Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2003
Patricia Berger Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002. 266 pp.; 66 b/w ills.; 66 ills. Cloth $42.00 (0824825632)

Patricia Ann Berger’s Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China is not just the first monograph on court art of this period in Western language, but also a much-needed contribution to the study of Manchu court culture in general, an area enjoying something of renaissance in the last decade. Like recent publications by cultural historians, Berger’s work could be read as contrasting the “cynical” view on Manchu rulers, a view that dismisses the emperors’ cultural projects or religious practices as purely political manipulation or that explains them as a result of the rulers’ personal obsession with grandeur, vanity, and egocentricity. By focusing on Buddhist artworks produced and collected at Qianlong court and analyzing them within the contexts of Vajrayana meditation practices and techniques, Berger approaches her topic somewhat differently from those by cultural historians: she shows how Buddhist art of the Qing dynasty, previously little explored, can be studied fruitfully, while reminding us how much we have simplified and distorted the relationship between Buddhist art and politics in the Qing dynasty by not seriously taking into account the people’s religious practice.

It is well known that the Manchu emperors’ patronage of Tibetan Buddhism can be traced back to the early stage of their empire-building enterprise. Berger effortlessly correlates this complex political history with the network of exchange of Buddhist art among the Manchu, the Mongol, and the Tibetan during the early period of Qing rule. When Abahai, the founder of the Manchu dynasty, defeated a descendant of the Mongol Yuan emperors in 1634, he accepted a golden statue from a Mongol Lama as a gift and enshrined it at Mukden. By possessing this golden statue, originally created in the thirteenth century by the Tibetan Lama for Mongol Yuan, Abahai proclaimed that the Manchu had succeeded the Yuan rulers as the protector of Tibetan Buddhism (23–25). After conquering China proper and moving its capital from Muden to Beijing, the Manchu continued to support Tibetan Buddhism. The Shunzhi emperor invited the Fifth Dalai Lama to visit Beijing in 1653; this historic meeting was recorded in a mural in the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s own residential palace (21). And shortly after the Outer Mongolian Khalkha tribe was brought into the Manchu empire in 1691, the Kangxi emperor, Shunzhi’s son, ordered the famous Yuan golden statue to be moved from Mukden to Beijing, reconfirming the dynasty’s traditional support for Tibetan Buddhism (25). Indeed, both Shunzhi and Kangxi’s court not only received numerous Buddhist images from their Inner Asian allies, but also produced a broad range of works in the service of diplomacy and their own religious practice. However, it was at the court of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95) where Buddhist art production reached an unprecedented scale and complexity.

In her detailed account of this production, Berger considers important aspects of every major art form in her in-depth examinations of individual mediums. She describes in a meticulous manner, for example, the way in which a painting was made collaboratively by Han Chinese court artists, European Jesuits, and the Mongolian Lamas in Zhongzhengdian in the Forbidden City (14–23). Above all, the author conceptualizes the characteristics of Buddhist art produced at Qianlong’s court. Indeed, a typical Buddhist image produced by court artists in this period reveals a mixture of sources from different traditions juxtaposed within the same work. For instance, in a kesi tapestry entitled Buddhas of the Three Ages and intended as gift to the Seventh Dalai Lama, the figures are composed according to Tibetan iconography, but the shape of the cloud above them is formed into a ruyi, a Han Chinese visual pun for “blessing.” In addition, the tapestry bears a Chinese inscription that references a specific Chinese painter of the Tang dynasty (41–43). Borrowing her vocabulary from semiotic analysis, Berger aptly terms such composite work the “quoted style” (33).

