BEAR Research Briefs are concise and accessible introductions to Buddhism and East Asian Religions (BEAR) topics. These essays seek to answer questions from FROGBEAR research clusters by drawing from their research cluster activities.


Where do Buddhist scriptures come from?

Cluster 2.2: “‘Secondary’ Producers, ‘Primary’ Roles”
Author: George Keyworth, University of Saskatchewan


Beginning in the first century of the Common Era, Buddhist texts began to be translated into Chinese. Although Buddhism is a religion that was founded in ancient India, today the largest collection of Buddhist literature is available in Chinese. Our research cluster engages with this history of transmission, production, and reproduction of Buddhist scriptures.

Buddhism can be traced to India and the followers of Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 5th–4th century BCE), known to his disciples as Śākyamuni Buddha. The teachings of the Buddha were transmitted orally, then written down in a variety of South Asian languages (e.g., Pāli and Sanskrit) and translated into Central and East Asian (Chinese, not modern Mandarin Chinese) languages. The oldest extant catalog to a collection of all the scriptures translated into Chinese was produced by the monk Sengyou (445–518). Sengyou’s catalog demonstrates that Chinese Buddhists conceived of a canon—or collection with three types of scriptures (sūtras, vinaya, and commentaries)—as a fruitful way to organize translated Buddhist scriptures. A key to understanding why the Chinese cataloged and organized all the translated scriptures can be found in the Chinese term for sūtra or scripture. Jing is the ancient Chinese word for a Classic text, as in the Thirteen Classics which almost certainly predate Confucius (551–479 BCE).

An authoritative catalog of all the scriptures was completed in 730 by Zhisheng (d.u.) during the mid-Tang (618–907) dynasty, which lists 1076 separate texts in 5048 scrolls or rolls. Zhisheng’s catalog inventories how many pages were one required to hand copy each text. When the Buddhist canon, now called all the scriptures from a monastic library (da zangjing 大藏經), was first printed between 971–983 in southwestern China under the Song dynasty (960–1279), Zhisheng’s catalog was strictly followed. Nearly all of the 24 or 25 printed editions of the Buddhism canon in Chinese (rather than in Tibetan or Mongolian) in China from 983–1913 follow Zhisheng’s catalog. By contrast, the Pāli Buddhist canon was not cataloged or printed until the late nineteenth century. Likely following the example of Tang Buddhists during the ninth century, there are three extant early catalogs of Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhist canons were printed after the early fifteenth century. Under British colonization of South Asia (ca. 1757–1947), many Sanskrit manuscripts were published during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; earlier manuscripts and manuscript fragments in Sanskrit have been found at Gilgit (present day northern Pakistan), Haḍḍa (near Jalalabad, Afghanistan), and in Xinjiang.

Printed editions of the Tibetan canon are separated into two parts: the kangyur in 108 volumes, which consists of translated texts, and the tengyur with commentaries to a wide array of translated materials, including treatises written by Indians and Tibetans. Catalogs to printed editions of the Buddhist canon in Chinese reveal how restrictive the contents are. Buddhist teachings were taken from China to northern Vietnam as early as the second century, Korea by the fourth century, and Japan during the mid-sixth century. Until the early twentieth century East Asian Buddhists did not translate texts written in Chinese. Instead they read and recited texts in Chinese with their vernacular languages. Most reliable editions of Buddhist literature in Chinese that predate extant printed materials and incorporate a rich variety of commentarial literature written by East Asians—including the teachings of the East Asian traditions such as Chan (Seon or Zen), Pure Land, and esoteric or tantric Buddhism—can only be found in Japan, Korea, and in northern China. The single hoard of Buddhist manuscripts found in China in cave no. 17 from the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang at the turn of the twentieth century, which was almost certainly closed circa 1006, is perhaps the single most valuable archaeological discovery in East Asia. But the chronological restriction to the beginning of the eleventh century means that literally thousands of texts written by East Asians were not yet available.

East Asian Buddhists wrote scriptures on at least three media: manuscripts on paper; stone; and woodblock printing or xylography on paper. A complete copy of the manuscript Buddhist canon that Zhisheng’s catalog classified was brought to Japan by 735 and copied during the late eighth century. These manuscripts survive today in the Shōgozō repository of Tōdaiji temple in Nara. Copied during the twelfth century from ninth century manuscripts, we also have eight manuscript Buddhist canons in Japan. The oldest one was copied for the Matsuno’o shrine-temple complex in Kyoto. In 2017, our research cluster explored colophons of several exemplary texts and examined notable objects of material culture which showed the considerable role played by individuals from lesser-known Shingon- and Tendai-affiliated temples and shrine libraries in transmitting and preserving a large body of religious literature.

Koreans first printed their own canon between 1011–1087, but the woodblocks were destroyed by a Mongol invasion during the 1230s. The Second Goryeo Canon (1237–1249) is extant, consists of 1517 titles, and is the basis for the modern East Asian Buddhist canons. Sometimes using gold or silver ink on indigo paper or simply black ink on ordinary paper, Koreans also printed Chinese and Korean commentarial texts from the Tang, Song and Goryeo (918–1392) dynasties with exquisite illustrations. In 2018, our cluster visited the National Museum of Korea to examine rare woodblock printed materials and consider the central role Koreans played in transmitting lengthy commentaries together with images.

The Fangshan Stone Canon from Yunju monastery near Beijing, China, where more than 14,000 steles (22.5 million characters) with rock-cut scriptures were first carved during the 7th century, and scriptures were renovated or added until the early Qing dynasty (1644–1912), especially during the Khitan Liao (907/916–1125) and Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) dynasties, is the best example of how East Asian Buddhists preserved Buddhist scriptures in stone. In 2019, we traveled to Hangzhou, China to look at to the tradition of inscribing dhāraṇīs (spells) on pillars and inspect sites with dhāraṇī pillars.

The extent to which the Khitans who ruled north China were fervent supporters of Buddhism is evident from the North Pagoda in the city of Chaoyang (modern Liaoning province). Inside the lower relic crypt of this magnificent pagoda, which was renovated during 1043–1044, is a four-tiered pillar carved with nine dhāraṇī (spell) texts. And inside a silver-plated, copper pagoda-shaped container kept in the upper relic crypt with embossed dhāraṇī texts in both Chinese and Siddham Sanskrit scripts are several of the same texts carved on the pillar in the lower crypt. These scriptures with sacred syllables either written in Sanskrit letters or Chinese transcription on stone and imprinted on thin sheets of metal demonstrate how East Asian Buddhists preserved their religious texts for as close to eternity as possible.

As researchers of Buddhist scriptures and their histories of production, we contribute to these processes of preservation and education by training a new generation of scholars during site-specific fieldwork; recording and sharing images of sites, manuscripts, and other objects for public access through UBC Open Collections; and creating new knowledge about the culture of transmission.

Imagining the Future of Material Religion Research in Asia: GIS imaging and Drone Image Ethnography in Taiwan

Cluster 1.2: “Religion and Technology”
Author: Kai Shmushko, Tel Aviv University/Leiden University


Material Religion

A move toward taking “the material” seriously in humanistic and social scientific scholarship was given an enormous boost by trends in culture studies, beginning primarily in the 1980s, that called for more sustained academic consideration of the cultural dynamics surrounding material objects. As a field of academic inquiry, religious studies have begun to be marked by this material turn (Pintchman 2016). Currently, there is a growing movement of scholarly interest in material religion, a movement that fixes its gaze on visuality, materiality, and embodiment as vital religious categories. This movement is led by scholars such as Brigitte Myer, David Morgan, Sally Promey, and more, who emphasize the importance of objects, sensation, and commodification in religious subjects and societies. Focusing on materiality in the study of religions “signals the need to pay urgent attention to a real, material world of objects and a texture of lived, embodied experience” (Houtman and Meyer 2012, 4). This suggested framework for research on religion grossly examines the interaction of religion and material culture.

Material culture is a fruitful way to understand how religion works since many scholars have come to regard belief as shifting sets of practices, as what people do rather than only or primarily the doctrines or texts they observe. Even when some religious actors destroy or change the use of objects such as images, but also larger objects such as spaces of worship we have the opportunity to see material culture at work (Morgan 2008).

Arthur Asa Berger has stated that: “Scholars may argue about definitions of material culture. We can say that if you can photograph it and it is not too large nor complicated, we can consider it to be an example of material culture” (2009, 16). I suggest that ongoing technological developments are broadening this definition by allowing drones footage to become an approachable almost everyday tool. This technology might complicate our visual data image, but it can contribute to studying material culture.


The Eye of the Small Drone

Geographic observation includes the basic study of the physical environment but generally goes beyond it. It aims to comprehend spaces, territories, and cultural landscapes in their material and immaterial dimensions (Casagrande 2018). According to Guarrasi, human groups shape their places by adapting them to material conditions; nevertheless, this adaptation occurs based on the perceptions and intentions of actors and decision-makers. The process takes place in relation—not necessarily in agreement—to formal or informal regulations.

