Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Maps of Wutai Shan
Wen-shing Chou, Hunter College, City University of New York
JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5713, pp. 372-388
Section 2 of 5 (pp. 375-376)

Making Space

Figure 3: Temples in the Taihuai village, Panoramic View of Wutai Shan, Rubin Museum of Art.

A vibrant green color commonly found in Tibetan landscape paintings saturates the Rubin print. Semi-transparent layers of paint are applied to articulate the shape of the mountain that the thickly engraved lines could only suggest. Walls, beams, and pillars of the temples are consistently painted in red, while the roofs are in blue, with the exception of Pusa Ding, the largest temple in the center of the print, donned in golden roof tiles. Wutai shan’s lush mountain landscape is distinctively juxtaposed with the azurite blue of the sky behind. The contour of the five terraces is further accentuated by a ring of clouds, which are painted first with a bright and opaque white, and then traced in detail with colored outlines. The same technique is also employed to illuminate cloudborne apparitions, the large white stupa on the middle lower portion of the map, and the [page 376] heads of human figures. In contrast to all other semi-transparent layers of pigments on the darkened linen, the opaque white ink remains the only bright color that frames the entire landscape when viewed from afar. The uniformity and consistency of the color application, along with the unyielding cloud formations, presents the composition as a structurally cohesive whole, while the modeling of the hills gives volume and depth to the landscape, creating an openly traversable landscape.

The coloring in the Helsinki print follows a different convention. The print is colored in an abundance of pink, violet, blue, yellow, and dark green colors reminiscent of the popular New Year woodblock prints (nianhua) of the Shanxi region.10 But unlike the popular Shanxi prints, the negative spaces are densely filled with color, including the space between the heading and the landscape’s horizon.11 In addition, printed characters, such as those for sun (ri) and moon (yue) at the top of the print, were traced over in a stiff calligraphic style. In contrast to the hyper-coloring of the upper register, a great deal of looseness characterizes the shading of the flora and fauna below. While most of the hills are left unpainted save for a few strokes of olive green and magenta, the buildings are intensely filled in with ultramarine blue, magenta red, and golden yellow, the trees, with heavy olive green, and the clouds with rosy pink. As a result, the dense sky, temples, trees, and clouds, all rest on some sort of spaceless space, supported only by monochrome lines of engraving. There is neither any sense of how one part of the mountain relates to another spatially, nor how its shape or volume could hold up any of its painted landmarks. Unlike in the Rubin print, the space seems flat and closed here; because of its refusal to give any hint of topographical depth, a viewer who seeks to enter the space will find herself lost in the mire of holy sites and visions, unable to navigate out of their undifferentiated landscape.

The making of space at Wutai shan is not the only task to be completed by the process of coloring. Colors, which play a primary role in the pictorial vocabulary and iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, also determine much of the maps’ content. By comparing the narratives and iconography in the two prints, we discover that even the characters and stories in Wutai shan’s past are remembered quite differently, from print to print.

[10] For scholarship on popular woodblock prints, see Wang Shucun, ed., Zhongguo gudai minsu banhua [Popular Prints of Pre-modern China] (Beijing: Xin shijie, 1992); Po Sungnien and David Johnson, Domesticated, Deities and Auspicious Emblems: The Iconography of Everyday Life in Village China. Publications of the Chinese Popular Culture Project, no. 2 (Berkeley: Chinese Popular Culture Project, 1992)
[11] This is a full application of paint rarely seen in the Chinese tradition of landscape prints, which is generally more sparing with their use of colors and more nuanced with the spread of ink washes.

Note Citation for Page

Wen-shing Chou, “Maps of Wutai Shan: Individuating the Sacred Landscape through Color,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5713 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Wen-shing Chou, “Maps of Wutai Shan: Individuating the Sacred Landscape through Color,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 372-388, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5713 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Chou, Wen-shing. “Maps of Wutai Shan: Individuating the Sacred Landscape through Color.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 372-388. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5713 (accessed ).