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 4 of 5 (pp. 382-383)

Encountering the Holy

The location of the sacred is ostensibly at the heart of this comparison. Conforming to the map’s Tibetan inscriptions and adhering to the Tibetan Buddhist artistic tradition of tangkathang ka-making, the Wutai shan of the Rubin print serves instead as an icon of veneration. While remaining faithful to its original narratives and iconography, it obscures the print’s obvious Mongolian heritage and what is happening “on the ground” at Wutai shan. Its lack of colophon and traces of usage erase all signs of its material and authorial presence. Its coherent, cohesive and structurally cogent space reinforces the vision of the Wutai shan landscape as an icon, timeless, ethereal, and devoid of earthly contexts.

The Helsinki version, meanwhile, highlights the impenetrable mountain of miracles and wonders in a way that isn’t always in consonance with the stated Tibetan inscriptions, but one that still reflects and reinforces popular beliefs and contemporary understandings. The painting of Wutai shan in the genre of popular folk prints, the emphasis on Mongolian authorship and location, and the well-worn quality of a pilgrimage guide all suggest a vision of Wutai shan not so different from that held by the majority of Mongolian pilgrims described in Charleux’s study – the ordinary Mongol laity whose peregrinations bring about as many miraculous benefits as they do economic opportunities.23 This “earthly” quality of the Helsinki print by no means diminishes its sacredness in the eyes of its beholder. In fact, it is exactly its ability to highlight and discern Wutai shan as a lived tradition of folklores and pilgrimage activities that gives the map its aura of authenticity. That authenticity and tangibility is also what makes Wutai shan sacred.

While it is beyond the scope of this paper to address what exactly account for this difference, some obvious speculations can still be made. Even though the location and traditions of the mediating agents played a central role in shaping the final product, cultural categories such as “Tibetan” or “Mongolian” do not satisfy the requirement for the definition of difference. The particular concerns expressed do, however. The Helsinki print, which was purchased in the so-called Beijing Shop in Urga (modern-day Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), was probably colored in Mongolia, if not actually manufactured in China for a Mongolian audience;24 it speaks to an audience whose travels to the actual Wutai mountain range is arduous but not infrequent. Unlike their learned monastic counterpart, they might not be sufficiently trained in Tibetan to read its inscriptions on the map, resulting in the freedom or reinterpretations discussed earlier. Meanwhile, the painting styles of the Rubin print point to the possibility that the print had traveled to Tibet, or at [page 383] least been colored and mounted for a Tibetan audience. If this were true, it would also give rise to the possibility that the image was seen as a surrogate of Wutai shan by Tibetans who could not travel there. In other words, seeing the image served to bring them closer to a semi-mythical Wutai shan that exists only in verbal and textual descriptions.25

Much of this difference can be observed from the afterlives of the images themselves. While the Rubin copy is mounted with elaborate brocades, and probably hung as a tangkathang ka painting from the time it was first printed and colored, the Helsinki copy exhibits multiple traces of creases, indicating that it was folded up for prolonged periods. As suggested by Charleux, it was possibly stored in a pilgrim’s amulet.26 This perceived distinction suggest different uses for the map, one as an image of the holy mountain to be worshiped and admired, and the other as a guide for actual pilgrimages.

Regardless of what the differently colored images of Wutai shan offer to its viewers, every map reflects and continues to reconfigure Wutai shan. Given how spread out, decentered, and untraversable parts of the mountain range of Wutai are, a picture with a complete description of all the sites can function as a surrogate for a pilgrimage more complete than one taken to Wutai shan itself. In this sense, every varying picture of Wutai shan is accurate and true. Even if the viewer of the map had the once-in-a-life-time opportunity to take a pilgrimage to Wutai shan, the picture’s completeness would be reassuring to the viewer who still wishes to “remember” the entirety of Wutai shan’s numinous traces without having visited all the sites or encountered visions. It has been suggested that the practice of hand coloring woodblock prints in medieval Europe both ensured consistency in Christ’s imagery and left devotees with the freedom to personalize and record private devotional practices.27 The Cifu Temple image might not have been made as an act of contemplation but it could very well have been used for that purpose. Thus, as is the case with some medieval Christian woodblock prints, the act of coloring seems to have been a crucial step not only in the interpretation of the Cifu Temple image, but also in enhancing its immediacy to the persons encountering that image. For both the makers and the viewers, the vision of Wutai shan would not have been wholly present and palpable without color. If the medium of woodblock printing renders Mañjuśrī’s worldly abode authentic, the process of coloring is what makes the reality fully manifest.28

[23] Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages,” 8-10, 12-16.
[24] Halen, Mirrors of the Void, 3. Painters from Wutai shan also traveled to Urga frequently at the end of the nineteenth century. See A. M. Pozdneyev, Mongolia and the Mongols (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1971): 69.
[25] This is attested to in the inscriptions as well. See Chou, “Ineffable Paths,” 114.
[26] Personal communication.
[27] David S. Areford, “The Image in the Viewer’s Hands: The Reception of Early Prints in Europe,” Studies in Iconography 24 (2003), 5-42.
[28] For the role of woodblock printing in the dissemination of the Cifu Temple image, see Chou, “Ineffable Paths,” 114.

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 ).