Wen-shing Chou: "Taming Nature on Mount Wutai: Buddhist Visions of an Earthly Paradise"

Monday December 5th 2022, 5:00 - 6:30PM
Stanford East Asia Library, Rm 224
Online via Zoom

Please register in advance for both in-person and Zoom attendance.

For as long as the sacred mountain range of Mount Wutai in northern China has been a famed international pilgrimage destination, its pictures have circulated across the Buddhist world, serving as souvenir, guide, and surrogate for the mountain. Surviving examples from the ninth century onward have attracted much scholarly decipherment for their mediation of a thriving pilgrimage and devotional culture. But what has been ignored is a conspicuous lack of pictorial attention towards the landscape of the mountain itself. This lecture rethinks the place of “nature” among pictures of Mount Wutai. By bringing to the fore a visual narrative that celebrates the subjugation of natural forces and the transformation of natural resources, Prof. Chou explores alternative ways to understand the relationship between ecology and sacred geography.


Wen-shing Chou specializes in art of China and Inner Asia. Chou holds a BA in Art History from the University of Chicago, and a MA and PhD in History of Art from the University of California, Berkeley. Her 2018 book Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain (Princeton University Press) won Honorable Mention for the Joseph Levenson Prize (China Pre-1900) from the Association for Asian Studies. Chou’s research has been supported by the Mellon fellowship and membership of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Ittleson Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and the Metropolitan Center for Far Eastern Art Studies, Kyoto. Her articles have appeared in The Art Bulletin, the Journal of Asian Studies, the Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, and the Archives of Asian Art.

Chou is currently co-editing and co-curating C.C. Wang: Lines of Abstraction (Hirmer Verlag, 2023) on the artistic experimentations of twentieth century’s preeminent connoisseur and collector of Chinese art. The exhibition and publication are carried out in collaboration with Daniel Greenberg (University of Minnesota) and students at Hunter College and the University of Minnesota. Chou’s second book-in-progress, Shaping Time: Art of Rebirth in China and Inner Asia, explores the visual and material culture of reincarnation within the Gelukpa sphere of influence from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.


This lecture is part of the Stanford Global Research Workshop 2022–23:

"Global Approaches to Sacred Space"

This series shines a spotlight on the diverse instantiations of sacred space across time and geographies and addresses its many-layered contestations. In the past, sacred space was considered an insulated place of the metaphysical. A renewed engagement with the concept reveals that these are sites of cultural production that have an immediate effect on the outside world and politics. Sacred Spaces and their constituent factors are active in producing identity, memory, sensual experience, and knowledge that tie together the spiritual with the social.

Sacred spaces can encompass theories of post-humanisms, especially in culturally related landscapes, topographies, and cosmologies that initiate the sacred from outside of the anthropocentric. World heritage programs, conservation, and political negotiations factor in the life of sacred sites, challenging us to consider both the material shells and the intangible aspects of cultural production. In some extreme cases, sacred spaces have completely transformed through desacralization, desecration, and resacralization. Time tends to adhere to them, enabling a long durée of ancient, medieval, colonial, modern, and post-colonial. The study of sacred spaces demands global and interdisciplinary approaches. Transformative methodologies and practices, both traditional and innovative, include archaeology, archaeoacoustics, archeoastronomy, architecture, art history, artists and practitioners, music, anthropology, cult and community, digital and film media, design, engineering, geography, history, literature, poetry, sociology and cultural heritage and human rights.

Faculty lead: Bissera V. Pentcheva bissera [at] stanford.edu (bissera[at]stanford[dot]edu)

Graduate organizer: Maria Shevelkina mashev [at] stanford.edu (mashev[at]stanford[dot]edu)


"Global Approaches to Sacred Space" is generously funded as part of the Stanford Global Studies Global Research Workshop series with further support from the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, the Department of Religious Studies, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis.