BOOK REVIEW: Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto, 24 June 2011

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan
By Katherine R. Tsiang
with contributions by Richard A. Born, Jinhua Chen, Albert E. Dien, Lec Maj, Nancy Steinhardt, Daisy Yiyou Wang, J. Keith Wilson, and Wu Hung
$45; Paper, 192 pages, 160 color plates, 3 charts, 3 tables, 1 map, 9 x 12″
ISBN: 9780935573503

I had the pleasure of seeing this exhibition recently at the Sackler Museum in Washington, D.C. Last year, when I received the catalog at the show’s opening in Chicago, I eagerly read through it. Essays on the history of the site, the context for Buddhist art in China during the Northern Qi, the role of Imperial sponsorship in Buddhist cave sites (an innovation, imported from India and Central Asia and likely related to meditation techniques prevalent at the time), and the 20th century denuding of the Xiangtangshan caves for the sake of the international art market, together construct a detailed context for the exhibition’s contents.

I consider this the finest catalog for an exhibition of Buddhist art to appear in many years. The volume and the program it supports are perfectly matched: both strive and succeed at placing the viewer in front of the works, and build a full context, not only for this Buddhist art as it existed at its creation, but also as it has come to live in the present.

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan is a ground-breaking exhibition which combines scholarship, collaboration between institutions, and art historical, archaeological and technological approaches. Visitors not only view sculptures from the Northern Qi (550-77 AD), but also — by means of high-tech three-dimensional digital scanning and a large three-screen “digital cave” — walk into an environment which simulates the caves themselves.

Ancient Buddhist sites are filled with headless statues and empty, pictureless walls. Peter Hopkirk in Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, a history of the early archeo-treasure seekers (Stein, Le Coq, Pelliot, Warner), quotes Chinese guides’ vitriol at the many blank spaces in ancient cave sites, looted, removed, and dispersed to institutions and private collections around the world.

As with Bezelik and Dunhuang, this crime (or, preservation, depending upon your viewpoint), is distinct from the destructive, iconoclastic kind that also left headless or destroyed statues across the Buddhist world, and more recently led to the demolition of the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The heads of the figures from Xiangtangshan (“Mountain of Echoing Halls”) became separated from their bodies not as a result of religious idealism, but for the sake of profit. “[T]he history of Xiangtangshan in the last century is one of destruction in the wake of recognition by foreign collectors of Chinese Buddhist sculpture in stone as collectible art” (23). Many of these pieces ended up in prominent Western and Japanese collections.

The scholarly detective work that is the foundation of this exhibition located and sorted a great many of these objects. 3-D scans of them and of the caves from which they were taken have allowed scholars to match up fragments and created a digital reconstruction of the original site. The project was headed by the University of Chicago’s Center for the Art of East Asia.

The exhibition catalog, which is a comfortably large size, has 33 items: standing and seated sculptures, heads, hands, squatting “monster” figures, steles, and pillar columns carvings. These are photographed against jet black, perhaps in order to simulate the dark conditions of the caves. The tone and texture of the stone is brought out especially well. Secondary and detail views are amply provided. In some cases, the lighting seems a bit over-shadowy — for instance with tall, standing images and presumably, intended to replicate the view that one would have looking up, with the head and upper portions more shadowed than the lower.

A fascinating aspect of the catalog is the history of the removals of these sculptures by art dealers in the early decades of the previous centuries. The authors do not explore theoretical considerations associated with this, in which the spiritual is converted to the material, or in terms of colonialism and power.

At some point, one finds a space beyond the historical episode which brought these objects out of caves and in front of one’s eyes, and one also past the transformation of these objects from religious to material. It is not as if, even as they stand in the Sackler museum, that they are in wholly removed from the Caves of Xiangtangshan, nor that they now fully lack purpose as Buddhist practice or teaching. What is added, then, is that the contemporary viewer has, additionally, the experiential frames built by the movement of the statues from their original contexts, and is able to see them as art, in the modern sense of the word: as physical objects of beauty, created through great skill. This is the contribution, as it were, of their brutal removal and of the long, diligent labors of art historians, conservators et al.

Art history treads this line: either cultivating an understanding of objects from long-gone cultures, or by elevating them out of their original context, losing something crucial in them. This exhibition and catalog extend this line to a broad zone of interaction with art, history, and religion, and the fortunate reader comes to see how a strong religious culture, combined with motivated kingship, created these fantastic objects.

Finally, I wish to praise the excellent graphic design of the exhibition catalog. Typography, color choices, page design, and details are all elegant. The volume includes a map and several large charts, and overall proves that design can have both a strong individual personality and a quietness that gives space for worthwhile subject matter.

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Through July 31

A digital archive of the project, cave sites, and dispersed sculptures is available online at


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