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Research Program 1: Medium vs Message
Research Program 2: Canon-making and Breaking
Research Program 3: Text vs Image
North China Mural Survey


Research Program 1: Medium vs Message

Among the developments in human communication, it is hard to exaggerate the significance of the transition from the manuscript to print culture. This innovation ushered in modernity in the West. It accelerated religious reforms and allowed for the standardization and proliferation of scientific knowledge. It provided a means to promote nationalism and engendered the modern-day nation-state.

This research program aims to develop a scholarly framework to explore the intrinsic connection between the invention of woodblock printing in China in the seventh century and the subsequent diffusion of the technology throughout East Asia that proceeded apace with the spread of Buddhism in the region. Particular attention needs to be given to the Buddhist notion that disseminating the teachings can generate religious merit. It is little wonder, therefore, that Buddhism seems to have played a crucial role in refining and reformatting two major media for knowledge transformation and transmission: paper and the printed book. Several Buddhist monasteries, for example, were renowned for the high-quality paper they manufactured, while palm-leaf manuscripts transported from South Asia to China by missionaries served as the principal source of inspiration for the replacement of scrolls with codices (i.e. books of folded or bound leaves) in East Asia. This reformatting of a key medium of knowledge transfer constituted an enormous leap in the history of human civilization: codices provided immediate access to knowledge in a convenient, yet sometimes random medium, while printing served to standardize knowledge and make it affordable.

Today, we are experiencing a transformation not entirely unlike the one faced by our counterparts in medieval East Asia. Now, digitized media is supplanting print. Key features of manuscript culture reappear in cyberspace. Lacking any central authority, we produce, edit, and distribute texts online that in their fluidity recall hand-copied manuscripts. The explosion of digital media gives rise to anxieties (e.g. about how genuine “learning” is to be understood in the internet age and pre-existing modes of knowledge [here books] are received) that are not so different from the ones confronted with the emergence of printing in China. At the same time, the printed book, particularly the printed codex, seems to have presaged some fundamental revolutions brought about by electronic “hypermedia”: an expandable network of sharing and distributing information stored in and transmitted through a specific medium. In one sense, we may consider this hypermedia in terms of a dynamic mixture of manuscript and print cultures that amplify the freedoms and limitations associated with both.

The media in which writing is produced and disseminated matters. Program One (P1) participants will endeavour to clarify specific ways that changes in media are shaping and shaped by the religious landscapes of East Asia. Several questions guide this research include: “How does technology impact the production, growth, and spread of new religious forms?”; “In what ways have religious beliefs and practices served as catalysts or conduits for innovations?”; “How did textual communities aided by printing transition from the local to the regional, national, or even international scale?”; “How did the increasingly rapid textual circulation across East Asia enrich reading practices, assert authority, reinforce identities, and eventually encourage regional religious networks?”; and “What relationships existed between technology and the imagining of religious identities: how did spatial networks of book distribution, for example, map onto and shape the religious geographies of sacred space, with its own imagined centers and peripheries?”

This research program is supported by the following clusters:

1.1 From Oral to Digital

This cluster project examines ways in which the transition from manuscript to print and the development of a range of technologies and reading techniques in premodern Asia may inform our understanding of the current global transition from print to digital media. We will focus on transformations in the culture of writing and reading in East Asia as a “distant mirror” (in the words of the European medievalist Barbara Tuchman) to reflect on current developments in the digital humanities and our changing relationships to texts.

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1.2 Religion & Technology

The cluster “Religion and Technology” investigated how emerging technologies in the digital humanities can contribute to the study of religion in East Asia. In a series of workshops Simon Wiles (Stanford CIDR), Oliver Streiter (National University of Kaohsiung), and Marcus Bingenheimer (Temple University) taught the foundations of GIS-based surveys and map creation (2017), historical social network analysis (2018), and GIS and aerial photography with drones (2019). Workshops included theory and classroom training in the use of software tools as well as intensive fieldwork.

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1.3 Market & Merit

Women’s significance in the economic life of East Asian religions is widely recognized but not yet well understood. This is in part because sources foregrounding their participation in this sphere very often remain outside official canons. Histories of the intersections between economics and religion in the region oftentimes prioritize monks, monasteries, male courtiers and rulers because these are the sites and settings that dominate the sources with which we have been working.

