Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 25, 2019
Dorothy C. Wong Buddhist Pilgrim-Monks as Agents of Cultural and Artistic Transmission: The International Buddhist Art Style in East Asia, ca. 645–770 Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2018. 366 pp.; 12 color ills.; 125 b/w ills. Cloth $52.00 (9789814722599)

Students of East Asian art are often told that the “Tang International Buddhist Art Style” or “International Buddhist Art Style” begins when the hips of Buddhist deities sway gracefully to one side (1). The voluptuous yet narrow-waisted bodies of bodhisattvas standing in contrapposto with an Indian flavor are seen as a hallmark of Chinese Buddhist art in the Tang dynasty (618–907). This figural type can be found across Japan and Korea by the eighth century, but what exactly is this “International Buddhist Art Style”? The term is regularly invoked in introductory East Asian art curricula, yet it has, surprisingly, almost never been dealt with explicitly in critical literature. Dorothy C. Wong’s ambitious new book is our best resource for making sense of this important style of Buddhist art in East Asia.

Revisiting the old question of period style, Wong takes us on a new path by looking closely at the particular individuals that moved across the Eurasian continent as active agents of cultural transmission. By redirecting our attention to pilgrim-monks, elite patrons, powerful monasteries, and major cultural centers in India, China, Japan, and Korea, Wong’s book breaks away from problematic questions of “influence” and formalism. The vexing issue of “Sinicization”—the belief in the inevitable gravitation of foreign art forms toward a Chinese cultural center (expressed in the change of figural style and costume in Buddhist sculpture)—is dealt with, instead, through the lens of “cosmopolitanism.” Rather than looking at how Chinese culture extends into bordering regions, Wong looks at the ongoing exchange among, and mutual contributions from, all parties that participated in creating a common visual language in East Asian Buddhist art. In Wong’s own words, she proposes the “‘transmission-transformation’ concept as an alternative to the ‘center-periphery’ paradigm for understanding the interactions of cultures/civilizations” (5). Wong argues that the spread of this distinct style in Buddhist art was closely tied to new theories of Buddhist kingship expounded in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, an important Mahāyāna scripture that envisions an ordered cosmos with a supreme Buddha presiding over innumerable universes (3). The text was endorsed by unconventional royal patrons to challenge traditional sources of power in China and Japan. The sutra was used by Wu Zhao (624–705, r. 690–705) to become the only female emperor in the history of China, and it was central to experimentations with divine rulership by the retired Japanese emperor Shōmu (701–756, r. 724–49) and his consort Kōmyo (701–760).

Wong chooses three important monks as the protagonists of her book, which covers the period between 645 and 770. The Chinese monk Xuanzang (ca. 602–664) set forth on a pilgrimage to India in 629 and spent sixteen years in the Buddhist heartland. He returned to the Tang capital Chang’an in 645 with many Buddhist icons and scriptures and received enthusiastic patronage from the Tang royal family. The second figure is the important yet understudied Japanese monk Dōji (d. 744), who traveled to China on official embassies between the Nara and Tang courts. He was crucial in bringing the newest developments in Buddhist material culture, ritual, and thought from Tang China to Japan. The book ends with the death of the legendary Chinese monk Jianzhen (J. Ganjin; 688–763), whose arduous journey to Japan was plagued by shipwrecks and eventual blindness. These monks carried with them Buddhist icons, ritual implements, and scriptures as they traveled between India, China, and Japan. They guided their royal patrons, oversaw the building of great monasteries, and facilitated exchange across cultures. It is within this context that we see the spread of the “International Buddhist Art Style” in East Asia.

The first part of the book centers on Xuanzang’s activities in Chang’an after 645. Wong shows how new Buddhist image-making practices emerged as Xuanzang became a leading religious figure. Xuanzang’s impact is most acutely observed in the mass production of small merit-generating clay tablets with various new iconographies of the Buddha. The use of clay tablets to dedicate stupas and images became widespread in India in the seventh century. After witnessing similar activities in Bodhgayā, Xuanzang started to promote this practice in China. Through detailed analysis of small tablets, Wong masterfully traces how doctrinal developments concerning the Buddha’s multiple bodies—new ideas brought back from India and promoted by Xuanzang—led to major shifts in the Buddha’s figural style in East Asia.

