Reflections on Refiguring East Asian Art: Buddhist Devotion and Funerary Practice

by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

The Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago has recently published Refiguring East Asian Art: Buddhist Devotion and Funerary Practice, a collection of chapter essays on the images, objects, architecture, and ritual practices surrounding Buddhist devotion and ancestral veneration. The research compiled in this volume encompasses a wide range of funerary practices and highlights the relationships between them. Rather than adhere to rigid categories of religions such as Buddhism, Daosim, and Confucianism, these essays describe the interplay of cross-cultural material and artistic production in the context of East Asian social and ritual environments. 

With a focus on ancestor veneration, this collection of research reveals how Buddhist devotion and funerary practice also often draw from Daoism and Confuciansim. The value of filial piety runs through these religions and the visual markers that emerged was a unique synthesis of disparate influences. An example of this would be the common imagery found in ancient tombs in China. In his essay, “Female Bodily Sacrifice and the Absence of Men: Representing Filial Offspring in Song, Jin, and Liao Tombs,” Scholar and Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Utah Winston Kyan writes about the phenomena of depicting Wang Wuzi Qi in Chinese tombs. 

Kyan notes the frequency of which the legend of Wang Wuzi Qi (qi meaning wife) was shown in funerary media and tombs, in painted murals, engraved stone slabs, carved tiles, and three-dimensional tableaux of clay figurines. The wife of Wang Wuzi is celebrated for her act of filial thigh cutting, or gegu. She cooked her own flesh in a thick stew and offered it to her mother-in-law in order to heal her mother-in-law’s illness. Her act of bodily sacrifice was commonly depicted in ancestral tombs. Kyan draws the link between Wang Wuzi Qi and the Buddhist legend of Sujati Jataka, a son who offers his flesh to his starving parents in an act of Buddhist giving. The author references other scholars who report on this imagery glorified in Buddhist caves from a slightly earlier era and indicates the gradual conflation of Sujati Jataka and Wang Wuzi Qi. He quotes Keith Knapp: “By the late Tang period, Sujati was incorporated in the emerging pantheon of filial exemplars under the guise of Wang Wuzi’s wife.” Comparing visual aspects of the depiction of Sujati Jataka in the Buddhist Mogao Caves from 766 and those of Wang Wuzi Qi in Chinese tombs from the mid-900s and 1000s, Kyan highlights the influence of Sujati Jataka on the imagery of Wang Wuzi Qi.  

Wang Wuzi Qi, Clay figurines from Shanxi province, Early Jin (1115-1190).

In addition to Sujati, Kyan presents another figure who is an intriguing synthesis of both Buddhist and Confucian values: “Princess Miaoshan, who as a manifestation of Guanyin the bodhisattva of compassion, sacrifices her hands and eyes as a cure for her cruel father.” The legends of Miaoshan were circulating (most notably through an inscription by Jiang Zhiqi dated to 1100) as images of Wang Wuzi Qi were becoming popular in funerary materials. 

The imagery of Wang Wuzi Qi embodies both the Buddhist figures of Sujati Jataka and Princess Miaoshan. Scholar Winston Kyan uniquely points to visual markers to draw parallels between the depiction of Sujati Jataka and Wang Wuzi Qi. The pictorial roots of Wang Wuzi Qi images in ancestral tombs is in large part drawn from the renderings Sujati Jataka in the Mogao Caves, thus showing how Buddhist devotion becomes intertwined with ancestor veneration and funerary rites. 

In essays such as Winston Kyan’s, the complex cross-cultural nature of religious art in East Asia becomes explicitly clear. Refiguring East Asian Religious Art is a fascinating collection of researched arguments that give readers a deeper insight into ancient Buddhist societies and the art they produced. The book’s twelve chapters are richly illustrated with drawings and colored photographs. It also includes a detailed index to allow for further in-depth research.

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