In this overall mechanism, culture is a major driver (Guarrasi 1992, 32). In principle, we could observe how a particular space is configured from environmental and reification points of view. We could then use the acquired information to grasp knowledge not only on material and (possibly) regulatory status of the area but also, at least to some degree, about decisions and perceptions by communities in their living space (Casagrande 2018).

At the symbolic level, the landscape is surveyed in its material features to identify elements of a specific culture’s presence and/or actions, whether this presence is current or past. In this case, analyses are oriented to recognizing specific material “markers” which can be associated with one or more systems of values, beliefs, and identities. From this point of view, drone observation can be thought of as a twofold knowledge acquisition means. Indeed, on the one hand, it can provide information and data about symbolical markers present in the observed scene. On the other hand, it is the drone itself that, by being guided to acquire data about a specific landscape, may provide information on priorities and perceptions of the users in reading their landscape and cooperating to its observation (Turco 2010, 263–266; Bignante 2010; Grainger 2017).


Dense Urban Areas

Recent scholarship has stressed the importance of exploring the materials of the urban religious landscape. Marian Bucharet suggests the notion of “infrastructuring religion” meaning the ways in which religious life is premised upon the production, maintenance, and working of mundane materials, which are intertwined in the interactions and dynamics of religious actors and practices and beliefs (2019). Religion, in this approach, is mediated not only by ritual or sacred objects but routinely also by infrastructures—“building materials for temples, roads used for processions, water used for religious hygiene, the electricity that serves to illuminate prayer rooms and powers the microphones, which amplify the holy spirit” (Burchardt 2017).

While there are changing local and national regulations to flying small drones in urban areas, quite a lot can be gained from this methodology while adhering to environmental conditions and local regulations. Using drone flying technology allows us access to dense areas, urban corners that cannot be reached from the ground. We can begin to consider these angles in terms of ethnography, hidden between dense urban areas as liminal spaces with new ethnographic potential. It is worth to explore the visuals produced from a drone as neither emic nor etic in the simple sense. They do not represent the belief or the practitioner but are also not direct translation of the researcher’s point of view. Therefore, they can be viewed as a third aspect to the emic-etic duality, with a methodological contribution of its own.


Mapping Religious Landscape in Taiwan

 Taiwan is affluent with a living culture of various religious traditions such as Buddhism, Daoism, Popular (folk) Religion, Christianity and others, apparent in the public sphere of the island. Some cities in Taiwan count dozens of temples and worship places belonging to one or a few of these religious traditions. These physical spaces, constructed in various periods, are layered with the history, politics, stories, and living dynamics that comply with the religious life of the peoples of Taiwan. While the big-scale monasteries and temples on the island have received scholarly attention, hundreds of temples in Taiwan are local, undocumented, unstudied.

Considering that, geographical, visual mapping of the religious sites of Taiwan is figuratively and literally—a new territory. Its potential allows new angles and perspectives on religious sites such as statues, temples, monasteries, burial grounds. Mapping these sites and creating a database of footage is a material exploration into the particularities of religion in Taiwan. Historical, textual, and ethnographic research is conducted throughout the academic sphere to understand these religions. Studies are dedicated to their specific practices and trajectories on the island, and their material interactions with social, economic, and environmental attributes of Taiwanese society. In the words of Clart and Jones, “We must forgo the singulars in favor of plurals to arrive at an understanding of the religious experience of Taiwan both in the here and now and in historical perspective.”

GIS imaging and the work with Miniature UAV (drone) in the context of Material Religion, can provide a useful, innovative methodological tool for researching Taiwanese religious landscape. In the summer of 2019, as part of the research project of the FROGBEAR cluster on religion and technology, we gathered in Dharma Drum Mountain monastery for a fieldwork workshop led by Oliver Streiter (National University of Kaohsiung), Simon Wiles (Stanford CIDR), and Marcus Bingenheimer (Temple University). They offered a hands-on workshop in GIS and Aerial Imaging for the study of religion. We were working on contributing to the GIS mapping database work, which began in 2017 and continued, adding to it more data on some of the existing religious sites in North Taiwan, as well as drone footage and field interviews in the sites (the sites were in Sanzhi 三芝區 district, Shimen district 石門區 and Jinshan district 金山區).

Looking at the future of the project- and the study of religion in Taiwan, this essay aimed to broadly think about the methodological and philosophical implications of the workshop. Most of the data collected in the workshop has been edited into short informative films and is available on the FROGBEAR database website. Moreover, we can now begin to articulate the potential contribution of this sort of research workshop to the study of Material Religion in Asia.



No matter how the dronosphere will be established in the future, it seems that it will include portions of airspace that were not traditionally used in geographic observation. This is per se, an innovative element.

These tools are a step to a research, manifested in physical landscapes that only could have been imagined in the past but are slowly becoming a part of our toolbox, as an extension of our bodies, a broadening of our perspective. In the current reality of the global pandemic, physical attendance in various spaces and geographical locations has become more selective. Scholars face limitations in traveling to religious sites for fieldwork within this context. We can imagine a research world where authorized Drone observation can serve as a resilient tool for studying religion. As previous methodological shifts, this direction might coincide with various new challenges and considerations to be addressed, alongside valuable prospective.



Berger, Arthur Asa. 2009. What Objects Mean: An Introduction to Material Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Bignante E. 2010. “The use of Photo-Elicitation in Field Research.” EchoGéo 11.

Burchardt, Marian. 2017. “Infrastrukturen des Religiösen: Materialität und urbane Ordnungsregime.” In Architekturen und Artefakte, edited by U. Karstein and T. Schmidt-Lux, 233–250. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Burchardt, Marian. 2019. “Assembling the Profane Materialities of Urban Religion.” Material Religion 15, no. 5: 627–628.

Casagrande, Gianluca. 2018. “Small Drones and Geographic Observation.” In Small flying Droenes – Applications for Geographic Observation, edited by G. Casagrande, A. Sik., and G. Szabó, 1–12. Debrecen: Springer International Publishing.

Clart, Philip, and Charles Brewer Jones. 2003. Religion in Modern Taiwan: Tradition and Innovation in a Changing Society. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Guarrasi, V. 1992. “Cultural geography and semiotics of culture.” In Humanistic and Behavioural Geography in Italy, edited by Pellegrini G. Corna, 29–35. Pisa: Pacini Editore.

Grainger A. 2017. “Citizen Observatories and the New Earth Observation Science.” Remote Sensing 9, no. 2:153.

Houtman, Dick, and Birgit Meyer. 2012. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. New York: Fordham University Press.

Morgan, David. 2008. “The materiality of cultural construction.” Material Religion, 4, no. 2: 228–229.

Pintchman, Tracy. 2016. Sacred Matters: Material Religion in South Asian Traditions. State University of New York Press.

Turco, A. 2010. Configurazioni della territorialità. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Chinese Sacred Rivers: The Four Waterways

Cluster 2.1: “Authenticity and Authority”
Author: LI Teng, Shijiazhuang Tiedao University


In the summer of 2017, sponsored by SSHRC and the University of British Columbia, a team led by Prof. Jia Jinhua and Prof. Barend ter Haar investigated the Jidu Temple 濟瀆廟 in Jiyuan City 濟源市, Henan Province 河南省. With over 30 buildings constructed from the Song to Qing dynasties, the Jidu Temple is the only surviving and largely intact architectural structure connected to sacrifice to the four waterways. Historically, it was the site of sacrifice to the Ji River and the North Sea. The Jidu Temple was established in 582, during the reign of Sui Wendi 隋文帝 (r. 581–604). Unfortunately, there are no Sui and Tang architectural structures remaining except for a broken wall. Extant structures were mostly built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, while the earliest can be dated back to the Song dynasty.

In the Jidu Temple there are more than 160 stele inscriptions (from Tang dynasty to Republican period). Local gazetteers of Jiyuan also preserved some lost stele inscriptions. According to stele inscriptions and local records dating from the Tang dynasty, the gods of the four waterways were not only regarded as the most reliable official rainmakers but were symbols of political legitimacy and regional protectors of local society and savior of local people.

In addition to the sacrifice offered by the state, both the Daoist ritual of tossing dragons and tablets 投龍簡儀 and the Buddhist Water-Land Ritual 水陸法會 absorbed the popular religious beliefs and practices connected to the four waterways from the Tang dynasty. Daoist priests undertook imperial missions of sacrificing to the great mountains and rivers as representatives of the emperor. Du Guangting 杜光庭 (850–933), a Tang Daoist priest, further perfected the rite of tossing dragons and tablets to satisfy political needs. Buddhist practitioners, on the basis of official rites and Daoist ritual, had accepted the gods of the four waterways as protective Buddhist deities in the Water-Land Ritual.

The four waterways have also appeared in folklore stories and popular religious literature from the Song dynasty. According to the Sanjiao yuanliu soushen daquan 三教源流搜神大全 (The Comprehensive Collection of Investigations into the Divinities of the Three Doctrines since their Origin), each of the four waterways has its correlative god. Here, the “Gods of the Four Waterways” 四瀆神, as they are referred to in this text, are categorized as Confucian Gods 儒教神. All four gods are based on real historical figures with good merits. More importantly, they are all ministers with high bureaucratic ranking. The God of the Yellow River is Chen Ping 陳平 (d. 178 BC), a Western Han chancellor. The God of the Yangzi River is Qu Yuan 屈原 (340 BC–278 BC), one of the most famous politicians and poets in Chinese history. The God of the Huai River is Pei Du 裴度 (765–839), a chancellor from the mid-Tang. The God of the Ji River is Wu Zixu 伍子胥 (559 BC–484 BC), a great politician of the Wu State during the Spring and Autumn period. Worship of these prestigious officials was encouraged by the government since it they were good examples for public emulation and encouraged virtue by keeping alive the memory of great deeds.

The term “Chinese Sacred Rivers” refers to rivers that were recognized by the state and regularly sacrificed to during China’s long imperial times. Four of these rivers occupy the center of traditional Chinese state ritual system of sacrifice to mountain and water spirits. These are referred to as sidu 四瀆 (four waterways). The character du 瀆, according to the Erya 爾雅, the earliest surviving dictionary, was interpreted as such: “Sidu refer to the Yangzi River 長江, the Yellow River 黃河, the Huai River 淮河, and the Ji River 濟水. Each has its own source and flows to seas respectively” 江、河、淮、濟為四瀆。四瀆者,發源注海者也. Nowadays, the Yangzi, the Yellow and the Huai rivers still play crucial roles in China, but the Ji River has disappeared. Nonetheless, there are many place names that contains the word ji濟. For example, Ji’nan 濟南, Jiyuan 濟源, Jining 濟寧, and so on. The Ji River used to be a great river, but for variety of reasons, it gradually vanished after the Han dynasty.

In transmitted Chinese texts the four waterways also manifested as Jiangdu 江瀆, Hedu 河瀆, Huaidu 淮瀆, and Jidu 濟瀆. The gods of these rivers are accordingly called the Jiangdu God, the Hedu God, the Huaidu God and the Jidu God. Additionally, they were often associated with directions, Jiangdu with South, Hedu with West, Huaidu with East, and Jidu with North according to their locations and in accordance with the five-phase (wuxing 五行) cosmology.

As early as the Shang dynasty the Shang people had already started to sacrifice to great rivers like the Yellow River. The composition of the four waterways was probably completed from the Warring States to the Western Han. After Qin Shihuang 秦始皇 (r. 247 BC–221 BC) unified China, the Qin and Han governments began to integrate sacrifice to the mountains and rivers and formed a sacred geographical system of the five peaks (wuyue 五岳) and four waterways. From the Han dynasty on, two dimensions of state ritual concerning the four waterways gradually formed, namely the suburban and local sacrifice. From the Tang dynasty the four waterways were involved in a large state ritual scheme called the yue-zhen-hai-du 岳鎮海瀆 system.

The complete ceremony of the four waterways formed in the Tang dynasty was kept unchanged over one thousand years. The Tang books of rites standardized the place, date, procedures, participants, offerings, and words of prayer. It was the Tang government that first promulgated a detailed ritual code for offering sacrifice in the local temples of the four waterways. The Datang kaiyuan li 大唐開元禮 (Kaiyuan Ritual of the Great Tang) portrays a colorful picture of the standardized procedures of the annual regular sacrifice, containing six phases:

  1. Preparation of the ritual;
  2. Preparation of the sacred space;
  3. Cooking food for the gods;
  4. Getting ready for the ritual;
  5. The three offerings;
  6. Sinking the silk and burning the prayer tablet.

Performing the ritual was thought to be an effective means of connecting mortals and gods, or terrestrial and celestial realms. All the ritual procedures and sacrificial offerings were imbued with political and religious meaning. Although a large number of official and local documents testify that the state sacrifices reached their peak during the late imperial period, the Ming and Qing governments carried on the matured state rituals that had been institutionalized in the Tang dynasty. With the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the two-thousand-year-old state ritual ultimately vanished as a practical concern.

Even though the four waterways have been largely ignored in past scholarship, they were crucial to dynastic politics and played an important part in the history of Chinese religion. In imperial China the four waterways and their gods signified many things. For the central government, they not only satisfied the need to control water in an agrarian empire but were also political symbols and mechanisms of imperial legitimacy. For the people in local communities, they were thought to be territory gods. For Daoist and Buddhist clergy, they acted as protective gods in particular rituals. The four waterways remain a rich area of study deserving further and deeper exploration.



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Jia, Jinhua. 2021. “Formation of the Traditional Chinese State Ritual System of Sacrifice to Mountain and Water Spirits.” Religions 12, no. 5: 319.

Kleeman, Terry F. 1994. “Mountain Deities in China: The Domestication of the Mountain God and the Subjugation of the Margins.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 114, no. 2: 226–238.

Lei Wen 雷聞. 2009. Jiaomiao zhiwai: Sui-Tang guojia jisi yu zongjiao 郊廟之外:隋唐國家祭祀與宗教. Beijing: Sanlian shudian 三聯書店.

Li Teng. 2021. Sacred Rivers: State Rites, Political Legitimacy, and Religiosity in Imperial China. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Macau.

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Williams, Nicholas M. 2022. “A Constant Cascade: Ancient and Medieval Verse on the Four Waterways.” Religions 13, no. 2: 166.

Tian Tian 田天. 2015. Qin-Han guojia jisi shigao 秦漢國家祭祀史稿. Beijing: Sanlian shudian 三聯書店.

Verellen, Franciscus. 1995. “The Beyond Within: Grotto-Heavens (dongtian) in Taoist Ritual and Cosmology.” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 8, no. 1: 265–290.

Wechsler, Howard J. 1985. Offerings of Jade and Silk: Ritual and Symbol in the Legitimation of the T’ang Dynasty. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Spatial Humanities and Regional Religious Systems (RRS): GIS Mapping of Religious Sites in Northeast Taiwan

Cluster 1.2: “Religion and Technology”
Author: Jinhui Wu, Reed College


Digital Humanities

Digital Humanities explores the intersection between the humanities and information technology, two important disciplines that have long developed independently. A Digital Humanities approach applies the analytic and visual capabilities of computers and digital networks to traditional humanities disciplines, empowering researchers to gain novel and deeper insights into questions fundamental to humanities research (Veidlinger 2019, 1). In short, it means “doing the work of the humanities in digital form” (Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth 2016, xvii).

Because it incorporates critical perspectives from various fields such as education, languages, literature, geography, history, art, media, computer science, and information studies, Digital Humanities can be divided into a number of sub-disciplines. One of the most significant sub-disciplines of Digital Humanities is spatial humanities.


Spatial Humanities

Spatial humanities integrates and contextualizes geo-cultural data using geospatial technologies and methods. This approach has sparked a digital revolution, notably in religious studies (Blundell, Lin, and Morris 2018). The prevalence of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a sort of database management tool, is largely responsible for this development in religious studies. With the help of spatiotemporal interfaces, primary source materials can be integrated into web-based interactive visualizations. GIS-based gazetteer-style spreadsheets that are built to collect and curate data can facilitate mapping the specific cultural and religious traits of certain sites, areas, or routes. Therefore, visually identifying the spatial patterns based on a collection of data or statistics allows users to discover and probe complex relationships within GIS in a clearer and more comprehensive manner (Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris 2010).


Regional Religious Systems (RRS)

In Chinese religious studies, the concept of Regional Religious Systems (RRS) was recently established as a novel approach to understand and examine the patterns of spatial distribution of religious sites and their interactions with other social and cultural aspects (Wu 2022, 8). This concept is inspired by G. William Skinner’s Regional Systems Analysis (RSA), Hierarchical Regional Space (HRS), and Macroregion Theory (see Wu, Tong, and Ryavec 2013, 179–82). Based on spatial analysis and GIS displays of the distribution of religious sites in Greater China, the concept of RRS is defined as

…a type of spatial formation in which a group of related or unrelated religious institutions are conditioned by physical, geographical, administrative, cultural, or socioeconomic systems and are highly dependent on regionally and locally distributed variables such as population, economy, transportation, education, culture, ethnicity, and language, etc. (Wu, Tong, and Ryavec 2013, 183).

This emphasis on bringing together religious studies and GIS technology to examine regional places of worship is in line with the goal of the “Religion and Technology” workshops conducted by the From the Ground Up: Buddhism and East Asian Religions (FROGBEAR) Project research cluster: to facilitate and enhance humanities scholars’ understandings of the relationship between religion and technology.


“Space and Cyberspace” in Taiwan

The series of “Religion and Technology” workshops were held in Taiwan, a unique island with a diverse religious landscape in East Asia. Many different beliefs, including Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, folk religion, Christianity, Islam, and their practices, come together to shape the intricate religious tapestry in Taiwan. In addition to the complexity of the religious milieu, Taiwan is home to the highest density of religious sites in Chinese-speaking countries or regions in East Asia. Taiwan’s vast number of spiritual locations makes it an ideal place for researchers to “discover connections of memory, artifact, and experience that exist in this particular place and across time” by using GIS technological tools through a RRS perspective (Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris 2010).

