Cliff Notes: Text and Image at Baodingshan

Abstract: Cliff Notes

This dissertation takes as its focal point six tableaux found within Great Buddha Bend [Da fo wan] at the 12th-century Buddhist grotto site of Baodingshan, located within Dazu County in Sichuan Province. Carved over a period of seventy years under the direction of the monk Zhao Zhifeng [1160 – 1240 CE], this late Song dynasty site makes possible the study of a large Chinese Buddhist complex as one man’s singular vision.

Great Buddha Bend incorporates both narrative and iconic imagery, and encompasses a broad spectrum of Buddhist beliefs. The core research presented here entails a detailed analysis of the carved images and inscribed texts found in six large tableaux located on the north side of the grotto. The six are paired into three groups of two based upon location, and within the central three dissertation chapters, it is argued that their placement within the grotto as a whole was consciously done by the site’s creator, Zhao Zhifeng, in order to reinforce ritual programs and address traditional Chinese concerns related to filial piety and ancestor worship.

Framing this central discussion of the narrative tableaux at Baodingshan are two chapters devoted to theoretical and socio-historical issues.  Entitled “Narrative/Iconic” and “Text/Image”, these two chapters consider the carved works of Great Buddha Bend in the light of past sentiments as well as recent scholarship.  Elements from a variety of earlier theoretical studies are synthesized in order to best utilize them with regard to the Baodingshan works, highlighting the fluidity inherent in the use of both sets of terminology.  Ultimately, it is postulated that the site functioned on at least two different levels, one meant to educate and edify the twelfth-century worshippers, the other meant to protect and preserve the Buddhist faith through increasingly uncertain and difficult times.

Given the unusually large amounts of textual imagery found carved within Great Buddha Bend, blocks of texts not related to dedicatory inscriptions but mostly scriptural in content, this author contends that Zhao Zhifeng’s ultimate goal was to see the Buddhist faith through to the next kalpa, a need necessitated by the constant uncertainty of the Sichuan area in the late Southern Song.  Zhao’s utilization of the unique carved combination of text and image at Great Buddha Bend insured a future audience not dependent solely on either text or image. This approach allowed the tableaux at Baodingshan to educate a broad spectrum of worshippers over the centuries that followed, thereby also achieving the goal of preserving the Buddhist faith through the vicissitudes of the ensuing eras.

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