely illustrated monograph presents a novel approach to understanding this sacred site as a malleable, expansive political and soteriological realm. By treating objects as agents that reveal the visions and activities of their makers and users, Chou argues that the replication and circulation of such objects demonstrate the interdependence of place and person in the process of transforming a Buddhist sacred site both in situ and across space and time. Moreover, utilizing multilingual and multicultural sources, Chou shows that during the second half of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, Inner Asian communities not only reconstructed the history and geography of Mount Wutai but also reinvented its Buddhist images and practices through their own languages, iconographies, and cosmologies. Chou’s dexterous use of interdisciplinary methods makes the book useful for students in multiple fields, including art history, Buddhist studies, anthropology, humanist geography, and Inner Asian area studies. The book will also attract readers who are interested in mountain culture and pilgrimage more generally.

Following a rough chronology, the book consists of four chapters organized around four types of materials and practices: replicating temples and their ritual paraphernalia in the Qing imperial center, translating a Chinese guidebook into the language and episteme of Tibetan Buddhism and cosmology, pictorializing Qing Gelukpa lineages in albums and thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings on cloth), and making and disseminating panoramic maps.

Chapter 1 tackles the Qing court’s reclamation of Mount Wutai by reinstituting its most famous spot, Bodhisattva’s Peak, and replicating its traces in Beijing and Chengde. Chou argues that this process subsequently instigated the transformation of the sacred site by the court’s Inner Asian constituents. Beginning in 1750 the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–96) launched a series of projects to emulate Mount Wutai near the capital. The landmark Baodi Monastery was reproduced at Xiangshan in Beijing with a design by Qianlong’s guru, the Mongour reincarnate lama Changkya Rölpé Dorjé (1717–1786). Mount Wutai’s Shuxiang Monastery was copied at both Xiangshan—based on a sketch by Qianlong himself—and at the summer palace in Chengde; copies of Qianlong’s sketch were also transformed into court paintings that rendered the temple’s icon of Mañjuśrī as the emperor’s self-image. Chou argues that all of these replicas served to manifest a Manchu Gelukpa Buddhist identity. Through them, Qianlong created an imperial cosmology that reenacted his Mongol-Yuan predecessors’ religiopolitical engagement with Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, Chou stresses that these copies did not perform a direct, instrumental function for governance; rather, they showcased the “expansive temporality of a universal, wheel-turning Sino-Tibetan bodhisattva emperor” (49). In short, Qianlong endeavored to enact multidimensional kingship through not only religious and political acts but also cultural and artistic practices.

Chapter 2 examines how Gelukpa Buddhist monks asserted an Indo-Tibetan vision of Mount Wutai by translating a guidebook to the mountain based on Chinese texts and local records. Focusing on the Tibetan-language Guide to the Clear and Cool Mountains, compiled under the direction of Rölpé Dorjé, this chapter covers a range of issues surrounding the translation and authorship of the guide, as well as the nuanced adaptation of the gazetteer of Mount Wutai and the reification of hagiography in Inner Asian terms. Chou argues that by selectively translating Chinese sources and rediscovering the historical presence of Gelukpa monks on Mount Wutai, the project created new epistemes of mountain worship structured by Indo-Tibetan cosmology and endorsed by the Gelukpa lineage. Moreover, this chapter pinpoints the practice of translation as a means of reversing the power hierarchy between source and target languages. Through this process, the translator and his intended audience could manipulate the past in the present while anticipating the future life of Mount Wutai.

Chapter 3 deals with albums and thangkas rendering Qianlong’s imperial vision of Mount Wutai as a manifestation of pan-Buddhist sovereignty and of transtemporal Gelukpa lineage. Chou argues that these albums align Mount Wutai with the foremost Qing Gelukpa master, Rölpé Dorjé, whose Buddhist identity was established by his regularly residing in the mountain; thus, hagiography and sacred geography reshaped one another. Chou contends that the mandalic multiplication of hagiography also connects Mount Wutai to Beijing, Chengde, Tibet, and India. At the same time, the albums proclaim the interconnections among the Qianlong emperor, Rölpé Dorjé, the Paṇchen Lama, and the Dalai Lama’s previous incarnations. Chou maintains that the expansive, interwoven temporalities of these text-images capture the essence of the Qing Gelukpa worldview—which undergirded the perception of Mount Wutai as both historical and timeless. Further, Chou uncovers a set of thangkas depicting Qianlong as Mañjuśrī that demonstrate the emperor’s insertion of himself into Gelukpa cosmology and lineage, solidifying his central position in the immense and diverse field of Tibetan Buddhism.

