Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 31, 2023
Sonya S. Lee Temples in the Cliffside: Buddhist Art in Sichuan Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022. 296 pp.; 119 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780295749303)

In 2020, the flooding Yangtze River covered the feet of the giant Buddha statue at Leshan, in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. As a local proverb warns, “When the Great Buddha washes his feet, the world is in chaos.” In 2022, drought revealed three Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) Buddha statues on an island in the Yangtze located within Chongqing municipality, also in southwest China. These examples underscore the timeliness—indeed, the urgency—of Sonya S. Lee’s Temples in the Cliffside: Buddhist Art in Sichuan. Lee takes up the question of how Buddhist art has survived in Sichuan’s humid, rainy environments from the Tang dynasty (618–907) to the present. In considering this question and its answers, Lee attends to the diverse range of stakeholders responsible for sponsoring, creating, visiting, and restoring Buddhist stone carvings in Sichuan. The resulting investigation constitutes a truly multidisciplinary work of scholarship that examines Buddhist art from intertwined technical, environmental, religious, historical, aesthetic, economic, and political perspectives.

The Introduction offers a general history of Buddhist cave temples before turning to Sichuan’s cave temples and their environments. As Lee observes, Buddhist cave temples offered ideal sites for seclusion and meditation away from the distractions of worldly life, but their creation also required significant resources. In China, imperially sponsored cave temples in the northeast, such as Yungang and Longmen, have received more attention, as have Dunhuang’s Mogao caves in the northwest. However, in this book Lee turns to the less-studied cave temples of the southwest: Leshan, to the south of the provincial capital Chengdu; Dazu, in the western part of Chongqing municipality; and Bazhong, in the northeastern part of Sichuan Province.

As Lee writes, “Two basic questions frame the scope of this book’s investigation: In what ways did the natural setting shape the design of a cave temple? And how did the site, once established, change the ways its stakeholders interacted with and understood the setting of which it was a part?” (13). In answering these questions, Lee adopts an object-based and material-based approach. The former refers to the book’s focus on cave temples as objects rather than literary or discursive representations, and concerns nature-society relationships; the latter refers to relationships between human and nonhuman entities. Lee incorporates the theoretical concept of affordances, which foregrounds human perceptions of nonhuman entities, especially perceptions of how humans can interact with nonhuman entities. Lee also considers the insights derived from new materialism, which places roughly equal emphasis on human and nonhuman entities by treating them as equal actors (or actants) in a network. Though I appreciate the value of affordances and new materialism, these theories end up getting buried in the wealth of material that this book covers, and ultimately prove unnecessary for Lee’s already compelling analysis of how aesthetics, religion, and the environment interact and intersect.

Temples in the Cliffside is divided into two parts, the first of which, “Inner/Outer,” focuses on the inside-outside structures of medieval cave temples at Leshan and Dazu. Chapter one, “The Leshan Buddha, a Calmer of Water,” is an overview of how and why Tang-dynasty Buddhists sponsored and built a sixty-two-meter-high statue of the future Buddha Maitreya to pacify the confluence of the Min, Dadu and Qingyi rivers. Lee demonstrates how environment, politics, religion, and technological know-how coalesced in the Great Buddha statue. The monk Haitong (fl. early eighth century) and then the Tang officials Zhangqiu Jianqiong (d. 750) and Wei Gao (744–805) sponsored the statue’s construction, which required a tremendous amount of labor and technical knowledge. Lee shows that the technologies for carving the Great Buddha overlapped with technologies for salt drilling and wet-rice cultivation, thereby linking this artistic endeavor to agriculture and taxation. In addition, Lee addresses the multi-level wooden pavilion that sheltered the Great Buddha from the time of Wei Gao’s sponsorship until its destruction in the fourteenth-century Ming conquest. This structure protected the Great Buddha from the elements and shaped visitors’ engagement: descending and ascending the pavilion revealed the statue piece by piece rather than all at once, which underscored its enormity and the asymmetry between the Buddha and human viewers.

Chapter two, “Self-Sacrifice and Healing at Baodingshan,” moves slightly east to the cave temples of Dazu, where the local preacher Zhao Zhifeng (1159–1249) initiated the bulk of the work in the Song dynasty (960–1279), specifically between 1174 and 1252. Zhao drew inspiration from the Buddhist healer Liu Benzun (fl. tenth century) and incorporated Liu’s austerities into the carving projects at Baodingshan, Dazu’s crown jewel. Lee shows how Baodingshan became an interactive site that brought together the natural environment, Buddhist images, and ritual healing. At the Large Buddha Bend section of Baodingshan, which features several distinct levels of relief carvings, laypeople would have received instruction about both Liu Benzun’s austerities and the larger cosmological framework that underpins them. Conversely, Small Buddha Bend includes small niches that would have served advanced practitioners engaging in their own austerities or other healing rituals.

