Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 1, 2015
Wei-Cheng Lin Building a Sacred Mountain: The Buddhist Architecture of China's Mount Wutai Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. 344 pp.; 12 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780295993522)

Few sites in China have engaged the religious imagination with more intensity than Mount Wutai, so named for its five “peaks” or “platforms.” Situated in northeast Shanxi Province, nowadays a four-hour bus ride from the city of Taiyuan, and long considered the abode of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mount Wutai has been a destination of pilgrimage for people of all walks of life. The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) famously visited the site six times during his life. Not surprisingly, Mount Wutai has been the subject of a number of recent English-language studies, which encompass such fields as literary studies, pilgrimage studies, art history, and architectural historiography.1 The relatively obscure beginning of this mountain cult—and more precisely the process by which Mount Wutai, a relatively unknown mountain and a seemingly arbitrary choice, was converted into a Buddhist sacred mountain—is the subject of Wei-Cheng Lin’s new study. At the most general level, Building a Sacred Mountain: The Buddhist Architecture of China’s Mount Wutai is a compelling narrative about the transformative power of the built environment in conferring meaning to a place, not in the least in Mount Wutai’s shift in identity from a native (that is “Chinese” and pre-Buddhist) numinous mountain to a sacred Buddhist site. But its plot is not simply one of Buddhist conquest, of displacing or replacing one set of notions of the sacred with another. Rather, Lin’s book is structured episodically, with chapters designed to examine key moments in the early history of Mount Wutai from the sixth to tenth centuries when architectural interventions crystallized new religious, political, and social concerns about sacrality. Each of these never fully erased the effects of the previous one. The palimpsest of the resulting history requires careful reading, which Lin provides in the shape of a creative analysis of a combination of textual and visual sources, as well as the most current theoretical interventions in the fields of architectural studies and sacred geography. As such, Building a Sacred Mountain should be of interest to students of Buddhist art and architecture, medieval Chinese history, and indeed anyone who wants to see an intriguing case study of how a sacred site is created through the interplay of natural environment and architectural intervention. Thanks to the Mellon Art History Publication Initiative, the reader’s experience is further enhanced by an online gallery of photographs, video footage, and a map that can be opened in Google Earth.

Mount Wutai first came to prominence in the sixth century. In this period, belief in the advent of the dissolution of the dharma (mofa) led Buddhist monks to increasingly retreat to the mountains where meditation caves were constructed and stone carvings of scriptures and images were made. Such desperate efforts to preserve Buddhist law in the face of impending doom, Lin argues, also sanctified these mountains by imputing sacral presence to them. The early history of these interventions to fix and localize the divine in architectural form in China, along with the theological framework within which such praxis and responses to it operated, constitute the narrative of the first two chapters. Indeed, by the end of chapter 2, Lin reveals that Mount Wutai’s status within Buddhist sacred geography in this period was increasingly tied to the presence of Mañjuśrī. When that presence finally became lodged in a “true presence” (zhenrong) image made for the Huayan Monastery in the early eighth century, what took place in tandem was no less than a complete redesignation of the Five Peaks, whereby the erstwhile North Peak (by early seventh-century reckoning), upon which the Huayan Monastery was founded, became the new center (chapter 3). As Mount Wutai rose in stature as a favored pilgrimage destination, new monasteries continued to be added to what was by this point a religious landscape peppered with buildings, way stations, and pilgrimage routes. Examining accounts of “virtual monasteries” (huasi) collected in period records, Lin describes in chapter 4 the intriguing process by which some of these new monastic centers came to be constructed. He argues that they were not simply utopian visions of Pure Lands, but invitations to the somatic experience of physically moving through an alternate reality. As such, they commanded certain prerogatives and imperatives that these “virtual monasteries” be realized in material forms. At least three were realized as such during the Tang period.