The From the Ground Up “Market and Merit” research cluster endeavours to fill this scholarly lacuna, reconstructing the diverse ways women have been active in the economics of religious life in East Asia.

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1.4 Enriched Reading Practices

How did people encounter and engage with texts under conditions of rapid dissemination and constantly increasing volume, in various religious traditions in East Asia? How did East Asia traditions celebrate or control reading as a religious practice?

This cluster will support research that addresses three general topics in different periods of EA religious history:

(1) The relationship between esoteric knowledge, printing, and public dissemination;

(2) The role of commentarial traditions, print catalogues, anthologies, digests, and other reference works in East Asian religious traditions;

(3) The relationships between texts and popular teaching.

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1.5 Extended “Textual Communities

This cluster investigates the ways in which reading and writing the religious book in East Asia structured and defined communities of real or imagined readers, and how the economic and technological dimensions of the production of texts affected and even created communities and institutions.

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Research Program 2: Canon-Making and Breaking

At its heart, canon formation (be it Daoist, Buddhist, Confucian, or “sectarian” practice) is about making boundaries, establishing and separating orthodoxy from heterodoxy and defining orthopraxy. The creation of canons has shaped not only the way religion has been practiced in East Asia, but also the way scholarship has been conducted in this field. Although canonical texts have been treated as fundamental and foundational sources for the study of East Asian religions, overreliance on them has produced knotty scholarly prejudices that our program endeavors to overcome. Because canons were edited (often many times, typically by Confucian scholars) and original texts were changed by monastics to bolster institutional or factional claims, they cannot provide researchers with either a balanced or neutral picture of religious or intellectual history. Canons contain only a tiny sliver of the religious literature that was once in circulation across East Asia. From the cache at Dunhuang and old Japanese manuscript canons we know that ecclesiastical monastic bibliographers systematically excluded texts that speak to the majority of the population: lay devotees. Ritual texts and objects that were once used by non-monastics have, therefore, been considerably overshadowed by canonical sources. And, some canons are treated by scholars as more authoritative than others: we have at our disposal huge modern canons that are rarely examined by academics (though they are and have long been deeply important to the “faithful”).

In addition to its reputed “sacred” origins, the language and script of a text also defined its status. Buddhist scriptures originally entered East Asia in Indic and Central Asian languages and scripts with cachet and authority of their own, whereas Classical Chinese was the premier language of the Sinographic world. These languages coexisted with a myriad of local and national forms (graphic and linguistic) that shaped the circulation and social standing of religious documents in ways that are still incompletely understood.

Status as a canonical scripture, commentary, or ritual manual was certainly not the only way East Asian religious people conferred authority on religious texts. Some widely circulated texts were spuriously attributed to translators and others were ascribed to the Buddha. Spirit-writing (especially popular in China) has since the twelfth century produced tens of thousands of texts with divine authority, understood to have been written by the gods themselves. When we carefully examine the intricate processes by which texts were gathered together by bibliographers, first in complete sets, later in massive, sponsored canons, we can see why the categories of canonical and apocryphal need to be reevaluated because, in addition to original author(s), numerous individuals—readers, scribes, bibliographers, translators, editors—produced the books we study today. No religious manuscript, no matter how sacred it was held to be, remained unaltered over time. Rather, as researchers in this research program will show, the materials available to us now are the product of continuous negotiations between layers of texts influenced by readers from distinct, yet interconnected networks across East Asia. Multiple parties came together to define religious practices and beliefs in ways that differed considerably from the vision of the traditions set forth by early authors and the compilers of canons. Through a series of critical textual studies of important, widely-circulated sample texts preserved in multiple forms, this research program seeks to understand the process of canon formation that privileged certain texts (languages and scripts) and tried to conceal others. We will also investigate how the canon-making process ultimately evolved to shatter the very notion of canonical status, thereby gradually causing canons to lose some of their cultural value. Within today’s post-canonical age, we must make plain the exceptional value of extra- or non-canonical sources in terms of various media required to reconstruct key aspects of East Asian religious history and ritual practice.

This research program will be organized around the following themes:

2.1: Authenticity and Authority

The field visits of Cluster 2.1 focuses on the historical sites of the traditional Chinese state sacrificial system dedicated to spirits of major mountains and waters, including Five Marchmounts 五嶽, Five Strongholds 五鎮, Four Seas 四海, and Four Waterways 四瀆, which formed a part of the most authoritative religious institutions in imperial China.

