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March 3, 2015

17. Model Writing Samples from Hist 387 (posted with authors’ permission)

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1. Olivia McMonagle’s Book Review: Chinese Buddhist Art 

The book “Chinese Buddhist Art” by Patricia Karetzky addresses the circumstances that lead to Buddhism being assimilated into Chinese culture. The author discusses the political and cultural changes that occurred in China as aspects of Buddhism came to China. Karetzky shows how cultural and political practices already present in China were directly tied to the assimilation of Buddhism. The author Patricia Karetzky divides her book into sections detailing the origins of Buddhism and Buddhist art, stylistic evolution and techniques, iconographical themes, and the periods of Esoteric, Chan and popular Buddhism. Karetzky uses a survey of art and architecture development in China to show how Buddhist iconography evolved and reflected the cultural changes that occurred across China.

Accessing this book as a research source requires an understanding of the authors background and perspective as a writer. Patricia Karetzky writes from an intellectual and academic perspective. Karetzky has been a the “O. Munsterberg Chair of Asian Art at Bard College since 1988,” which shows a legitimacy of leadership and experience with Asian art in general. Karetzky was also a Professor of art history at Lechman College in New York, which shows her experience teaching to a Western audience from a Western perspective. Both her leadership and teaching experience show that Karetzky holds a reputation worthy of leadership positions in the Asian art history field.

The timing and publishing of “Chinese Buddhist Art” serves to indicate the context and possible uses of the book. The book was published by Oxford University Press, which shows its legitimacy as a scholarly work. The audience of the book could be determined by the publisher. As a scholarly source “Chinese Buddhist Art” is targeted to audiences in the academic field related to the books content. The book was published in 2002 which may indicate further a lack of new findings and research in the book’s content.

Indications of research by the author are a means to legitimize the thesis presented. The author uses an extensive glossary to prove an understanding of Chinese Buddhist terms. The bibliography separates Karetzky’s sources into three categories. The sources include “Scriptures, Buddhism in China, and Buddhist Art in China,” that all show a wide array of research surrounding the thesis presented. The author uses the scriptures to help the audience understand the sutras as writings of the Buddhist philosophy that originated in India, and was eventually brought to China. The sources about “Buddhism in China” show the development of politics and culture in China, and how Buddhism changed and assimilated to society in China. The sources relating to “Buddhist Art in China” serve to show the audience images of artworks in order to create a visual understanding of creative developments. The images and detailed descriptions of the works show changes in material, production techniques and iconographic styles. The visual understanding accompanied by contextual descriptions creates a clear understanding of the reasoning for these changes. Patricia Karetzky creates a clear picture of the background and evolution of Chinese Buddhist Art as a reflection of cultural and political changes in China.

In comparison to other sources similar to “Chinese Buddhist Art,” the book is concise in its survey of specific artistic and architectural works. Karetzky’s research encompasses the three areas of research concerning my research paper, but doesn’t serve as a primary visual source. For a broader visual understanding of the development of Chinese Buddhist Art, websites detailing museum exhibitions will show specific iconographical evidence to support my thesis.


2. Benjamin Henry’s report about the visit to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art;
Object selected: Surcoat with Scene of Sudhana (Sancai tongzi 善財童子) encountering Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音)

           The item I chose to write about was the Surcoat with Scene of Sudhana (Sancai tongzi 善財童子) encountering Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音). The description mentions that it is from the “early 20th century” but does not give any exact dates. It is likely from the very end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The coat is made from “black silk satin ground with polychrome silk”, and is covered in beautiful embroidery made from “metal-wrapped thread”. As mentioned in reference to the Daoist priest’s robe found on display next to this coat, the metal that wraps the embroidery thread is likely gold, as gold is the only material that would not only have the color, but also be pliable enough for use in intricate embroidery. The embroidery depicts a scene of a young boy, Sudhana, gazing with awe upon the bodhisattva Guanyin in a garden filled with small bridges and flowers such as peonies.

The coat itself is quite small, obviously fit for a young boy. I could only make conjectures as to the purpose of the coat; the boy who would wear it obviously was not a monk, as a monk’s robes would be far more humble than this extravagant work of art. It is likely then that the wearer was the son of a wealthy family that happened to be lay Buddhists, as monastic Buddhists could never justify the use of such an item, especially considering that its creation would have involved the suffering and death of many sentient beings (in this case, silkworms). That being said, it is possible that, despite its Buddhist iconography, the coat may have simply been worn during formal events, which may or may not have necessarily been Buddhist in nature.

Something I found especially fascinating about this item was the fact that it was merely dichromatic. Although I previously described it as “extravagant”, in comparison to all the other extremely colorful robes in the exhibit, this piece seems rather humble. This could be for a number of reasons, the two of which I can think of being that it is a Buddhist item and therefore was meant to carry some degree of humility, or that because it was meant for a child, the creator decided to not put as much effort into it since he would simply out grow it within a few years.

Another thing that caught my attention was the iconography of Guanyin and Sudhana. The scene very much reminded me of another scene in which Guanyin, appearing in the form of Princess Miao-shan, tours hell and looks upon the tortured souls there (Yü 2000). It was almost as if one could have shifted the background of the scene from a garden to hell, with the positions of Guanyin and Sudhana remaining the same, and it still would have made perfect sense, only Sudhana would be a tortured soul instead of just a boy. Perhaps this is due to Guanyin’s status as a savior from suffering, and thereby draws a parallel between the suffering of men on Earth and men in hell. After all, the first Noble Truth of Buddhism states that life (not just death) is suffering. If that is the case, then perhaps the artist wanted to note that Guanyin is a savior for all beings, regardless of whether they are suffering in hell or on Earth. Therefore, it is conceivable that the iconography in both situations could be extremely similar.

Bibliography: Yü, C. (2000). Princess Miao-shan. In Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara (p. 351). New York: Columbia University Press.



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