Chapter 4 analyzes panoramic maps printed by the Mongolian lama Lhundrub at the Cifu Temple in Mount Wutai and painted in a mural at Badgar Choiling Süme in Lhasa. Through a close reading of their cartographical details, iconographical variations, and material efficacies, Chou argues that maps, as visual and material receptacles, actively mediate pilgrims’ experience of Mount Wutai and continually instantiate the sacred site in different ways as they are produced, colored, disseminated, and used. In particular, Chou emphasizes that the printing medium’s mobility and reproducibility reinforce the fluidity and efficacy of revelatory emanations of Mount Wutai. At the same time, Chou suggests that maps can help to retain the specificities of indigenous chorography in the formation of geopolitical worldviews. Map images thus stand for the authenticity of Mount Wutai and perpetuate its sanctity precisely because they mirror and materialize the changing folkloric tales, religious tenets, and lived traditions of the mountain.

In several respects, Chou’s book builds on foundations laid in Patricia Ann Berger’s Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003)—questioning the political instrumentality of the Qing court’s engagements with Gelukpa Buddhism, highlighting the efficacy of images and the agency of multilingual texts in connecting Qing rulers and their Inner Asian constituents, and insisting on the Buddhist visuality of Qing rulership. The book also draws from the field of “New Qing History,” which acknowledges the prominence and agency of non-Han groups in the multiethnic, polyreligious Manchu-Qing empire. However, by focusing on sacred geography and by adopting the theoretical framework of translation—and seeing translation as an agentive process of transformation—Chou’s book reveals Qing imperial self-fashioning as an open horizon of identity making (for both place and people). Openness is essential to Chou’s examination of spatiality and temporality, of community and lineage. This further allows Chou to emphasize the fluidity of identity, which she thoroughly demonstrates by utilizing multilingual texts and multimedia objects. Indeed, the ways in which Chou uses sacred geography as a means of deemphasizing the authenticity of origins and practices represent a major breakthrough. Chou shows that capturing the sacred site’s transforming ontologies, epistemologies, and historiographies reveals the very religious tenets of Gelukpa Buddhism that reshaped Mount Wutai.

Nevertheless, Chou’s conspicuous effort to redress the cultural centrality of the Han population of the vast Qing empire tends, at times, to eclipse a total view of Qianlong’s practices of universal rule. For instance, Chou considers the use of Qianlong’s sketch from Mount Wutai in replicating Shuxiang Monastery in Beijing as a rare act unique to his investments in Mount Wutai and Gelukpa Buddhism. In fact, Qianlong did the same when he visited temples in southern China, where he sketched cliff carvings and ordered painters to document local sites so that they could be replicated in the capital. The years during which he copied Mount Wutai in Beijing and Chengde (1750–74) corresponded to his six Southern Tours (1751–84), which resulted in copies of sites such as the Lion Grove Garden, a Chan Buddhist establishment in Suzhou, in both Beijing and Chengde. While it is impossible to fully address Qianlong’s relentless involvement in fashioning an all-encompassing regime, a more “open” approach to his Mount Wutai project might also situate it within his totalizing but personal approach to collecting and replicating.

That said, by decentering the cult of Mount Wutai as a Chinese tradition, Chou’s study well highlights the institutionalization of Manchu Gelukpa Buddhism in the imperial court. The book deepens the study of Buddhist subjects in the art historical field in general, and in understandings of Qing Buddhist institutions in particular. Chou’s book also crosses boundaries to include scholarship on South and Southeast Asian Studies, marking it as a reliable reference for the study of transcultural Buddhism.

Lihong Liu
University of Rochester