The Poetics of Displacement: An 18th-Century Geography of Buddhist Images
Patricia Berger - Associate Professor and Chair, History of Art, University of California, Berkeley
An image of the Gelugpa founder Tsongkhapa, cast in the exotic astadhatu alloy in 1781 as a copy of a golden image sent to the Qing court by the Panchen Lama speaks to the claim that Buddhist images gain power through displacement, by representing what is elsewhere or even nowhere. In the 18th-century Qing court in Beijing and even in China’s southern cities, Buddhist images of foreign make, exotic manufacture, or mysterious, self-generated origin figured in a self-conscious connoisseurial culture that asked where they had been made and when. The flood of images from Tibet and Mongolia deluging the Qing court as gifts required new classificatory systems, largely borrowed from Tibet, that emphasized centers of production and the localized nature of materials, particularly previously unknown metal alloys, such as the eight-body astadhatu. The technical aspects of Central Asian image-making dominated discussions of Buddhist imagery in the high Qing, whether in Beijing or in Yangzhou, where formulas for exotic materials were eagerly solicited. At the same time, the Qianlong emperor, among others, countered pragmatic chemistry with poetic responses that also emphasized displacement and distance, understanding that exotic materials could powerfully evoke other places and times and that they could also produce an alternative geography of the Buddhist world.