The first workshop in the series was titled “Space and Cyberspace,” held at the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts in Taiwan in June 2017. Led by Marcus Bingenheimer (Temple University), Jenjou Hung (Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts), Oliver Streiter (National University of Kaohsiung), and Simon Wiles (Stanford University), the workshop focused on the introduction to online and offline QGIS imaging (a free and open-source geographic information system) and QGIS skill development for investigating the religious landscape in Northeast Taiwan.

The GIS skills that the twelve participants (including both experienced scholars and graduate students) obtained during the training sessions were applied right away during their six-day fieldtrips to approximately 150 local temples, monasteries, shrines, tombs, and statues in Jinshan 金山區 and Shimen 石門區 districts in Northeast Taiwan. Using QGIS computing and data infrastructures, the data gathered in the field visits was turned into geographic and cartographic information and indexes titled “Religious Sites in Jinshan and Shimen.” Photographs of the religious sites, which are available at the Frogbear Database of Religious Sites in East Asia website, document the variety of structures and settings of the multireligious milieu of contemporary Taiwan. The data and presentations produced during this workshop are open access and available at the Space & Cyberspace 2017 website. The comprehensive dataset paves the way for subsequent workshops in the series, and provides a model for studies on the enduring historical and contemporary issues of East Asia deep-rooted regionalism and its geographic variety in culture and religion.



Blundell, David, Ching-Chih Lin, and James X. Morris. 2018. “Spatial Humanities: An Integrated Approach to Spatiotemporal Research.” In Big Data in Computational Social Science and Humanities, edited by Shu-Heng Chen, 263–288. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

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Wu, Jiang. 2022. “Introduction: Exploring Regional Religious Systems (RRS): Theoretical and Methodological Considerations.” In The Formation of Regional Religious Systems in Greater China, edited by Jiang Wu, 1–32. Milton: Taylor and Francis.

Making the Secular Sacred: Dongzhen Temple and Five Strongholds in the Traditional Chinese State Sacrifice Ceremony

Cluster 2.1: “Authenticity and Authority”
Author: Yuji Xu, City University of Hong Kong


When secular mountains and waters encountered the sacred state sacrifice ritual, how did the deification of natural landscape operate historically within the imperial structure? Official sacrifices to mountains and waters in ancient China date back to the Shang dynasty (ca.1600–1050 BCE), a date based on extant oracle bone inscriptions. Moreover, according to the chapter of “Shun dian” 舜典 (“Canon of Shun”) in the Shang shu 尚書 (Book of Documents)[1], the legendary Emperor Shun 帝舜 paid homage to Heaven and to natural spirits, which endowed him with the legitimacy of sovereignty, by visiting the four peaks that marked the four quarters of his territory (Bujard 2009, 804). However, how should we contextualize the “five strongholds” (wu zhen 五鎮)[2] in Confucian ritual culture, which feature the “sacred peaks, strongholds, seas and waterways” 嶽鎮海瀆 system (more precisely, the five peaks 五嶽, the five strongholds, the four seas 四海, and the four waterways 四瀆)? How do we revisit their political and religious significance in the face of historical relics of sacrificial sites?

In the early summer of 2018, Professor Jia Jinhua led a field trip to the Dongzhen Temple 東鎮廟 of Mount Yi 沂山, located in Linqu County 臨朐縣, Weifang City 濰坊市, Shandong Province 山東省 (Jia and Wang 2018), and collected historical information from 140 stelae preserved there. The purpose of the field visit was to observe how the traditional Chinese state sacrificial ritual—that is the system of five strongholds—came into being, underwent transformation, and engaged with Taoism, Buddhism, and other local popular cults. More importantly, our investigation and data collection also endeavored to map out the historical narrative and intellectual landscape of indigenous Chinese state religion, which has been largely overlooked by the contemporary definition of traditional religions in imperial China, namely, the three teachings 三教 (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism). With this remapping, we can thereby reflect critically upon the established epistemology of Chinese religious history.

Mount Yi, also known as Mount East Tai 東泰山, was always regarded as the first among the Five Strongholds in Chinese historical narratives. In the late Qing dynasty, there were more than 360 stelae preserved at Dongzhen Temple, which was hailed as the “Dongzhen stone forest” 東鎮碑林. Those stone inscriptions recorded state ritual events and documented natural calamities, national reforms, and military affairs in borderlands through past dynasties, and were a rich repository for the study of imperial China’s politics, art, and religion. For example, the stele “Ling Qi Suo Zhong” 靈氣所鐘, dated to 1714, was first inscribed by the Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 (r. 1661–1722), and acclaimed that blessings from Mount Yi were efficacious (Figure 1). During his more than sixty-year reign, Qing China experienced several military riots and catastrophic events such as floods and droughts. Whenever the Kangxi Emperor visited Mount Yi to seek spiritual blessings for his nation and people, his prayers were always fulfilled (CPPCC Linqu County Committee of Shandong Province 2013, 1).

Figure 1. Through the stele “Ling Qi Suo Zhong” 靈氣所鐘 (Spiritual energy is concentrated), it is evident that the Manchu regime still maintained the Confucian state sacrifice ceremony. The Kangxi Emperor’s imperial inscription was a paramount recognition of Mount Yi’s spiritual power. However, the calligraphy on the stele that we are seeing right now was a modern addition in 1986, as the main body of this stele was severely destroyed and then cobbled together (Wang 2022).

However, during the early Republican Period (1912–1949), Dongzhen Temple had been long-neglected and worn down by years without repair, due to natural disasters, lack of proper management, and the chaos of war. Many precious stelae were also damaged and lost. Only the main hall, the resting palace, drum towers, and a dozen residences remained up to 1949. After converting to a primary school in socialist China, the temple was severely damaged by a large fire. In the late 1980s, local archaeologists began to design a full-scale project to repair the temple, with the aim of promoting the local tourist industry and protecting scenic spots and historical sites. The primary target of this renovation project lay in stone stelae and sculptures, temple debris, as well as old and rare trees (Huang and Han, eds. 2007, 16–17). As a result of this project, the local cultural heritage administration has successfully recovered 140 stelae.

Historically speaking, today’s Dongzhen Temple has varied in its cultural significance and geographical location. The Shi ji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian, 91 BCE? tells us that as early as the mytho-historical period of Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors 三皇五帝, the Minister Feng Hou 風後, the imperial teacher Feng Ju 封巨, and the imperial physician Qibo 岐伯 had already requested that the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 perform the Feng 封 and Shan 禪 sacrifices at Mount East Tai (Si, 1982, 484). In the third year of Taichu 太初 reign (102 BCE), under the petition of architect Gongyu Dai 公玉帶 (who provided the Han court with a layout of “a pentagonal twelve-story hall” for building the Bright Hall 明堂) (Csikszentmihalyi 2008, 407; Tseng 2011, 41), Emperor Wu of Han 漢武帝 (r. 141 BCE–87 BCE) ordered the sacrificial officials (ciguan 祠官) to build a so-called Taishan shrine 泰山祠 on Mount Yi, where today’s Fayun Temple 法雲寺 is located. In 594, Emperor Wen of Sui 隋文帝 (r. 581–604) inaugurated Mount Yi as Dongzhen by setting up a shrine, thereby reinstalling the object of the state ritual. The Mount Yi deity, rather than the Supreme Emperor of Boundless Heaven 昊天上帝, became the object of worship. Consequently, the principal purpose of the state sacrifice was altered from reporting the emperor’s merit of governance as the agent of Heaven to pleading for divine assistance in maintaining imperial sovereignty and consolidating the legitimacy of rule (Zhang 2004, 11–12). During Wu Zetian’s 武則天 (r. 624?–705) reign, the Yishan shrine 沂山祠 underwent repair (Yin 2014, 72). In the early Song dynasty, modeled upon the imperial palace, the temple was reconstructed and moved to the eastern piedmont to redeem a vow to the Spirit of Mount Yi. According to a piece of popular historical folklore, the Spirit of Mount Yi once furnished Emperor Taizu of Song 宋太祖 (r. 960–976) with miraculous assistance in a key moment of a bitter battle with Han Tong 韓通, a celebrated general of the Later Zhou dynasty (Zhang and Cai, eds. 1992, 730). After periods of reconstruction and canonization in the following centuries, we can trace the current architectural style of Dongzhen Temple to the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) (Jia, Bai, Wang 2018). What we should emphasize here is that, compared to previous regimes, the status of Mount Yi reached its peak in the Yuan dynasty. In 1298, for instance, Mount Yi was conferred with a royal title of “King Dong’an of Yuande” 元德東安王 by Emperor Chengzong of Yuan 元成宗 (r. 1265–1307) or Temür Khan 鐵穆耳 (Figure 2). The imperial stele of conferring was inscribed in two different languages: one is Chinese and the other is ʼPhags-pa script 八思巴文 (Sun and Gong 2002, 239).