The field visits to these sites have provided a unique perspective to address questions such as when, where, and who has defined authoritative and authentic religion in China, and how the “authoritative” religion has interacted and integrated with “sub-authoritative” and “non-authoritative” traditions. By investigating these sites, researchers in this cluster will seek to realign the narrative of the history of Chinese religion with traditional Chinese state religion, which has been largely disregarded by contemporary traditions-based definitions of religion in China (e.g., Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism).

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2.2: “Secondary” Producers, “Primary” Roles

The field visits of Cluster 2.2 were designed to focus on investigating the “primary” roles that “secondary” producers—Khitans, Jurchens, Koreans and Japanese—played in transmitting, editing, venerating and preserving Buddhist literature in Chinese during the medieval period in East Asia (ca. 10th – 15th centuries). Participants in each cluster workshop addressed two research questions: (1) what roles did editors, scribes, translators, and readers play in canon-making of Buddhist literature in Chinese, and (2) how did non-religious factors shape this process?

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2.3: Continuous revelations

How do we map out and interpret the enormous and ever-expanding traditions of authoritative texts produced via revelation practices (e.g. spirit-writing)? The mechanisms by which new texts are actually created and legitimated as a cultural process–rather than reinterpreting old texts through written and oral commentaries–has not yet received much academic attention. Most attention goes to the texts themselves, and although apocrypha are now recognized as valuable objects of study, the creative processes behind them are still little understood. This cluster focuses on the processes rather than the contents of such new religious texts.

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2.5: From the Canonical to Post-Canonical

The cluster plans to investigate sites related to the topic of studying the transition from studying canonical scriptures primarily indexed and cataloged in the Taishō Era Buddhist Canon to an era of post-canonical analysis of high-definition digital editions of old Japanese manuscripts, rare printed materials—especially commentaries—in Korea, and stone-cut editions of canonical Buddhist texts preserved on the continent in Korea and China.

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Research Program 3:  Text vs Image   

In addition to analyzing written materials, our project will investigate the creation, reception, and circulation of diverse visual sources and their complex relationship with the written word. Some artefacts resist clear categorization as text or image. For example, the study of Buddhist scriptures carved into cliff faces, which at some sites seem to have functioned in much the same way as rock-carved images do, has revealed how blurred the line can be between text and image. In many instances, books and images were created within mutually dependent circumstances leaving no clear demarcation where the text ends and an image (or images, particularly within ritual spaces) begins. When scholars privilege canonical religious literature, texts can erroneously be perceived to be primary, and images, therefore, to be secondary. Thus, while scholars have typically studied religious images as illustrative revelations of well-known (usually canonical, so-called seminal) texts, recently discovered manuscripts raise the possibility that, instead, the need to provide a scriptural source for artistic or ritual representations (e.g., maṇḍalas) spurred the manufacturing of particular documents. Another reason why adhering to the boundaries set by canonicity can lead to fallacious interpretations of East Asian religious literature and practice is the fact that in most cases in the premodern period, texts needed to function through images since devotees were illiterate and interacted with images, not texts. Given the considerable weight canonical literature awards received commentarial traditions within East Asian Buddhism and Daoism, our project seeks to reinterpret the practice of annotation by images, showing normative instances when and where texts are illegible—or make no sense—without images. Recently discovered images and texts (even canons) inscribed into rocks will receive special attention precisely because these donative acts by real people show how texts cum images were utilized in ways that transcended the firmly-established categories of art and text. Despite the oft-repeated claim that culture in East Asia is book-centered, images are a medium that conveys meanings or messages as profoundly as any text. Our project will pay special attention to examples where texts and images are mutually convertible, such as dhāraṇīs (spells) inscribed in commonly unintelligible scripts for average East Asian monastics or lay people, within the Daoist, Buddhist, and Japanese Shintō traditions.

Participants in Program Three (P3) will focus on these on the ground issues in the close study of sources that straddle the borders between text and image. These will include religious statues that conceal texts, images, and relics, in addition to sacred scripts that probably appeared to be singularly unique symbols and icons to premodern East Asian people, such as Daoist talismans and the varied forms of the Sanskrit syllabary widely used in esoteric objects. Buddhist cliff scriptures and inscriptions on images will also receive careful attention because they represent a point of contact and sponsorship that transcends social, economic, and ethnic boundaries as well as illusory borders that seem to separate religious traditions when scholars too closely abide by received, canonical literature in print. Scriptures and images carved into stone—in addition to spaces where images and texts are only mutually intelligible—compel scholars to reassess sacrosanct chronologies or timelines that monastic bibliographers (and editors) have tried very hard to refine to bolster ostensibly authoritative sectarian, political, or institutional claims.