If the transformation of Mount Wutai up to the early eighth century was still shaped to a great extent by Mount Wutai’s five towering peaks, and the realignment of meanings entailed largely a reshuffling of these centers, in the remainder of the book Lin discusses two examples in which physical topography began to lose its importance as a primary frame of reference. In the second half of the eighth century, a series of building projects associated with the master of Esoteric Buddhism, Amoghavajra (705–774), put the newly constructed Jin’ge Monastery at the center of Mount Wutai. This new center was not located on any of the five peaks. Instead, it commanded the center of a mandalic field circumscribed by four other monasteries also established under Amoghavajra. Lin works out this argument in chapter 5 through a reconstruction of the iconographic program inside the Gold Pavilion of the Jin’ge Monastery. He shows, among other things, that the pavilion was constructed to simulate a Vajradhatū maṇḍala at Mount Wutai. The five peaks still loom large in the background, but only as background to a new ritualized topography. In chapter 6 the focus shifts further away to a tenth-century panorama of Mount Wutai depicted on the west wall of Cave 61 in Dunhuang. In this mural, it is the built environment more than the topography that informs the viewer’s experience of Mount Wutai. Two different yet interrelated viewpoints are at play in the same mural, Lin contends. One, itinerant and “experiential,” leads the viewer on a virtual pilgrimage of the entire site; the other, found at the center of the mural and informed by both symmetry and frontality, conveys the “transcendent” reality of a vision of the Holy Triad from the Flower Garland Sutra (Dafangguang fo huayan jing), that is, the Buddha, Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra. This “transposition” of Mount Wutai to the remote area of Dunhuang encapsulates the pilgrim’s experience of the site in medieval China, combining peripatetic movement through the built environment structured around a sacred topography with a visionary encounter with the divine that waits at the end.

This last point underscores the critical role of the interplay between vision and the built environment in the transformation of Mount Wutai. Indeed, what distinguishes Lin’s approach to Mount Wutai from that of earlier scholars is his departure “from site to sight of divinity” (18). Among other things, he argues, architecture provides the necessary mediation, as a physical site or a visual prompt, for visionary encounters with—and for the “emplacement” of—sacrality: for instance, that the mural at Cave 61 of Dunhuang, a painted representation of Mount Wutai that was structured as much around the ten great monasteries built over the centuries as around the eponymous five peaks, could function like an icon. But other examples from the book show that the opposite is also true. Vision also frequently sanctioned and sanctified such human interventions as image making and building. In the early eighth century, it was a vision of Mañjuśrī appearing in front of the sculptor An Sheng that sanctified the statue the latter made for the Huayan Monastery as the “true presence” icon of the bodhisattva. In the case of “virtual monasteries,” vision and architecture became so imbricated that visual premonition was often the raison d’être of monastic construction (e.g., Zhulin Monastery and Jin’ge Monastery). Through its focus on these issues, Lin’s study joins the recent visual turn in Buddhist studies that considers the arrival of Buddhism in China as an explosion of visualities that became fully exploited by artists. But Lin’s contribution lies in showing that the tension between the universality of vision prescribed by Mahayanism—that is, the notion that one’s vision of the sacred is only contingent upon piety and effort, and not bound by one’s physical location—and Mount Wutai’s claim to monopolize that experience may have been neutralized, if not completely dissolved, by architecture. As the example of the mural inside Cave 61 demonstrates, the architecture of Mount Wutai painted on the west wall could now guarantee a visual encounter with the divine, and it could do so outside Mount Wutai.

For Lin, the kind of architecture under study also appears in many guises. Readers more conversant with the critical literature in the field of Chinese architecture might find somewhat unconventional Lin’s decision to leave “building styles, structural details, and trades involved in timber-frame architecture” out of the book’s purview (14). But his move toward an intercontextual reading of monastic architecture, seeing it not simply as the finished built environment but as “a process from idea to actuality,” opens up other possibilities. For example, although Mount Wutai is famed as home to some of the oldest surviving timber buildings in China, Lin’s study shows the equally felicitous rewards of studying buildings that have long vanished or have only had ephemeral existence in the figments of imagination. Indeed, the main body of the book is bracketed by brief discussions of the ninth-century Great Buddha Hall of the Foguang Monastery, a point of departure and a reprise designed to refresh the experience of a familiar building. In this new light, the Buddha Hall and the tradition of Chinese timber architecture that it often epitomizes feel less recalcitrant to methodological experimentation. Toward the end of the book, as Lin guides the reader through the topography of the Foguang Monastery, he makes the point that in the larger religious landscape of Mount Wutai, it is just a “mountain gate,” a point of entry. Likewise, Building a Sacred Mountain marks an important point of entry to the field of Chinese architecture, passage through which will lead “pilgrims” and casual travelers alike to bigger things.

Jun Hu
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Northwestern University

1 Mary Anne Cartelli, The Five-Colored Clouds of Mount Wutai: Poems from Dunhuang (Leiden: Brill, 2013); Natasha Heller, “Visualizing Pilgrimage and Mapping Experience: Mount Wutai on the Silk Road,” in The Journey of Maps and Images on the Silk Road, eds., Philippe Forêt and Andreas Kaplony (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 29–50; Wen-Shing Chou, “Ineffable Paths: Mapping Wutaishan in Qing Dynasty China,” The Art Bulletin 89, no. 1 (2007): 108–29; and Nancy S. Steinhardt, “The Tang Architectural Icon and the Politics of Chinese Architectural History,” The Art Bulletin 86, no. 2 (2004): 228–54.