Figure 2. The stele “Dayuan zengfeng Dongzhen yuande Dong’anwang zhaobei” (The stele of Great Yuan’s imperial edict of re-conferring a royal title of “King Dong’an of Yuande” upon Mount Yi) witnessed that Dongzhen was upgraded to King in the Yuan dynasty. As of 2022, this stele is still in perfect condition (Jia 2022).

Dongzhen Temple, furthermore, functioned as an important historical site that offered a window onto the competition between Buddhism and Daoism in the Tang dynasty. Nowadays, Dongzhen Temple is a notable ritual site of the Quanzhen Taoist Sect 全真教派 (or the Perfect Realization), with a history tracing back to the Yuan dynasty. In 1299, “the Record of Blessed palace of the temple of King Dong’an of Yuande, Dongzhen Mount Yi” 東鎮沂山元德東安王廟神佑宮記 mentioned the Perfect Realization Taoist master (da zongshi 大宗師), and indicated that many Perfect Realization Taoist priests were dwelling on Mount Yi (Yin 2014, 72). However, before the Huichang 會昌 reign period (841–847), Dongzhen Temple was established at the site of Fayun Temple, a Buddhist site from the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. Buddhist dominance ended abruptly in 843 when Emperor Wuzong 武宗, a fervent Daoist, considered Buddhism a harmful foreign religion and ordered all Buddhist institutions destroyed, along with the forcible secularization of over 260,000 monks and nuns. This was known notoriously as the “Huichang Persecution of Buddhism” 會昌滅佛 (Buswell and Lopez 2013, 364). In August of 845, at the peak of the persecution, all Buddhist monasteries and temples (including Mingdao Temple 明道寺, Fengyang Temple 鳳陽寺, and Qingzhu Nunnery 青竹庵 at Mount Yi) except for Fayun Temple were confiscated and destroyed (Zhang 2004, 51–52). Fayun Temple remained intact during such a zealous anti-Buddhist movement thanks to the presence of a horizontal plaque reading “Dongzhen God Temple” 東鎮神廟, endowed by Emperor Wen of Sui, which covered and concealed the original name of this Buddhist temple. Moreover, two stone tablets conferring Mount Yi as “Duke Dong’an” 東安公 also became a sort of security blanket and sheltered Fayun Temple from damage (Zhang 2004, 51–52). In the late Qing era, even under Dongzhen Daoists’ management, Fayun Temple gradually came to desolation and was then consigned to oblivion.

What should be emphasized here is the religious and political significance of Dongzhen Temple in the so-called “sacred peaks, strongholds, seas and waterways” system of Confucian ritual culture. On the basis of traditional historical interpretation, the term “stronghold” not only refers literally to “a great mountain” but also “serves to safeguard and bring stability to its nearby region” (Huang and Chen 2022, 1). In particular, compared to the five sacred peaks, the stronghold embraced further military and ethnic connotations. For example, local ethnic communities worshipped the northern stronghold 北鎮 (located in Jinzhou City 錦州市) or Mount Yiwulü as their racial cradleland. Furthermore, due to its frontier location, Mount Yiwulü also witnessed frequent military conflicts between Han Chinese and the minority ethnic groups. “While China preferred to regard the northern stronghold as a military fortress with a divine character, the minorities treated it as a source of political legitimacy for their regimes” (Huang and Chen 2022, 2).

The formulation of the five strongholds in medieval China took a long time. Unlike the system for state sacrifice at the five peaks and four waterways established in 61 BCE, the incorporation of four strongholds’ sacrifices into the state ritual system began in the Sui dynasty (Huang and Chen 2022, 3). In 594, Emperor Wen of Sui built four temples in four strongholds, namely, the eastern stronghold Mount Yi, the southern stronghold Mount Kuaiji , the northern stronghold Mount Yiwulü, and the Jizhou stronghold Mount Huo. Another temple was set up on Mount Wu , the western stronghold, in 596 (Jia 2021, 9). According to the Tang Huiyao 唐會要 (Institutional History of the Tang Dynasty) by Wang Pu 王溥 (922–982), in the tenth year of Tianbao 天寶, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang 唐玄宗 (r. 712–756) bestowed the title of “King” upon four seas and granted the title of “Duke” to five strongholds (Wang 2012, 713). Jinhua Jia pointed out that even though the designation “stronghold” already appeared in the Rites of Zhou 周禮 (via the phrase “four strongholds and five sacred peaks” 四鎮五岳), the sacrificial scheme and designation of “five strongholds” was not finalized until the sixth year of Taiping xingguo 太平興國 (981), after re-affirming Mount Huo as the central stronghold in 968 (Jia 2021, 8–9). It is therefore significant that the rise of “five strongholds” accompanied the maturation of the state sacrifice to “five peaks and four waterways”.

In essence, the mountain- and water-oriented state sacrifice system should be considered as an ideological veneration of a Confucian anthropocosmic world order, namely, “All-under-Heaven” (tianxia 天下), in which China was assumed to be the centre and its ancient institutions were regarded as the cornerstones of a perfect polity (Murthy 2022, 27). In a more metaphysical sense, the Confucian concept tianxia signifies “an ideal moral and political order admitting of no territorial boundary—the whole world to be governed by a sage according to principles of rites (li 禮) and virtues (de 德)” (Chan 2010, 69). Li Ling reminds us that there once was a special memorial tablet of the “sacred peaks, strongholds, seas and waterways” in the Square Pond 方澤壇 located in the Temple of Earth during the Ming and Qing dynasties (Li 2016, 128). If we reflect more deeply upon the political meaning of imperial patronage as the worship of mountain and water deities, it is obvious that we can comprehend sacrifice to mountain and water spirits in a manner of metonymy. One attribute of Heaven and Earth—natural mounts and rivers—comes to stand for China’s (and even the world’s) entirety. In other words, when the ruler claimed himself as the agent of Heaven and deemed the mundane landscape as part of tianxia, his sacrifice to mountains and waters then became a double performance: on the one hand, by dint of the cult of nature, he owed a debt of gratitude to Heaven and spirits in order to re-affirm his rule’s legitimacy; on the other hand, the act of offering sacrifice to the natural world was an euphemistic way to exhibit imperial power and ethical grace.


[1] Composed before the time of Confucius, the Book of Documents is included in the Five Classics 五經, together with the Book of Poetry 詩經, the Book of Rites 禮記, the Book of Changes 易經, and the Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋. The formulation of Five Classics has established a “core curriculum for Confucian education” in aspect of five visions— “metaphysical, political, poetic, social, and historical.” The Book of Documents provides a political vision by addressing “the kingly way in terms of the ethical foundation for a humane government” (Tu 1998, 19–20).

[2] Formed by Mount Yi, Mount Kuaiji 會稽山, Mount Wu 吳山, Mount Yiwulü 醫巫閭山, and Mount Huo 霍山, the five strongholds bestowed the sacred significance on the major landmarks of Chinese topography and constituted the objects of state sacrifice ceremony at regular intervals or in a period of natural calamities (Zhang 2015, 118).



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Names inscribed on a Buddhist cave –
The Thousand Buddha motif of the Pilu dong 毗廬洞 site in Anyue 安岳

Cluster 3.4: “Typologies Of Text And Image Relations (Cliffs/Caves)”
Author: Mirella Keller, Eötvös Loránd University


Buddhist cave temples are found throughout Anyue 安岳 county of Sichuan 四川 province in China. The Anyue sites, most of which can be dated between the mid-Tang (790–820) and the Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, are of considerable importance in the history of Buddhism in Sichuan region. Although the neighboring Dazu cave temples are quite well studied, the Anyue sites have not received the same amount of scholarly attention.

Christoph Anderl (Ghent University) visited a number of Buddhist cave sites in Anyue in 2019 to help narrow the research gap. In Spring 2022, he led the “Cluster 3.4 Typologies of Text-Image Relations” workshop as virtual field work to process and input these photographs into the FROGBEAR Database Of Religious Sites In East Asia. One of the sites of focus is the Pilu Cave or Vairocana Cave (Pilu dong 毗廬洞), which serves as an example of text-image relations in Buddhism.

There are six major religious sites in Anyue: Reclining Buddha Hall (Wofo yuan 卧佛院), Thousand Buddha Village (Qianfo zhai 千佛寨), Perfect Enlightenment Cave (Yuanjue dong 圓覺洞), Huayan Cave (Huayan dong 華嚴洞), Peacock Cave (Kongque dong 孔雀洞), and aforementioned Pilu dong site. Pilu dong is located about forty kilometers from Anyue city. It encompasses four rock cave groups, 465 statues as rock carvings, fourteen steles, and eighteen inscriptions. The site is dated mainly from the Song dynasty (960–1279), but certain additions and renovations happened during later periods. Due to the popularity of the cult of Liu Benzun 柳本尊 in Southern Song Sichuan, the tableau of Liu Benzun’s Ten Austerities (Liu Benzun shilian ku 柳本尊十煉窟) is the largest and most representative part of the Pilu dong site. However, the site features other important elements as well, such as the Seclusion Cave (Youju dong 幽居洞), the Han dynasty tombs (Han mu 漢墓), the Jade Emperor Cave (Yuhuang ku 玉皇窟), the Thousand Buddha Cave (Qianfo ku 千佛窟), the Pilu Hall (Pilu dian 毗廬殿), the Lotus Flower Hut (Lianhua she 蓮花舍), and the Guanyin Hall (Guanyin tang 觀音堂).