The semiotic terminology used here is not ornamentation to the work, but rather helps to crystallize problems and to initiate further investigations. To Berger, the real issue is this: since a Buddhist image—like language—was intended to communicate, why was it made as a gift to someone, such as the non-Chinese-speaking Dalai Lama, who could not “read” some part of its meaning? And why did the court artist employ visual idioms from different sources, and in some cases scripts written in different languages, when the impenetrability caused by such a mixture would pose a problem even to the Qianlong emperor himself, who was famous for his multilingual skills and for his expertise in visual arts (43)? Berger explains that the answer to these questions cannot be found simply in the multiethnic composition of the population in the empire, or indeed in the “multicultural” policy of the court, but rather in a shared visual culture among the Manchu, the Mongol, and the Tibetans. The formation of that visual culture was deeply affected by their Buddhist practice. Berger argues that a key factor in explaining the composite art of the Qianlong court and its relationship with politics is meditation in Vajrayana tradition, a training shared by all Tibetan Buddhists. Here, a master would deploy a broad repertory of visual, aural, and tactile forms, including mandalas, mantras and dhatani, chanting, and incense, to aid an initiate. Characteristic of this training are words and images in different forms that were designed to work simultaneously on the initiate’s consciousness, stimulating that person to “remember” his or her own buddhahood—“some of them deeply encoded or intentionally hidden in plain view so as to bring the viewer up short like quotation from a foreign language in the midst of an otherwise completely transparent text” (8). In following the path of multiple forms, the master would also encourage his disciple to assume the identity of a deity thoroughly.

In making connections between Vajrayana practice and Qianlong’s collecting activities, Berger’s approach invokes some pleasant surprises when she examines Midian zhulin, the famous catalogue of religious paintings in the Forbidden City. The first edition was compiled in 1744–45; it involved a group of Han Chinese scholars headed by Zhang Zhao and the emperor’s guru Zhangjia Khutukhtu, Rolpay Dorje. The second edition was carried out in 1793, by a group of Han Chinese scholars only, as a supplement to the original. Analyzing the methods, structures, and contents of the two catalogues, Berger suggests that the change of documentation method reflects Qianlong’s awareness of the dual status of religious images and an attempt to reconcile religious involvement with critical viewing (74), and that his classification of the objects spatially in the first edition must be seen in the context of the Buddhist art of memory (81).

The same kind of pleasure can also be found in Berger’s discussion of the issue of copying, another characteristics of court art during Qianlong’s reign. When the emperor saw the Sixteen Lohans, a set of paintings by a late Tang painter Guanxiu, in his southern tour of 1757, Qianlong did not take them as one would assume (133); instead he ordered a set of copies made. Referring to the similarity between the Vajrayana practice of imaginative projection of self and the Chinese art theory about spiritual transmission through the act of copying, Berger’s explanation adds a Buddhist dimension to this key issue in Chinese art (138). Sometimes Qianlong’s obsession to make copies was driven more by political concerns. In 1767 he launched a meticulous examination of the mistakes in the Long Roll by the early-twelfth-century painter Zhang Shengwen of the Dali kingdom in Yunnan, and then ordered the creation of a copy with substantial corrections. Considering Yunnan as the empire’s southerwest frontier, next to the troublesome region of Burma, this examination and copying was obviously a political move. Berger argues, however, that this political concern was expressed in tantric terms: to Qianlong, the disorder of the original not only distorted the past but also endangered the present and future of that part of the empire. Therefore, rectifying mistakes in the original would help “to bring Yunnan back into a state of universal harmony” (158).

One of the many satisfactory features of the book is its inclusion of an exhaustive glossary, which gives the Chinese characters of many names and terms. Looking through the list, one finds quite a few errors caused either by misspelling or character transcription mistakes; among them are “huaqiang,” “Mouqindian,” “ruyiguan,” “Shengjing Gugong shuhua lu,” “ru ke mo ke, he cong he si,” and “Wu huang ershiba xiu zhenxing tu” (234–36). Those quibbles aside, Empire of Emptiness is a major contribution to the study of court art in the eighteenth-century China. Its call for serious attention to Buddhist practice in the study of the imperial image-making and collecting should be a revelation to anyone interested in art and culture of the Qing dynasty.

Hongxing Zhang
History of Art, University of Edinburgh