Wong’s study of the “bejeweled Buddha in earth-touching gesture” is especially insightful, for it breaks away from traditional formalist analyses that are largely limited to stylistic morphology. This new iconography portrays a seated Buddha, crowned and covered in jewelry, with his right hand reaching to the ground. The figure is often understood as a direct copy of a sacred image from the Mahābodhi Temple at Bodhgayā. Rather than tracing the development of this single figural type and assuming its one-directional spread from India to China, Wong directs our attention to the intense artistic creativity at Wu Zhao’s court and her monk-advisors in the late seventh century. Wong argues that the image type was in fact invented by incorporating two iconographical tropes. The first is the Buddha in an earth-touching gesture, which is associated with the Buddha’s awakening in Bodhgayā, while the second is the bejeweled Buddha, which is related to coronation rituals in the Hindu Kush and Kashmir region. This new image took shape when a plethora of Buddhist images and scriptures were created at the Tang court to legitimize Wu Zhao’s claim to the throne.

The second part of the book moves away from Chang’an, and we learn about the legacy of Xuanzang’s and Wu Zhao’s innovations through Dōji. Detailed archival research is marshaled to give shape to Dōji’s background, early training, scope of study, travels in China, and undertakings back in Japan. His tenure in China between 702 and 718 was a time when new scriptures that Xuanzang brought back from India had been widely translated at the imperially sponsored Ximing Monastery in Chang’an. Having studied in this milieu, Dōji became a critical figure in propagating momentous renovations in Japanese Buddhism and art. Becoming an important monk-official when he returned to Japan, Dōji oversaw several temple construction projects. Wong shows how Dōji’s involvement can be traced across many Buddhist sculptures and paintings of the period.

Dōji’s most significant achievement was his supervision of the rebuilding of Daianji—one of the earliest Buddhist temples to be sponsored by the state in Japan—between 729 and 742. Wong combines recent archaeological excavations of the site with an important inventory of the monastery that dates to 747. What makes the monastery stand out among East Asian temple constructions is that it features large pagodas outside the Great South Gate, while many monks’ quarters were built around the Golden Hall and Lecture Hall. This is different from most temples’ plans, which feature pagodas within the main compound. Much ink has been spilled on how the layout of Daianji was modeled on Ximing Monastery, but Wong argues that Daianji was in fact inspired by treatises that describe ideal Buddhist monasteries.

The last part of the book takes us further into the eighth century, as Wong traces the rise of Avataṃsaka art in China, Japan, and Korea. Colossal sculptures of the Vairocana Buddha, the key deity of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, were erected by Wu Zhao at Longmen and by Shōmu at Tōdaiji in Nara. Pictorial and sculptural representations of the sutra also became widespread from Dunhuang in northwestern China to the Korean peninsula. The book concludes with our third protagonist, the Tang monk Jianzhen, who traveled to Japan in 754 after five unsuccessful attempts. Jianzhen brought to Japan new esoteric ritual forms and established the famous temple of Tōshōdaiji, contributions that give us a clear picture of current developments in East Asian Buddhism, such as new rituals, new forms of the Avalokiteśvara cult, and most importantly the Avataṃsaka Sutra.

This elegant monograph successfully illuminates the multifaceted ways in which Buddhist images traveled between major monasteries and royal courts through the peregrinations of monks. While intended to speak to a specialist audience, Wong’s book reads as an excellent overview of seventh- to eighth-century Buddhist art in East Asia. Her approach to the topic of the “International Buddhist Art Style,” however, remains largely focused on cultural context, political background, and religious doctrine; there is little focus on the historiography of the term itself, the invention and dissemination of which remains something of a mystery. Nevertheless, her work serves as a provocation for future research that focuses on how images, icons, and sculptures embody and transmit “cosmopolitan” forms across East Asia. Such an approach could fruitfully open up the study of East Asian Buddhist art to a renewed interest in the problem and critical importance of “style” in global art history.

Anne N. Feng
Assistant Professor of Chinese Art, Boston University