An overview of the Thousand Buddha Cave. Christoph Anderl, 2019.

The Thousand Buddha Cave, which was cut into the cliff wall during the Song dynasty has three main figures in the middle. The triad is called the Three Saints of the West (Xifang sansheng 西方三聖), consisting of sculptures of Guanyin Bodhisattva (Guanshiyin pusa 觀世音菩薩), Amitābha Buddha (Amituo fo 阿彌陀佛), and Mahāsthāma-prāpta Bodhisattva (Dashizhi pusa 大勢至菩薩). There are also two standing monks and eighteen seated monks, probably representations of the eighteen arhats (shiba luohan 十八羅漢). These statues date from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). On the lower part of the altar, there are 316 round niches with buddha-like seated figures, which are embodiments of the donors. Additionally, there is an inscription with the title, Tongjie shanyuan 同結善緣 (lit. joined together by wholesome conditions), along with the names of the donors. Each buddha statue has individual characteristics such as specific objects, different faces and hairstyle, or an uncommon sitting posture. It is not only their appearance that carries personal attributes; there are also names inscribed next to each figure inside the niche.

The Thousand Buddha motif can carry various meanings. In terms of Buddhist cosmology, it represents the Buddhist idea that each kalpa of the past, present and future has one thousand buddhas. According to Sonya Lee, this motif supported the belief in the infinite and continuous existence of buddhas in the cosmos (Lee 2010). The doctrinal basis for this idea is a fundamental teaching of Mahāyāna Buddhism that all sentient beings have buddha-nature and can attain enlightenment. It could also be understood as a pictorial representation of the sūtra on the names of buddhas (Pepper 1998), in which donors were portrayed as buddhas and the inscribing of their names could express either their faith or inspiration to reach the soteriological goal of Buddhism. These dedicatory inscriptions also have the function of generating merit for the donors and their families, contributing to the tradition of filial piety (Kucera 2016, Hamar 2021).While there is no evidence of the actual intention of donor representations in the Pilu dong site, a few peculiarities of the reliefs are particularly notable.

A wall of the Thousand Buddha motif in the Thousand Buddha Cave in Pilu dong. Christoph Anderl, 2019.

Although the Thousand Buddha Cave was originally cut into the wall during the Song dynasty, some elements were later additions, such as the group of buddha reliefs near the entrance (Dong Huafeng 董華鋒, Sichuan University, pers. comm., May 30, 2022). Yang Xiaodong 楊曉東 argues that the buddha reliefs hail from the Ming dynasty, based on their artistic style. Also dating to a later period is the Xu chuandeng ji bei 續傳燈記碑 stele which is found next to the Guanyin statue in Pilu dong and is thought to be from the Ming dynasty (Wanli nian 萬曆年 period, 1573–1619). This stele includes the name Ran Yue 冉岳, which corresponds to the name found on the Thousand Buddha Cave inscription “Ran Yue zuofo” 冉岳作佛 (Ran Yue manifesting as a buddha).

The depiction of the Thousand Buddha motif stereotypically consists of figures spaced out evenly in a grid, fashioned with the same appearance, and each are seated in meditation posture on a lotus pedestal. In contrast, each figure in the Pilu dong niche appears to be different and individually designed, a tradition of representation typical only for this region. All the figures are in a seated posture, yet they are not necessarily depicted in full lotus. A few, for example, happen to join their palms together, while others simply lean to the side. They also have characteristics more akin to a lay practitioner than a buddha. Some of the figures hold specific objects, which, according to Peng Bing 彭冰, include a pearl jewel (baozhu 寶珠), scripture boxes (jingxia 經匣), prayer beads (nianzhu 念珠), flowers, and a fish (Peng 2017). The practical function of these portrayals is unclear; perhaps these objects possessed symbolic meaning that expressed the ideas of the artisan producing them or conveyed personal attributes of donors.

Detail of a motif niche. An example of a unique donor representation with an inscribed name. Christoph Anderl, 2019.

Upon a closer look at the names of the reliefs, it becomes apparent that most of the donors were women. Peng Bing identified the female donors (Peng 2018, 57) by their father’s family name (fuxing 父姓), a female characteristic in their name (nüxing tezheng 女性特徵), and names containing the word miao 妙 or miaoshan 妙善. Male donors also appear, but they are fewer in number. There are also family members with the same family name portrayed together in one niche, and bhikṣuṇīs (nuns) with monastic names. The names with the logographs miaoshan 妙善 show a connection with the incarnation of Guanyin bodhisattva, Princess Miaoshan 妙善, whose account is conveyed in Xiangshan bao juan 香山寶卷 (Precious Scroll of Fragrant Mountain). This association might reveal extensive devotional activity towards Guanyin. Pilu dong does not represent an overarching iconographic program, so there is no underlying proof of a direct connection between the Thousand Buddha Cave and the Guanyin Hall situated next to it, but there are definitive connections, such as the aforementioned name occurring both in the Thousand Buddha Cave and the Guanyin Hall.

Further in situ investigation of Pilong dong would further advance the study of text-image relations in this particular area of Sichuan. The inscriptions are currently the most vulnerable as their exposure to the elements over time makes them slowly disappear. Working with detailed material in an organized fashion in an online format, however, proved to be highly efficient. The digital access to photographs and the database offer a significant contribution to understanding historical Buddhist material culture unimpeded by travel restrictions or natural erosion.



Adamek, Wendi L. August 2009. “A Niche of their Own: The Power of Convention in Two Inscriptions for Medieval Chinese Buddhist Nuns.” History of Religions 49 (1):1–26.

Cao Dan 曹丹, and Zhao Ling 趙昤. 1994 “Anyue Piludong shiku diaocha yanjiu” 安岳毗盧洞石窟調查研究 [A survey study of the Pilu Cave in Anyue]. Sichuan wenwu 四川文物 3: 34–39.

Dong Huafeng 董華鋒, and Li Fei 李菲. March 2021. “Chuan Yu shiku Tang Song moya tike zhong de gudai gongjiang ziliao jikao” 川渝石窟唐宋摩崖題刻中的古代工匠資料輯考 [Research on the Craftsmen in Tang and Song Dynasties Cliff Inscriptions from Sichuan and Chongqing]. Dunhuang yanjiu 敦煌研究 [Dunhuang Research] (3): 86–94.

Hamar Imre. 2021. “The Buddhist Interpretation of the Confucianist Concept of Family: Filial Piety as Universal Compassion”. Journal of East Asian Cultures 13 (1): 3–20.

Kucera, Karil J. 2016. Ritual and Representation in Chinese Buddhism: Visualizing Enlightenment at Baodingshan from the 12th to 21st Centuries. New York: Cambria Press.

Lee, Sonya S. 2010. “Transmitting Buddhism to a Future Age: The Leiyin Cave at Fangshan and Cave-Temples with Stone Scriptures in Sixth-Century China”. Archives of Asian Art 60: 43–78.

Peng Bing 彭冰. 2017. “Anyue Piludong nuxing gongyangren yanjiu” 安岳毗卢洞女性供养人研究 [Research on Female Donors in Anyue Pilu Cave]. Zhongguo meishu 中國美術 6: 54–63.

Pepper, France. 1998. “The Thousand Buddha Motif: A Visual Chant in Cave-Temples Along the Silk Road”. Oriental Art 44: 39–45.

Yang, Xiaodong 楊曉東. 2020. “Inscribing Scriptural Catalogs: Apropos of Two Southern Song Pagodas and Related Buddhist Monuments in the Sichuan Basin”. T’oung Pao 106 (5–6): 602–660.

Beyond Chinese Epigraphy in Bangkok: Spaces, Cults and Communities

Cluster 3.4: “Typologies of Text and Image Relations”
Author: Massimiliano Portoghese, Ghent University


In the English language, a sacred confined space for religious practice may be defined by the general descriptive term “temple.” However, everyday Thai language makes a clear distinction between a Buddhist monastic temple (Th. wat วัด), mostly belonging to Theravada institutions, and an alternative place of worship designed as a temple but not necessarily associated with just one religious tradition (Th. sanchao ศาลเจ้า). The latter often displays very syncretic trends drawing from Daoist, Buddhist, and local tutelary Chinese deities’ background. Moreover, it is always characterized by the absence of a residential monastic community.

Following the considerable flow of migration of several Chinese dialect communities (Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, and Hokkien) to Siam from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, a large number of Chinese sanchao were established in the Bangkok metropolitan area. These religious sites were naturally linked to the cult of Chinese deities, and their distribution reveals the geographic development of Chinese merchant communities in Bangkok throughout the years (Ho 1995). Nowadays, these temples still play a significant role in Thailand’s religious and cultural life, as they have gained an established position within Bangkok’s social dynamics. Besides their religious functions, they also play a very important role in developing social connections. The widespread creation of associations (she 社) and charitable foundations linked to these temples have regularly helped local communities by building schools or providing medical support in difficult times. Most of the people engaged in the above-mentioned temple activities are now fully integrated into Thai culture, and they seem to have lost both their oral and reading skills in Chinese.