Part one offers compelling accounts of the nature-society and human-nonhuman relationships at Leshan and Dazu. However, the framework of inner/outer does not ultimately seem central to Lee’s analysis because it operates so differently at Leshan and Dazu: for the former, inner/outer refers to the space demarcated by the large wooden viewing pavilion; for the latter, it refers to the nested spatial demarcation for increasingly advanced practitioners. The theme of part two, “Users and Sustainability,” is more successful in connecting the third through fifth chapters through cave temples’ various stakeholders—site managers, visitors, and restorers—though these groups overlap significantly.

Chapter three, “Dazu Site Managers, Land, Community,” follows the management of Dazu’s cave temples from the late imperial period (fifteenth through nineteenth centuries) to the present. Lee shows the contrast between Baodingshan, where local officials sponsored the late imperial revivals, and Shizhuanshan, which was privately owned. In both cases, the site managers, including monks, worked symbiotically with the local community. This dynamic changes in the twentieth century, when site managers begin to emphasize cave temples’ historical, artistic, and scientific values over their religious value. This shift transformed active religious sites into heritage sites. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Dazu site managers worked directly for the central government, which dictated the site’s meaning and controlled resources for maintaining the cave temples. Dazu’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 changed its management again by transforming it into an international tourism destination.

The next chapter, “Visitors to Nankan,” shifts to consider a new set of stakeholders—visitors to cave temples—and a new site, the Nankan Caves at Bazhong. Nankan’s cave temples date to the Tang dynasty, with revivals in the Song dynasty and late imperial period. Its appeal included its distinctive natural features and its perceived antiquity, even in the eighth century. Visitors to Nankan not only worshiped the divine beings carved into the rock, especially the bodhisattva Guanyin (aka Avalokiteshvara), they also connected with the past. However, Nankan never became a famous tourist destination for its Buddhist carvings; instead, it has become a draw for Red Tourism due to the Red Army’s activities in the region during the 1930s.

Chapter Five, “Restorers of Dazu Rock Carvings,” shows how contemporary restoration projects take into account environmental and religious factors, while also pointing out their blindspot toward local communities, who are often left out of conversations about restoration just as they are prevented from accessing cave temples unless they buy an expensive admission ticket. The technical aspects of restoration receive due attention, as well: Lee discusses the importance of lacquer in protecting the stone underneath and providing an adhesive surface for applying gold leaf. She also points out how that Sichuan’s high humidity prevents the lacquer from cracking, allowing the lacquer to perform its protective function.

The volume’s postscript turns to new monumental buddha images in southwest China: two colossal statues in Leshan, at the theme park “Buddha Capital of the Orient,” and a ninety-nine-meter-high statue of the buddha Amitabha in Nanchong, Sichuan. These projects adopt traditional technology to remove rock and carve the buddha images, showing the compatibility of old methods with the natural landscape.

Temples in the Cliffside is an ambitious project that spans over one thousand years and approaches Sichuan’s cave temples from multiple, interlocking perspectives. Some perspectives necessarily receive more nuanced consideration than others. As a scholar of religion, I would have appreciated more attention to these sites’ religious affordances and possibilities for continued religious engagement with heritage and tourism sites. However, this is an unavoidable effect of interdisciplinarity, and it does not diminish the book’s overall contribution. The volume’s 119 color illustrations not only highlight the cave temples’ formal and aesthetic qualities, they also reveal critical technical and environmental aspects of these carving projects. Sinologists will especially appreciate the thorough Appendix of primary texts, many of which would be difficult to access otherwise.

Like Sugata Ray’s Climate Change and the Art of Devotion (University of Washington Press, 2019), Temples in the Cliffside innovatively locates religious art within its historical, political, and natural landscapes to show how people have managed their relationships to nature, and nonhuman entities in general, in different contexts. At a time when floods will likely wash the Great Buddha’s feet more and more frequently, thinking about art holistically and ecologically is particularly urgent.

Megan Culbertson Bryson
Associate Professor and Associate Head, Religious Studies, University of Tennessee, Knoxville