Temples in the Cliffside: Buddhist Art in Sichuan

Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky

In Sonya S. Lee’s investigation of Buddhist cliffside temples in Sichuan, she employs several kinds of technical studies and a variety of perspectives. In addition to the visual analysis and description of the sites, she considers their history from date of construction to the modern era and provides the requisite discussion of artistic technique and manner of construction of the various monuments.  Uniquely, Lee provides an overview of the sites over the centuries, assessing how the local population used them; their specific role in the religious life of the community; and the motives and achievements of their patrons. One new perspective is her interest in the impact of the sites on the ecological evolution of their surroundings. The latter half of the book presents a detailed assessment of the restorations.  

Temples in the Cliffside is a remarkable achievement. Sonya Lee investigated the construction and function of several medieval Buddhist sites in Sichuan, building her discussion with an extraordinary variety of sources. She employed her own physical examination, photos (both recent and archived), inscriptions, present scholarship, literature, historical records, local histories, and gazettes. Her analytical skills result in an in-depth, detailed case study of four cave sites, describing their construction, iconography, repairs, and role in local worship. Part I (“Inner/Outer”) considers two primary sites built to avert natural disasters (p. 13). The first is the Leshan Buddha, created at the tumultuous confluence of three rivers. The second, Baodingshan, embodies the esoteric teachings of a local preacher and his regimes of ritual practices against disease and epidemics. Inner and outer, the chapter title, refers to the fact that both sites share a cave design that marks two distinct areas, the monumental sculptures and the area of worship. The second part of the book considers later uses of the sites of Dazu and Nankan with a detailed history of the ways in which the sites became part of the social and religious life of the region, and of their transition from an ancient locus of religious devotion to a modern lucrative tourist destination.

Importantly, Lee sees the sites within the scope of an “Anthropocene,” a view of geological changes that take place due to human intervention and its subsequent effect on modern society. She notes a concern for eco-compatibility in the repeated restorations of the sites to keep them in good repair. Moreover, she has an interest in ecological art history. She discusses how, recently, some authors seek to “uncover the environmental factors and ecological thinking that have shaped the work in question and turn to more familiar areas of inquiry as style, material and techniques, iconography, the artist’s biography, and patronage” (p. 18).

In the introduction, Lee traces the evolution of cave temples as sites of meditation and worship in ancient India. The author makes an excellent argument for the origins of the representation of rock caves in India in the pictorial narrative of the visit of Indra to the Buddha, who was meditating in a cave. Using this image, she shows the relationship between the cave and the flora and fauna of the natural world, establishing the theme of this book – caves in their environment.

Chapter 1 analyzes the multi-staged construction of the tallest colossal Buddha in China and the evolution of its role in local society and government. Two primary local military governors of the later Tang Dynasty undertook construction and repairs in successive waves that lasted 100 years. The site, she explained, was also revered for its many subsidiary caves and places of worship (p. 29). Now described by the local government as the medicine Buddha, the Buddha seated in Western pose with both legs pendent measures over 50 meters high. Lee points out the distinctive iconographical characteristic of two large guardian figures standing outside of the composition of the main figure. What is more, Lee elucidates the relationship between the excavation of the Buddha and its function of quelling the intersection of three tumultuous rivers. She links this to similar efforts in the Han Dynasty, when engineer Li Bing established a water control system ­­­­­(p. 42). Chapter 2 analyzes a second site in Sichuan, Baodingshan, which Lee explains had a complicated history. Dedicated to the esoteric teachings of a 10th-century local tantric priest, Liu Benzhun, the site was associated with disease prevention (p. 89). In a detailed analysis, Lee examines the representations of the teachings and their placement in the range of caves, stressing their many ritual functions.

Part II (“Users and Sustainability”), concentrates on the physical management of these Buddhist caves in the premodern era, tracing the changing function of the many cave sites of Dazu – the festivals, temple restorations, their decline and revival, and the process of treating them as protected heritage properties garnering international support from organizations like UNESCO. This is a new approach to studying Buddhist caves, and it provides a panorama of their changing usage over the centuries. Lee relates these activities to the economic, ecological, and social transformations that China underwent in the 20th century (p. 114). Extensive research results in a detailed chronological account of Dazu and of how past site managers, the religious community, are increasingly distanced from the new importance of the sites as heritage and tourist destinations (p. 104). For example, she reveals how the Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara, newly restored, is not available to the local religious community, who now have but a replica to worship (p. 133). For the chapter on Nankan, Lee uses local inscriptions describing the restoration efforts of the past. Translating them, she relates them to the changed appearance of the extant icons (p. 151). In the modern era, the site became part  of the development of Red Tourism, whereby it  was a focus of interest in the history of Chinese Communism (p. 171). Finally, Chapter 5 (“The Restorers of Dazu Rock Carvings”), offers the history of the many restoration efforts, including a complicated analysis of past and modern repair techniques and the process of protecting the caves.

In sum, this a most innovative, well-researched, and fascinating study of Buddhist caves in Sichuan from a multitude of perspectives.