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Between Culture and Nature: Cave Temples of Sichuan

Sonya S. Lee, University of Southern California
Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2011–2012

Cave temples are a unique architectural form that changes a natural formation, such as a mountain cliff face or a large boulder, into a place for religious activities through the installation of pictorial images and other artifacts. The relative distance of these structures from urban centers and the use of durable material for their construction and decoration have allowed them to endure for centuries. As hybrid spaces that are at once natural and artificial, cave temples are an ideal means by which to explore the complex relationship between art and the environment. This project focuses on specimens from the southwestern province of Sichuan (including the Chongqing municipality) in China. The choice of subject highlights a region rich in its engagement with nature since antiquity, as evident in the local history of artistic practices, land use, social institutions, politics, religious beliefs, and technological development. It also supplies a well-defined body of materials and historical conditions for developing an earth-centered approach to art-historical issues, which I term “eco–art history.”


The Maitreya Buddha, early eighth–early ninth century, Leshan, Sichuan. Author photograph

Like ecocriticism in literary studies, eco–art history is based on the fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it even as it is affected by it. But more than ecocriticism, eco–art history deals with this interconnectedness not only through issues of representation but also in terms of the role the physical setting plays in defining the function and meaning of a work. Thus it is necessary to set aside the object/author-centered approach—a hallmark of art history since the discipline’s inception—and shift the critical focus to the space around the object. This reorientation is in many ways akin to adding another layer around the discursive space that one would formulate in social art history; the main difference is that this new layer of space pertains to the ecosphere rather than the social sphere. In short, cave-temple-based eco–art history builds on social art history and at the same time extends beyond it.

Sites in Sichuan illuminate key aspects of eco–art history. The analysis of these examples in turn helps explicate features that are unique to the cave-building tradition in southwest China. Of particular relevance is the use of monumental sculpture on the exterior to define the visual interests of a site, a practice that has been prevalent in the region since the seventh century. The carving of any large-scale religious icons along cliff faces requires not only tremendous resources and technological knowledge but also sensitivity to the physical properties of the land as well as its cultural appropriations by inhabitants in earlier times. Because the Sichuan cave temples were created out of a landscape with a complex prehistory of geological and human activities, it is crucial to examine the way in which each site was conceived and materialized in relation to this habitat. As each cave temple evolved in its setting over time, it is equally important to scrutinize the different stages at which this altered landscape came to reshape the values and worldview of its later users through reconstruction, preservation, and visitation. The dual focus on the mutual impact of the environment and the cave temple lies at the heart of an eco-art-historical inquiry, for it aims to stress the remarkable continuity of certain concepts and practices from past to present.

To fully engage the ecological approach to the cave temples of Sichuan, my book is organized into three parts (each consisting of two chapters and each dealing with a central aspect of the geography and climate of the region: rivers, rainfall, mountains). While at CASVA, I have worked on the first part, which investigates the decisive role that the Yangzi River and its tributaries assumed in shaping the distribution and function of Buddhist cave temples and other religious establishments in Sichuan. The seventy-meter-tall Maitreya Buddha at Leshan, the main subject of my CASVA colloquium, is the focus of the first chapter of the book, in which I account for the rise of monumental statuary in the eighth and ninth centuries in relation to a prehistory of monumental undertakings along the Min River as marked by water-control systems and cliffside tombs. As a thematic counterpart to the creation of the Leshan Buddha, the second chapter examines the later reception of Sichuan’s riverscapes through a discussion of two painted handscrolls from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the Freer Gallery of Art. Significantly, one scroll contains visual records of Leshan and other temple complexes nearby, which have allowed me to explore changes in the sacred and cultural geography of Sichuan during the Song period and afterward.