Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 19, 2006
Dorothy Wong Chinese Steles: Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form Honolulu: University Of Hawai'i Press, 2003. 244 pp.; 125 b/w ills. Cloth $52.00 (9780824827830)

Chinese Steles is an exceptional work, useful for those unfamiliar with the genre of steles yet thorough enough to satisfy a scholarly need for depth. Dorothy Wong presents her study in a very coherent fashion: beginning with an overview of the stele within a broader Chinese historical context before moving on to consider the form as it was appropriated by Buddhist and Northern Wei concerns. With the brunt of the study focused on Buddhist steles, Wong effectively argues for an appropriation of the medium to relay the new Buddhist message, and she uses a regional construct to chart the connections between the Northern Wei dynasty court and the rise of the Buddhist stele primarily in the northern areas of China. Wong rightly notes that although a number of studies have been done on individual steles over the years, no one had considered the works as a category unto themselves; her text thus provides new materials along with a new approach for those who study Buddhist art or ritual practice. Making good use of a wide variety of resources, Wong integrates works from religious studies, history, and art history; her synthesis of these materials provides an alternative in-depth look at a transitional time in Chinese art, politics, and religious practice.

For those familiar with only the Confucian form of the Chinese stele, often seen mounted on a sculpture of a turtle, Wong sets out to present a history of the stele first within the tradition of the upright stone as marker, then more specifically within China. The opening three chapters of the book, which effectively make up the first part, entitled “Traditional Chinese Steles and their Buddhist Adaptation,” lay the groundwork for Wong’s later analysis of Buddhist steles on a regional basis. She looks at ancient practices utilizing the stele form, and follows this with a concentrated look at the stele tradition under the Han dynasty; she ends with a look at how the non-Chinese Northern Wei dynasty rulers and elite appropriated the form to further their political agenda. Wong painstakingly defines important terms throughout this portion of the book, helping set the stage for her later analysis as well as educating the reader about this particular art form. She also sets up a clear framework for the uses of Buddhist steles by highlighting the various functions of the Confucian Han works: funerary, commemorative, or edifying. Further types of steles are considered within this portion of the book, namely those utilized for political ends, albeit all with a Confucian flavor. With the Han works in mind, Wong demonstrates how the Northern Wei elite in conjunction with the newly developing Buddhist devotional societies, or yiyi, co-opt the Han Confucian form to suit their own purposes. In order to make her point, Wong begins not with freestanding steles but rather with texts found within the Buddhist cave sites of Yungang and Longmen, yet carved in traditional stele form. Within this context, the author argues for multiple layers of meaning to the tone of the inscriptions found at these sites, highlighting the variety of peoples represented as well as their varied political motivations.

The following section, “The Flourishing of Buddhist Steles,” deals exclusively with Buddhist steles organized by the region in which they were found. Before launching into her analysis of specific regional variations, Wong once again presents a broader overview of the general characteristics of her subject matter. She divides this chapter by typology, foreign prototypes, spatial contexts, and function. Throughout this section Wong presents a nice mix of Chinese terms with clear and accurate translations, and also provides the reader with alternative possible readings for imagery (e.g., dragons in the indigenous reading of a stele top versus Indian Buddhist nagas). The questions Wong raises within this portion of the book with regard to usage and ritual placement of the Buddhist steles are all very good, even as she herself admits that many will remain unanswered due to lack of evidence. Her section on spatial contexts for Buddhist steles is provocative, in that we see the beginnings of how the various regional usages are presented in the texts inscribed on the steles themselves. This concept alone highlights how the work done earlier on individual steles has fed into Wong’s synthesizing project. Altogether Wong has looked at more than 200 steles, and she indicates the potential for more, while noting that the moveable nature of such works has decreased the number that can safely be ascribed to specific areas within China.

The last six chapters of Chinese Steles deal with various regional works, and it is here that the scholar of Buddhist art will be regaled with Wong’s intensely detailed formal analysis of individual stele programs and her complete translations of numerous inscribed texts. For the non-expert in the field, the copious maps and diagrams of rubbings accompanying stele photographs will help tremendously in illuminating the not-so-readily-apparent variations among the selected steles. Each chapter follows roughly the same order of presentation: first an overview of the geography of the region under consideration (Shanxi, Henan, Shaanxi, Gansu-Ningxia, Sichuan) followed by specific typological examples to support Wong’s contention that the steles represent a commingling of indigenous and non-native traditions in support of larger agendas. Throughout all of these chapters, the reader encounters Wong’s clear translations of important texts alongside diagrams and black-and-white photos of the steles in question. From time to time the photographic documentation is somewhat inadequate; but given the fact that some of these works no longer exist, having been lost in the chaos of twentieth-century Chinese political events, Wong must be commended for continuing to research these works.

