The Alchemy of Ritual Architecture in Early Buddhist Asia

Speaker: Tracy Miller
Venue: Hosted via Zoom
Date & Time:
2022-3-4 | 21:00-22:30 (Shanghai)
2022-3-4 | 8:00-9:30 (New York)
2022-3-4 | 17:00-18:30 (Abu Dhabi)
2022-3-4 | 7:00-8:30 (Nashville)

Although miao 廟, ta 塔, and si 寺 were all used to describe early Buddhist architecture in China, one of the first ritual spaces for the Buddha was a huagai 華蓋, literally a “foliate canopy” or “flourishing cover.” Similar to the central element in “Domes of Heaven” across Buddhist Asia, the floral shape of which is believed to derive from Western divisions of the circle, the huagai in the Chinese context predates other evidence of specifically Buddhist influence. But if the “foliate canopy” was not the result of the adoption of a new spiritual tradition, why incorporate this alternative celestial geometry into the Sinitic world view?

By examining the iconographic elements of crowning structures across Asia during the early centuries BCE-CE, this paper will show how ornamental canopies were expected to provide more than decorative shelter. Rather, they were conceived as necessary to create an appropriate atmosphere for the alchemical transformation of natural substances—from mined ore to the human body. Focusing on empirical observation over sectarian ideology, I argue that technologies of containment transmitted along the silk and incense routes from West Asia to China fueled the acceptance of alternative cosmologies and resulted in stylistically different, but functionally similar, ritual architectures.

Tracy Miller is Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Asian Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her research specialization is medieval Chinese ritual architecture and sacred landscapes. She holds an interdisciplinary MA (1996) and PhD (2000) from the University of Pennsylvania in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (emphasis: China). She has published The Divine Nature of Power: Chinese Ritual Architecture at the Sacred Site of Jinci (Harvard Asia Center, 2007), and articles in major art history and interdisciplinary journals including The Art Bulletin, Archives of Asian Art, Tang Studies, and Artibus Asiae. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the use of generative design strategies in the creation of ritual architecture in Medieval China. Additionally, working with colleagues globally (including at NYU Shanghai), she helped launch the ATTCAT (Annotation and Translation of Traditional Chinese Architecture Terminology) Project, published through ArchitecturaSinica.org, the first publicly accessible research database of traditional Chinese architecture and architecture terminology. At Vanderbilt she teaches courses on the history of art and architecture across Asia.

Introduction by Lala Zuo, Associate Professor of Art History at NYU Shanghai.

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