Sacred Crafts: Artisans and Buddhist Monasteries in China and Japan, 960-1368 AD

Project: Research

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During the Song (960–1276) and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, Buddhist monasteries in southeastern China continuously increased in both scale and wealth. Their influence reached as far as Japan. Artisans, although scarcely mentioned in official records, played a significant role in this process. The proposed research will focus on Chinese artisans associated with monasteries or the production of Buddhist objects during this period. Much of their work survives due to the sacred nature of their products, providing an invaluable opportunity to study the history of this underrepresented Chinese group. The project will reevaluate the position of artisans in social, religious, and economic realms and reveal their contribution to China-Japan Buddhist exchange between 960 and 1368 by investigating their interaction with multiple social classes and their transborder mobility.The proposed project will examine inscriptions on Buddhist architecture and objects and monastic records to study two main groups of Chinese artisans during the above period: carpenters and masons who constructed buildings for monasteries, and sculptors who manufactured Buddhist statues. The artisans’ ability to construct awe-inspiring religious architecture or wish-fulfilling ritual objects earned them a certain authority and redefined their relationship with their patrons, who ranged from royalty and court officials to impoverished but devout villagers. Monasteries attracted more patronage by possessing powerful ritual objects, and artisans contributed to the monastic economy by providing precisely such objects.During this period, artisans played a significant role in the robust Buddhist exchange between China and Japan. In the late twelfth century, a group of Chinese masons from the coastal city of Ningbo migrated to Japan. They participated in the most important project then, reconstructing the prestigious Tōdaiji monastery in Nara. One of the masons later adopted a Japanese name. His descendants inherited his Japanese clan name and masonry as their family profession, and transplanted certain Chinese art styles to Japan via their works. Their expertise was highly recognized by the Japanese authorities.By exploring the image of Chinese artisans in a religious setting, the proposed project will demonstrate that artisans played a more important role in Buddhist communities, local societies, and cultural exchange than previously recognized. Moreover, this study will advance our understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and materiality by shedding light on the people who provided craftsmanship. Craftsmanship embodied the power of religion, and the artisan’s skill and knowledge sometimes determined how certain Buddhist concepts were presented to believers. 


Project number9043254
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/22 → …