It is fascinating to see how the various regions utilize the Buddhist stele form. In Shanxi, for example, the texts describe the donor’s wishes that the stele be placed at a crossroads, making the stele in a sense a very public monument yet a traveler’s road marker as well. In Henan, however, the stele is removed from this public environment and placed squarely within a very different community of viewers, that of the temple. Within each of these regions, Wong also looks at variation in subject matter for the steles, and as she takes the reader from one region to the next, she also moves across time. This approach emphasizes not only the evolutionary character of the Buddhist stele form, but also that of the Buddhist faith, moving from the more elementary, earlier one thousand-Buddha motif to the more complex developments of imagery related to differing Mahayana schools. Again, within each of these discussions of changing religious practice, Wong is conscientious in first presenting basic background information on the deity in question as well as on varying types of practice related to it. She is also clear in pointing out that although new types of imagery emerge old forms continue to be created. Throughout all of the chapters, Wong is consistent in her discussion of the details of Buddhist stele production, including local sourcing of materials, calligraphic quality of the inscriptions, inscription content, and information on donors and donor groups.

Other discussion points in Chinese Steles are worthy of note. One is Wong’s continued emphasis on the funerary nature of many of these Buddhist works, a facet clearly linking the steles back to their indigenous origins. By demonstrating that not only are the texts found on the Buddhist steles linked to funerary concerns, but also a number of the carved images, Wong presents yet another piece of compelling evidence to support her claims for early Chinese Buddhist syncretism. This leads to one chapter in the book, “The Shaanxi School—Buddhist-Daoist Elements and Ethnic Diversity,” that is a bit hard to follow since the imagery is quite difficult to see, but which is supported by a number of useful text translations. This chapter also does a nice job of clearly explaining why such a large number of military personnel were among the donors of Buddhist steles at this time.

Wong’s work on the steles depicting Maitreya’s Pure Land and Amitabha provides yet another provocative discussion. As described in chapters six and ten respectively, these two deities figure prominently in demonstrating the evolving philosophical understanding of the Chinese elite. In chapter 6, Wong also puts forward the claim to some of the earliest visual representations of the Pure Land in China. Wong argues for a re-reading of various classical interpretations given to some of these works by earlier scholars, choosing to categorize the imagery in a more general fashion—“mundane” and “religious”—rather than identifying specific texts to which the images relate. This is effective, and helps the reader to see the spatial differentiation for which she is arguing. Wong does digress in seeking to identify Buddhist historical figures responsible for early Pure Land imagery, but this can be seen as a necessary component of her rationale as to why this particular trend in Buddhist thought would be represented in Sichuan at the time.

One final point raised by Wong has interesting repercussions for the greater construct of Chinese art history. Within the last section of chapter 10, “Landscape and Figural Styles and the Sichuan Heritage,” she makes the claim that the landscape imagery seen on the Wanfosi steles represents “rare examples of nascent landscape art” (168). Focusing on changes seen in recessional space from the earlier Han “space cell” composition to one utilizing a more orthogonal perspective, Wong points to the Pure Land imagery as being an early contributor to changes within China’s secular arts. At the same time, she rightly points out that the artisans who created these Buddhist works were focusing perhaps more on how the icons were being used, presenting multiple viewpoints to serve multiple perspectives.

Wong’s work is not without problems. While insisting on regional styles, at times she puts forward the notion, found within the inscribed texts themselves, that the steles were made by itinerant artisans, individuals who “acquired fame for their skills” (70). If that is indeed the case, the regional argument suffers as does the notion that there are “rural,” less technically accomplished schools of artisans as opposed to those found at court. Within this rubric, Wong’s regional analysis of Sichuan along with that of the case study of the steles found at Maijishan also brings into question the validity of this time-honored dichotomy. If these “peripheral” areas are capable of producing excellent works of art, why is it always necessary to compare them with a “core”? In what way does it advance our understanding of regional artistic production? Wong’s rationalization that these areas benefit from proximity to the Buddhist source is not enough, since many of the early purveyors of Buddhist imagery were court-affiliated. Another minor flaw in Wong’s argument is her reiteration of ritual practice related to visualization and confession in conjunction with the steles even while she presents no evidence to support this type of activity.

Extremely thorough in its analysis and clear in its approach, Chinese Steles is recommended for any serious scholar of Chinese art or religion. Wong demonstrates an incisive understanding of the historical interplay between the two disciplines, and provides the reader with a new appreciation for the complexities of this very singular genre. As a nice finishing touch, the physical layout of Chinese Steles further helps to evoke a “stele” form and feel; instead of a singular horizontal contiguous text, the reader finds two vertical columns of various text and image combinations along with headers spelled out in a very angular “carved” font.

Karil J. Kucera
Professor of Art History and Asian Studies, Departments of Art and Asian Studies, St. Olaf College