Left, entrance of Wat Pho วัดโพธิ์, a Buddhist monastic temple complex. Right, front entrance of Zhalanshaniweng Bentougong 乍蘭唦尼翁本頭公, a Chinese sanchao. Photos by Massimiliano Portoghese, 2023.

Currently, the large number of Chinese sanchao scattered around Bangkok face several threats. Their buildings struggle with issues such as humidity, flooding, dilapidation, and poor conditions. Natural factors combined with weak restoration programs and a lack of support from city planning are gradually leading these places of worship towards extinction. Given this situation, there is an urgent need for digital preservation and documentation of these endangered sites.

Among the few works published on Chinese temples in Bangkok, the key reference is Wolfgang Franke’s survey on Chinese epigraphic materials in Thailand dating back to 1998. Wolfgang Franke, the son of Otto Franke who was one of the most important founders of modern German sinology, dedicated himself to the study and documentation of Chinese epigraphy in Southeast Asia after retiring from his position (Chair of Sinology) at the University of Hamburg. Since Franke’s publication, only a few studies have focused on epigraphy in Thailand, mostly on inscriptions found on temples (City Planning Department Bangkok Metropolitan Area 2016; Duan 1996).

To address these research gaps, Christoph Anderl of Ghent University led a field trip to Bangkok from May 23 to June 3 2023, as part of the FROGBEAR (From the Ground Up: Buddhism and East Asian Religions) project Research Cluster 3.4 “Typologies of Text-Image Relations.” This project benefited from parallel investigations conducted by Marcus Bingenheimer (Temple University) and Paul McBain (Thammasat University), who produced 3D photography and VR modeling of Chinese temples in Bangkok, and by Oliver Streiter (National University of Kaohsiung) and Yoann Goudin’s (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3) Thakbong Project, which focused on re-documenting and enriching the materials collected by Franke (Streiter, Bingenheimer, Zhan, To, and Shih 2019). Other specialists in fieldwork studies in Chinese Buddhist communities, such as Tzu-Lung Chiu 邱子倫 (National Chengchi University) and Ngar-Sze Lau 劉雅詩 (Chinese University of Hong Kong), joined the project by lending their fieldwork expertise and leading two of the five groups of researchers involved in the task.

When examining Franke’s black-and-white photographs collected twenty-five years ago, several research questions arise: What is beyond epigraphy? What it can tell us about social history and the development of Chinese religious communities in Bangkok? What has been preserved? What has been lost? What has been added? How many sanchao can be counted, and where are they located? Additionally, researchers should question the status of these sacred places: who is responsible for their maintenance? What is their significance for religious practices and why are they located in their respective neighborhoods? How do we identify and classify the wide range of objects found inside the temples? Lastly, how do we approach the concept of “Chineseness” in relation to these temples?

Above, an example of comparison between Franke’s publication (left, see Franke 1998, p. 102) and the high-resolution pictures (right) taken during this field trip by Christoph Anderl. The smaller tablet (萬象更新 “the ten-thousand phenomena transform and renew”) situated under the temple name plaque Guanyin gumiao 觀音古廟 (Old Guanyin Temple) at the time of Franke’s fieldwork has been removed.

The pantheon of deities featured in the Chinese sanchao is very heterogeneous, including Buddhist deities, tutelary gods, characters from Chinese history and literature, idols from popular religions, Daoist immortals, and even Indian-derived divinities such as Gaṇeśa, Brahmā, and Śiva. However, each temple tends to place special emphasis on one deity. The main god is typically located on the largest altar, while other divinities are scattered throughout the inner and outer spaces of the temple in the form of statues and paintings. Consequently, the researchers participating in the fieldwork were divided into five groups, with each group visiting temples associated with one main god or goddess: Guanyu 關羽/Guandi 關帝; Bentougong 本頭公; Guanyin 觀音; Mazu 媽祖/Tianhou 天后; and Xuan Tian 玄天. Collaborative efforts of the five groups revealed intersecting repertoires of deities and ritual practices within communities affiliated with diverse temples. Rich epigraphic material from the last two centuries still survives within Chinese sanchaos and graveyards in Thailand, particularly in the Bangkok area, and provides valuable insights into how various Chinese dialect immigrants adapted and thrived in the Thai environment.

Left, close-up of a Guanyu altar in Xietian shangdi gumiao 協天上帝古廟. Right, close-up of a Xuan Tian altar in Dabentougong miao 大本頭公廟. Photos by Tzu-Lung Chiu (left) and Yoann Goudin (right), 2023.

A Hakka graveyard in Bangkok. Photo by Massimiliano Portoghese, 2023.

During the ten days of fieldwork, the FROGBEAR research team documented over fifty temples by collecting high-quality images (including 3D images) and conducting interviews with practitioners and caretakers. The data is publicly accessible in FROGBEAR’s open-access databases to ensure preservation and free access to the documented materials for scholars and the general public alike. This fieldwork shaped the basis for an extensive dynamic archive of religious sites that can be further explored from various angles. However, there is still a great deal of further investigation and survey work to be undertaken. With threats such as pressure for relocation, inadequate funding, and a declining number of caretakers maintaining the temples, these sacred sites face significant risk of becoming lost. More research surveys and support are strongly encouraged to help preserve these Chinese sanchaos, and to ensure that they do not disappear from Bangkok’s diverse social, cultural and religious heritage. If these traditions fade away, their physical spaces will also be at risk of being lost.



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Duan Lisheng 段立生. 1996. Taiguo de zhongshi simiao 泰國的中式寺廟. Bangkok: Taiguo Datongshe chuban youxian gongsi 泰國大同社出版有限公司.

Franke, Wolfgang 傅吾康, and Chen Tieh Fan 陳鐵凡. 1982–1987. Chinese Epigraphic Materials in Malaysia 馬來西亞華文銘刻萃編, vols. 1–3. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaysia Press.

Franke, Wolfgang 傅吾康, Xiao Guojian, and Claudine Lombard-Salmon 蘇爾夢. 1988–1997. Chinese Epigraphic Materials in Indonesia 印尼華文銘刻彙編, vols. 1–3. Singapore: South Seas Society 南洋學會.

Franke, Wolfgang 傅吾康, and Porpan Juntaronanont 劉麗芳. 1998. Chinese Epigraphic Materials in Thailand 泰國華文銘刻彙編, vols. 1–2. Taipei: Xinwenfeng chuban gongsi 新文豐出版公司.

Ho, Chuimei. 1995. “Chinese Temples in Bangkok. Sources of Data for 19th-Century Sino-Thai Communities”. Journal of The Siam Society 83, no. 1–2: 25–43.

Streiter, Oliver, Marcus Bingenheimer, Hanna Ya-Qing Zhan, Mandy Manwai To, and Syuan Fei Shih. 2019. “First Steps Towards Reviving Franke’s ‘Chinese Epigraphy in Southeast Asia’: Motivations, Approaches and Data Structures”. In Documenting and Researching Graveyards in Pacific Asia: Migration, Religion and Ethnicity (DRGPA2019): Proceedings, edited by Oliver Streiter, Man Wai To, and James X. Morris, 91–118. Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Ritual objects at Dunhuang: A case study of a Buddhist paper banner

Cluster 3.1: “Multicultural Dunhuang: Manuscripts and Paintings”
Author: Francesca Berdin, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales


Used in Buddhist ceremonies in China since the beginning of the sixth century, banners (Ch. fan 幡) are a fundamental element of Buddhist material culture. Numerous texts attest the importance of banners and portable paintings used in Buddhist rituals. In the Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinaya, for instance, Anāthapiṇḍika asks the Buddha to allow monks, in the case of his absence, to erect a wooden statue and surround it with banners. The Mahāmeghasūtra [The Great Cloud Sutra] also describes an offering of banners to the Buddha by the assembly of bodhisattvas and deities gathered to hear his preaching. Moreover, the Dayu jing qiyu tan fa 大雲經祈雨壇法 [Ceremony for the building of the altar to pray for the rain from the Great Cloud Sutra] states that a niche, where banners were hung, served to protect the altar (Jera-Bezard and Maillard 1989). These textual references, along with manuscripts and banners found in Dunhuang, and in other cultural milieu such as Turfan, attest the crucial role of these items within Buddhist practices of China and Central Asia.

The banners originally used in monasteries served a more ceremonial purpose, and they were created and hung as part of a ritual (Zhao, Wang, Persson, and Wood 2007). Some banners were painted on both sides which suggested that they were suspended probably on the top of flagpoles rather than against a wall or pillar for both sides to be viewed. The lightweight and flexible materials used for their creation would have allowed the banner to sway in the wind. Thus, similar to the “spirit moving banner” (qianshen fan 遷神旛) used by priests in Daoist ceremonial practices, banners could have been used during Buddhist ritual practices to communicate with gods and souls (Huang 2012).

