Professor Michelle C. Wang recently published her new book Maṇḍalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang (Brill 2018). The first scholarly monograph on Buddhist maṇḍalas in China, this book examines the Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas.
Michelle C. Wang is an Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Art History and teaches for the Asian Studies Program. Her courses focus on premodern to contemporary Asian art history. Her current research addresses Buddhist visual and material culture in China, particularly during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).
Shortly after her book debuted, the Asian Studies Program interviewed Professor Wang about her book and the significance of mandalas to Buddhist art.
Q: Your book, Maṇḍalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang, examines the “Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas.” Can you offer a little background on what a maṇḍala is and the significance of the particular maṇḍala you chose to research and write about?
A: A maṇḍala refers to an assembly of deities arranged in a hierarchical fashion, often inside a geometric structure resembling a palace that has gates opening to the four cardinal directions. It can also refer to an altar upon which the deities of such an assembly were visualized as descending during the performance of a Buddhist ritual. Such altars were treated as bounded ritual spaces. As depicted in paintings and sculptures, the visual appearance of maṇḍalas can vary greatly across Buddhist cultures and historical periods. In particular, the Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas refers to an iconographic template in which a central Buddha is flanked by eight attendant deities called bodhisattvas. It is particularly interesting to me because of its shape-shifting qualities: it spread all over Asia, from India to Korea, and was incorporated into a broad cross-section of Buddhist texts and practices; it never remained static.
Q: Your book highlights the “transcultural communication over the Silk Routes during this period.” Why was this meaningful for the development of Buddhist art?
A: My book focuses specifically on imagery from the Mogao and Yulin cave shrines located near Dunhuang, in present-day Gansu Province in China. What is really fascinating about this region, especially during the eighth to tenth centuries, are the interactions between the Chinese and other populations. This is reflected in the styles of the mural paintings produced inside man-made cave shrines and portable paintings, which demonstrate, for example, artistic styles that originated in Nepal and Kashmir. There was a great deal of cross-cultural transmission over the Silk Routes, including the movement of artisans and artworks. The cosmopolitanism of this region is also evident from the over 50,000 manuscripts and portable paintings that were secreted inside one cave shrine and discovered in the early 20th century. Many of these, including manuscripts that I examined in the course of this project, can be vie
wed at the open-access International Dunhuang Project website: http://idp.bl.uk/.
Q: How is Dunhuang important for understanding Buddhism and Buddhist art today?
A: The cave shrines are no longer active worship sites but are now places for tourism and study. Due to the prominence of China’s “Old Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, tourism at sites associated with the historical Silk Routes has grown dramatically. At the Mogao caves, for example, there was a forty percent increase in the number of tourists in just one year. The Dunhuang airport was renovated last year to handle the growing numbers of tourists. At the same time, this has also necessitated the development of conservation protocols for the protection of mural paintings. The Dunhuang Academy has collaborated with the Getty Conservation Institute since 1989. The scientific knowledge gained from this collaboration can and will be applied to other cultural heritage sites across China. The Mogao and Yulin cave shrines are truly extraordinary places, almost like time capsules for Buddhist history and Chinese painting history. Therefore, it’s imperative that we continue studying them and protecting them for future generations to come.
Publisher: Brill Press
Hardcover: 318 pages