This research program is supported by the following clusters:

3.1. Dunhuang “Transformation Tableaux”

The cluster “Transformation Tableaux” examines the connection between so-called transformation texts and transformation tableaux found in Dunhuang. A central aim of the project is to bring together text and image, and document their use in a ritual context, thereby shifting the focus from manuscripts and art objects to why, how and by whom they were produced. An equally important aspect is to situate the relevant Dunhuang material in the wider cultural and religious currents of the Silk Road region.

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3.2. Historical Reality through the Reflections between Image and Text

Research for this cluster is primarily concerned with several extant caves from the Northern Dynasties period in Hebei and Henan provinces where sūtras were carved and images with inscriptions remain. For the purpose of propagation or preservation of Buddhist texts, at least in the mid-sixth century, Chinese Buddhist monks and laypeople started to carve texts (usually accompanied by Buddhist images) on the stone in grottoes and monasteries. These stone carving materials not only provide the earliest version of many sutras but also allow scholars to study the history of the practice and transmission of the Buddhist schools in Medieval China.

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3.3. Texts in Statues

The main goals of the “Texts in Statues” cluster are to identify, catalogue, and study all statues from China, Korea, and Japan with manuscripts and texts that have been interred inside of them. Included in the scope of this project will be statues in situ in Asia as well as those in museums in Asia or abroad. Researchers in each area will be charged with compiling an annotated bibliography of:

1) Primary sources (canonical and extra-canonical) that describe the interment of material inside of statues;
2) Academic studies of known statues containing manuscripts and texts; and
3) Mentions of the interment of texts in other historical or literary sources.

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3.4. Typologies of Text and Image Relations (Cliffs/Caves)

This cluster will investigate the development of specific patterns of text-image relations in East Asian Buddhist iconography, with a focus on Chinese sites but if possible also including data from Korea and Japan. We attempt to analyze how textual and visual media interact with (and reference to) each other and how Buddhist themes were programmatically arranged in cliff and cave sites, and how these arrangements were related to ritual uses and accommodated specific religious (and possibly other) needs/purposes in the local environments.

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North China Mural Survey

The photographs in this collection were taken by Hannibal Taubes (Berkeley) over the course of multiple research-documentation trips, most importantly during the calendar year of 2018 spent in the field. The objective of the 2018 survey was to document little-known and at-risk murals in rural north China, mostly in northern Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanxi provinces. Roughly half of the images in this collection come from Yu County (Yu xian 蔚縣) in northern-western Hebei province, an area in which the early-modern rural landscape of fortified settlements, domestic architecture, temples, opera stages, and murals is extraordinarily well preserved. The survey area was chosen to overlap with the regions studied by the Belgian scholar Willem Grootaers (1911-1999) in the 1930s-40s, so that the extant murals and inscriptions could be compared against detailed pre-Communist surveys of rural antiquities.

Although older and newer images and objects sometimes appear in the photographs, this collection is principally focused on the visual culture of the Ming, Qing, and Republican periods (1368-1949 CE), an era marked by rich but distinctly sub-elite traditions of secular and religious mural painting. The majority of these murals are found on the walls of religious buildings (temples, cave shrines, monasteries, Daoist abbeys, ancestral halls, mosques, etc.), but the collection also includes large numbers of rural opera-stage paintings and graffiti, as well as a few private house-murals. The textual site descriptions represent the extent of the author’s understanding at the time of writing.

All of these images were taken by a lone foreigner with a hand-held camera and little institutional access. Thus the collection for the most part consists of photographs of little-known sites in the countryside, rather than ‘famous’ or state-protected sites where photography is forbidden. Some of the sites are endangered, and a few have been looted since the photographs were taken. Chinese temple halls are often dark and narrow buildings with paintings set high in the rafters; the viewer should be aware that many of the full-wall mural images in this collection were created by digitally merging multiple overlapping photographs, a process that often results in distortions and small inconsistencies.

View the North China Mural Survey in the Frogbear Database of Religious Sites.