Quest for the true visage: Sacred images in medieval Chinese Buddhist art and the concept of zhen

Submitted by James Miller on Mon, 12/24/2012 - 18:12
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TitleQuest for the true visage: Sacred images in medieval Chinese Buddhist art and the concept of zhen
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsChoi, S. -ah
Corporate AuthorsWu, Hung
Academic DepartmentProQuest Dissertations and Theses
Date Published2012
PublisherThe University of Chicago
Place PublishedUnited States -- Illinois
ISBN Number9781267601391
Keywords0318:Religion, 0342:Asian Studies, 0377:Art history, Buddhism, China, Communication and the arts, Icon, Miraculous image, Philosophy, religion and theology, Pilgrimage, SOCIAL sciences, vision, Zhenrong, Zhenshen

This dissertation examines sacred images revered and created in medieval China with a particular focus on the concept of zhen. Literally meaning "true" or "real," the term zhen frequently appears in diverse textual and visual sources along with variations such as zhenrong (true visage), zhenshen (true body), and zhenxing (true form). The primary goal of this dissertation is to systematically explore the concept of zhen in the image cult in medieval Chinese religion. I argue that, though it has been little studied, this notion was at the center of medieval Chinese conceptions of sacred images. In charting its history from the fifth to the twelfth centuries, I furthermore demonstrate the positive attitudes toward materiality that developed gradually in this period, attitudes that formed in tandem with the elevation of the status of an image from "representations of" to "replacements for" divine beings. Concentrating on four cases of Buddhist images related to the concept, my work traces the historical trajectories in which medieval Chinese employed the concept of zhen in shaping and claiming the ontological status of their sacred images. In the first chapter, entitled "Making the Invisible Visible: The Concept of zhen in Dedicatory Inscriptions of Fifth- and Sixth-century Votive Statuary," I investigate the patterns in which the notion of zhen appears in dedications and related literary sources. This investigation reveals that before the seventh century, the term zhen and its variations mostly refer to the model represented by the image, i.e. divine beings such as the Buddha or Bodhisattvas. However, a shift in the referent of the term from the divine beings to certain Buddhist icons is witnessed from the late seventh century, a phenomenon charted in the second chapter, "From the True Visage to a Miraculous Image: The Medieval Chinese Reception of the Buddha Image at the Mahabodhi Temple of Bodhgaya, India." Through a close reading of Chinese pilgrims' descriptions of a Buddha statue in Indian from Xuanzang to Yijing, I explore an intriguing shift in the perception of the ontological status of an Indian statue from "as if real" ( ruozhen ) to "the real" (zhenrong ). The establishment of the term as the designation of "true images" in medieval China is the central theme of the third chapter. Entitled "Materialized Vision: The True Visage of the Bodhisattva Mañjusri of Mt. Wutai and Its Tenth-Century Translation in Dunhuang," this chapter traces the courses in which the worship of a bodhisattva image, which was called zhenrong, gradually substituted and finally replaced the focus on the attainment of mystic visions of the bodhisattva that had been central to the cult. An intentional employment of the heavily-charged term zhenshen as a designation of a bodhisattva image is analyzed in the last chapter, "Image over Vision: The True Body of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in the Dali Kingdom." In this chapter, I explore the manner in which a bodhisattva image, previously called Acuoye, obtained the name "true body" within the complex historical, political, and geographic conditions of the independent kingdom of Dali in the mid-twelfth century.