Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 3, 2002
Angela Falco Howard Summit of Treasures: Buddhist Cave Art of Dazu, China New York: Weatherhill, 2000. 220 pp.; 181 color ills. Cloth $60.00 (0834804271)

A growing body of publications has finally dispelled the myth that the Song dynasty (960–1279) marked the beginning of a long and inexorable decline of Buddhism throughout the imperial era in China.1 Summit of Treasures: Buddhist Cave Art of Dazu, China by Angela Howard is an eloquent addition to this new scholarship. The subject of inquiry is the Baodingshan complex in Dazu County, Sichuan province, the only known Buddhist site in China exclusively constructed during the Song dynasty and devoted to religious development at the time. As the first major scholarly investigation of an artistic monument that functioned primarily outside the monastic establishment, this book not only contributes to our understanding of Song Buddhist art, but also sheds light on a little-known religious movement that intersected elite and popular cultures, and lay and monastic communities. Despite the overwhelming complexity of the topic of study and the painstaking Buddhological research and translation of hybrid classical and vernacular Chinese it involves, the book itself is admirably clear and concise. Ample illustrations in the form of color photographs (which unfortunately are sometimes grainy), line drawings, and maps render the massive, widely dispersed stone carvings and buildings more accessible and comprehensible to those without firsthand knowledge of the site, while the deftly translated inscriptions and biographies in the appendices will certainly stimulate future research. The continuously numbered endnotes facilitate multiple readings and cross-references. Scholars and nonspecialists alike will find much to ponder.

Building on past Chinese and Western studies on this topic that are more limited in scope, Howard adopts a new comprehensive approach by examining the religious function of the entire complex, its patronage, and artistic tradition. Howard argues that Baodingshan functioned as both a teaching ground (bodhimanda) and the apex of a pilgrimage circuit that originated in adjacent Anyue County. Baodingshan comprises three interrelated components, the Large Baodingshan with monumental rock-cut reliefs in a horseshoe-shaped gully, the Small Boadingshan or the inner sanctum, a modest enclave with a brick stupa in a courtyard, and the outerfield with carvings and stupas distributed in the four cardinal directions. Together they form a mandala, a spatial form commonly used in Esoteric Buddhism to delineate the dynamic emanation of deities from a central, originating deity, the Buddha Vairocana. As a three-dimensional, sculptural mandala, however, Baodingshan is “an extremely rare, if not the only available Song example” (xi).

The first chapter of the book explains the doctrinal meanings of each of the three components of this mandala, based on the iconography of the images and their accompanying inscriptions with quotations or adaptations from a wide range of scriptures, both orthodox and apocryphal. Translations of these explanatory inscriptions are either integrated with the discussion or provided in a separate appendix. Undoubtedly, the most imposing component is the Large Baodingshan with thirty rock-cut tableaux. A foldout diagram helps to illuminate the intricate details of each relief, as well as the meaningful, reciprocal relationship between one tableau and another. It also suggests the direction of the intended spatial progression through this sacred enclave, although Howard cautions that later repairs may have altered the original sequence.

The second chapter concerns the religious foundation of Baodingshan and its chronology. The inspirational figure behind the vast Baodingshan complex is Zhao Zhifeng, a self-styled Buddhist monk whose biography is recorded in a stone stele inscription commemorating the repairs of the Shengshou Temple in 1425. According to this stele inscription, Zhao Zhifeng was born in 1159, and in 1179 he started construction of the Shengshou Temple that served as the inner sanctum or Small Baodingshan; the Large Baodingshan and outerfield were constructed later by Zhao or his followers. Although the date of Zhao’s death is omitted in this stele inscription, the terminal date of construction of the entire complex can be fixed in 1249, as the Mongol offensive in Sichuan (1253–59) and occupation of Chengdu in 1258 would have halted activity at the site. While this is not stated in the book, Zhao Zhifeng could still have been alive in 1249 at the plausible age of ninety. In other words, this charismatic spiritual leader could have overseen the construction of the entire complex from beginning to end. This may be a key factor in contributing to the remarkable unity of design underlying the widely dispersed carvings and structures.