Certain iconographic banners might also have been used during rituals as a replacement for statues and images to symbolize the presence of the Buddha or deities during ceremonies (Jera-Bezard and Maillard 1985). A large number of Buddhist texts promoted the hanging of banners, along with other practices such as constructing stūpas or sponsoring Buddha images, for the accumulation of merit and the attainment of an auspicious rebirth. Banners also became symbols of faith and devotion that donors gave as offerings to the Buddha and bodhisattvas (Zhao, Wang, Persson, and Wood 2007). Light and easy to carry, they became a common form of votive offering and an indispensable item for travellers who undertook long journeys along the Silk Roads. These items, often commissioned by individuals or purchased at a place of worship, were used by travellers for daily worship and to pray to Buddhist deities in shrines they encountered along their journey (Bhattacharya 2002).

Numerous banners from Dunhuang survived in a variety of shapes and sizes. The banners did not follow a standard dimension: the found artifacts ranged from 6 chi (180 cm) to 49 chi (1470 cm), indicating that small banners were less than 2 metres in length and large banners could measure up to 15 metres. Most of the items that survived from Dunhuang were made of silk, forty-two of hemp and nine of paper (Zhao, Wang, Persson, and Wood 2007). The majority of the textile banners were created by combining different types of silk fabric including damask on plain weave, twill damask, gauze, and polychrome, in different colours and patterns. Textiles with clamp-resist dyed patterns were often used for the body and, in certain banners, for the banner head or bottom streamers. Embroidered motifs were usually applied on the banner head and were similar to those painted on the banners (Zhao, Wang, Persson, and Wood 2007; Bhattacharya 2002).

A large number of banners found in Dunhuang had anthropomorphic aspects and were composed of multiple parts. The main body of the banner is rectangular, on top of which is a triangular headpiece. Streamers, cut out from the same piece of silk, are attached on both sides of the body and at the bottom, and border pieces are joined at the top of the headpiece and at the bottom of the banner body. A loop is sewn at the top of the banner enabling it to be hung or suspended (Zhao, Wang, Persson, and Wood 2007; Wang, Whitfield, and Wen 2020). The similarity in structure between this type of banner and those of the dhāraṇī pillar, composed of a tripartite structure (head, body and bottom), and the use of the term chuang 幢 in premodern China to identify both ritual objects, might suggest one of their numerous functions. According to popular beliefs, the efficacy of dhāraṇīs or mantras could be transmitted through the agency of shadows and winds. Thus, as the shadows cast by the pillar bearing the dhāraṇī or the dust lifted by the wind from its surface would transfer its benefits to the devotee, the breeze moving the banner would guarantee the efficacy of this ritual object (Wang, Whitfield and Wen 2020).

Some rectangular banners, whose dimensions could measure up to 286 cm x 189 cm, were also found in Dunhuang. These appear to have originated in India, whereas the anthropomorphic banners show Central Asian origins. Reminiscent of the Indian temple hanging patacitra or pichavai, the rectangular banners present several loops to fasten it either to a flagstaff when carrying it in procession, to suspend it from the ceiling, or to hang it against a wall. According to Aurel Stein, archaeologist known for his works on Central Asia, this type of banner was used for decorating the front of cave temples, and they might have been used on particular occasions and hung outside the place of worship (Bhattacharya 2002).

The body of banners often displayed a figure from the Buddhist pantheon: the Buddha, a bodhisattva, a guardian divinity, a supernatural being, or an eminent monk. These iconographic banners were identified with the Chinese term chuang 幢, which later would designate Tibetan thangkas (Van Gulik 1958). Textile banners and inscribed banners were also found in Dunhuang. Composed of several pieces of textiles, they were presented in their natural state, or decorated with an ornamental painted pattern or with applied fabric motifs (Jera-Bezard and Maillard 1985). One of the artifacts studied during the Frogbear Cluster “Multicultural Dunhuang: Manuscripts and Paintings” research trip led by Professor Imre Galambos and Professor Michelle Wang appears to be a peculiar case. Item Or.8210/S.5952 (, listed by Lionel Giles (Giles 1957) as a paper banner and currently preserved at the British Library, is a rectangular paper banner measuring 29.5 cm in length and 135 cm in height on which five characters reading renru boluomi 忍辱羅波蜜 (Skt. kṣānti pāramitā), the third of the sixth perfections, have been inscribed. The characters, ranging between 20 cm and 30 cm, have been written with a technique similar to the double-outline method (shuanggou 雙鈎) used in epigraphic inscriptions. The calligrapher appears to have traced the external line of the strokes before decorating the interior with a pattern of smaller dashes arranged following the writing direction of the stroke. The sharp-featured style used for the calligraphy presents what appears to be a form of shading in which the corners of the strokes are enhanced.

Image 1. Paper banner Or.8210/S.5952, ink on paper, 29.5 x 135 cm, British Library

This banner, unlike the majority of Buddhist banners found in Dunhuang, does not include an iconographic representation and it is made out of paper instead of textile. Its non-figurative and aniconic element contrasts with the strong figurative representations that usually decorate Buddhist banners and relate more to the Daoist banners that are usually inscribed (Huang 2012). It would not be contradictory to consider this particular banner a result of the influence of Daoism in Buddhist practices. The shared concepts and practices between the two religions often allowed cultural encounters and borrowings between Buddhism and Daoism, particularly in the case of visual culture and ritualistic functions (Hwang 2022).

The verso of the banner does not present the same inscription, as would have been the common practice for Buddhist banners that were made to be viewed from both sides. This suggests that this particular banner would have been suspended or hung against a pillar or a wall using the paper lead that is still attached at the top of the banner.

The use of paper for the construction of the banner and the application of a simply drawn and coloured representation were common features of banners that were considered cheaper substitutes but served the same function as those created with more expensive materials (Whitfield 1985). Item Or.8210/S.5952 is not the only paper banner from Dunhuang preserved in the British collection. Others such as Or.8210/S.2202 (, Stein painting 142 (, and Stein painting 144 ( of the collections at the British Library and the British Museum are also constructed with paper. It is interesting that banner Or.8210/S.2202 in the British Library collection have the same features as banner Or.8210/S.5952 that has been previously analysed. The same calligraphic style used in banner Or.8210/S.5952 has been used to write the inscription “Dasheng Mile zhi yuan” 大聖彌勒之院 (Hall of the Great Sage Maitreya) on banner Or.8210/S.2202, making these items two examples diverging from the most common banner found at Dunhuang. Furthermore, since this banner carries the inscription of one of the six pāramitās, it raises the question: was it part of a series of rectangular paper banners inscribed with the other pāramitās (perfections of a Bodhisattva)? And since both banners have been collected by Aurel Stein during his second archaeological expedition to Dunhuang and Central Asia (1906–1908), were they stored and found in the same archaeological context and in the same corpus of manuscripts?

Image 2. Detail of the string at the top of the paper banner Or.8210/S.5952, British Library

The banner Or.8210/S.5952 has been mounted on a piece of paper and the string used for its suspension is partially preserved. On the remaining paper, it is possible to read in one column “各獲 一世” [each in one life will receive] and “出家若自出家” […become monks or who becomes monk himself] in the adjacent one. These characters seem to correspond to a passage from the fourth section of Xian yu jing 賢愚經 [Sūtra of the Wise and the Foolish], translated into Chinese in the fifth century from Central Asian sources. It is said that the Chinese text was written by the monks Hui Jiao 慧覺 and Wei De 威德 during their visit to Khotan in 445 (Takakusu 1901). The sutra contains jātakas and avadānas, a Buddhist literature genre correlating tales of Buddha’s past lives. The characters of this fragment relate to a passage praising the blessings of the monks and of whom has helped others to take refuge in the sangha.

Another inscription, found on the mount at the back of the banner and written with a running script, reports a list or an inventory asking for supplies such as vegetables that was probably used in daily life. Furthermore, a historical inscription attached at the back of the banner states “On the sixth day on the eighth month of the second year of Changxing (30 September 931) the disciple Cao (Yuanshen), Comptroller, Senior Lord High Chamberlain and Censor” (Giles 1957). This inscription would suggest that this banner was created in the tenth century at the request of Cao Yuanshen 曹元深, who in 931 was at the head of the Guiyi Circuit (Guiyi jun 歸義軍 “Return of Righteousness Army”) located in modern day Dunhuang. If it was indeed Cao Yuanshen who commissioned this banner, it seems contradictory that it was created with material as cheap as paper rather than with more expensive equivalents such as silk. Whether these inscribed fragments of paper were taken from other manuscripts and repurposed to produce the banner or they were added at a later date in order to repair the mount, the date of the creation of this banner still remains uncertain.

Image 3. Historical inscription on the verso of the paper banner Or.8210/S.5952, British Library

The banner artifact Or.8210/S.5952 is representative of the richness of Dunhuang’s material culture and of its important role in the study of religious and cultural practices. Further investigation of this particular type of banners would allow a much deeper understanding of the role that these objects played in Buddhist ritual practices of China and Central Asia as well as the identities of its donors and creators.



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