The core of Zhao Zhifeng’s teaching is the personal cult of Liu Benzun, a saintly layman who was born as Vairocana incarnate in the ninth century in Sichuan. Zhao’s own personal cult was also based on his claim that he was the very reincarnation of Liu Benzun. Both religious personas are repeatedly portrayed throughout Baodingshan. Besides the Liu-Zhao lineage, the religious teaching embodied at Baodingshan represents a deft interweaving of current religious ideas and popular beliefs. Local authorities must have approved such a monumental undertaking; indeed, the frontispieces and labels at the site, penned by eminent scholar-officials in elegant calligraphy, attest to the endorsement of the local administration. Meanwhile, the quotation of scriptures and representation of principal icons associated with major doctrinal schools must have garnered support of the Buddhist establishment as well. According to Howard, the schools represented are Pure Land, Huayan, Chan, and Esoteric Buddhism. Conspicuously absent is Tiantai Buddhism, a major syncretic doctrinal school that was undergoing revival at the time. Howard does not offer an explanation, but one might surmise that this omission was no coincidence. The exclusion of Tiantai is a clue that Zhao Zhifeng’s teaching was perhaps less concerned with doctrinal inclusivity, as Howard believes. The Tiantai School was localized in Mount Tiantai, its namesake in Zhejiang province. If Zhao Zhifeng forged a decidedly localized religion with Baodingshan as the sacred center in southwest China, he would have had strategic and expedient reasons to omit reference to a rival school centered in faraway southeast China.

The third chapter explains the five sculptural groups at Anyue as stations of a pilgrimage route. This interpretation is based on their hilltop locations, a morphology that echoes the five sacred peaks in Daoism. Furthermore, each site was associated with a local monastery, and the route linking the five sites can be easily traversed on foot in a week’s time. The iconographic and stylistic connections between Anyue and Baodingshan also suggest that they were contemporary creations. Strangely, there is no documentation of this pilgrimage network, either by a pilgrim’s record or inscription.

The final chapter considers the Baodingshan monumental style as a special Sichuanese development shaped by the expectations and needs of the local populace. While there are no donor records at Baodingshan, its antecedent can be identified in another group of grotto carvings, the Yuanjuedong in Anyue County, where donor inscriptions of local prominent families are preserved. As Anyue and Dazu were close-knit administrative and social communities, Howard makes a convincing case that the same school of artisans deployed at Yuanjuedong worked later at Baodingshan, and donors similar to those of Yuanjuedong also funded the construction of Baodingshan. This chapter represents the best stylistic analysis of Song monumental sculpture to date.

There are a few questions that could have been addressed more fully. In emphasizing the uniqueness of Baodingshan, Howard may have downplayed its continuities with the murals of Dunhuang and the stone carvings in Jianchuan, especially the Shizongshan site, in Yunnan province. As a visualization of a broadly based religion, Baodingshan must have derived some of its authority and suasive power from iconographic and artistic ties with the two established Buddhist sites further north and west, respectively.

While the entire complex is Buddhist in nature, a prominent place is given to the theme of filial piety at Large Baodingshan, where two reliefs illustrate the scriptures: Parents Bestowing Kindness on Their Children and Buddha Shakyamuni Repays His Parents’ Kindness With Great Skillful Means. According to Howard, this is a concession to non-Buddhist Confucian values that were promoted by the Song court at the time. Instead of labeling such references to filial piety as “Confucian,” it would have been more fruitful to delve into the internal development of Buddhism and consider the Buddhist contribution to the discourse on filial piety at the time. As proposed in his book Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), Alan Cole argues that the Buddhist establishment, especially during the Tang and Song dynasties, responded to Confucianism by using scriptures such as those illustrated at Baodingshan to promulgate a distinctive brand of Buddhist family values.

The absence of any written record of pilgrimage warrants more serious consideration. One possible approach to the problem is to consider the disjunction between “rhetoric” and “reality” of pilgrimage. This would entail further probing into the gap between Zhao Zhifeng, his cohorts, and local authorities who manipulated various rhetorical devices to advance their own agendas, and the actual religious converts—unlettered peasants, laborers, and petty merchants who left no visible record of their aspirations and spiritual experiences.

These minor caveats by no means detract from the extraordinary achievement of this book, which opens a new chapter in the study of Buddhist art and religious movements in China.

Judy Chungwa Ho
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Ph.D, Program in Visual Studies, University of California, Irvine

1 As represented by the following anthologies: Marsha Weidner, ed., Cultural Interactions in Later Chinese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001); Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz, Jr., eds., Buddhism in the Sung (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999); Marsha Weidner, ed., Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism 850–1850 (Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, and Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994); Patricia Buckley Ebrey and Peter N. Gregory, eds., Religion and Society in Tang and Sung China (Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1993).

Please send comments about this review to