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Subproject B6

Confession Rituals in Chinese Buddhist Cave Temples in the 6th to 8th Century
Elements of the Chinese Death Ritual

Department and Research Field: East Asian Art History

Subproject Management

Prof. Dr. Lothar Ledderose

Institute of Art History
Department of East Asia
Hauptstrasse 113
69117 Heidelberg

Phone: +49 (0) 6221 - 54 23 50
Fax: +49 (0) 6221 - 54 33 84


Dr. Petra Rösch
resigned Apr 30, 2007

Dr. Dinah Jung

Chen Liang M.A.

Project Program

A combination of art-historical / archeological research including field studies on modern ritual practice

Part I: Confession rituals in Chinese Buddhist cave temples from the 6th to 8th century
(Dr. Petra Rösch; since August 2009 in collaboration with the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne)

Beyond providing a systematic treatment of so-far only rudimentarily explored cave temples, subproject B6 will also break new grounds with its methodology. We will combine buddhological, text-exegetical approaches with art-historical and in particular iconographical and iconological methods. Furthermore, we will interpret texts as aniconic images regarding their localization in space. Researching the cave temples, we hence strive to investigate the entire visual evidence concerning the development and dynamics of confession rituals.

We selected eight cave temples engraved with Buddha names and descriptive or performative confessional texts. Already the position and emphasis in the spatial arrangement and the number of Buddha names are changing between the 6th and 8th century as do the caves’ architecture, the selection of engraved texts and the iconic images. A typology of the cave temples will allow us to reveal the development of and changes in the confession ritual, as they become apparent through the visual evidence. We will examine the evidence according to the iconological interpretation and the historical and religious conditions of the 6th to 8th century.

Our underlying hypothesis assumes that the changing of the rituals was accelerated by the fear of the apocalyptic end of time and the anticipated complete extinction of the Buddhist law. Other factors are the historic circumstances of the Northern Chinese civil war and subsequent reunification of the empires under the Sui dynasty.

We aim to elaborate when the confession ritual of monks was expanded to include laymen and this expansion’s consequences for ritual dynamics. Furthermore, we will investigate which Buddhist doctrines influenced the confession ritual performed at the cave temples.

We will hence not only research ritual transfer from HÍnayÁna to MahÁyÁna Buddhism, but also its geographical aspect: from India to China and within China from North to South, using cave no. 8 as an exemplary case.

When examining the dynamics of the confession ritual at the Chinese Buddhist cave temples, we will consider three different factors:
•    the historical factor (civil war, reunification),
•    the structural factor (changing of the ritual space), and
•    the social factor (monk and laymen communities).

Part II: Olfactory elements in the Chinese death ritual (since August 2009)
This part concentrates on the use of olfactory substances in the Chinese death ritual. The research has two separate, but intertwined aspects, which complement and elucidate each other.

Aspect: Art History/ Archeology (Chen Liang M.A.)
The research under the aspect of art history and archeology examines on the liminal space between the sphere of the living and the final, subterraneous burial site. Through the analysis of written records as well as archeological excavation reports, graves sites, particularly from the Han Dynasty, are investigated in order to determine where and when incense and similar substances were used during the rituals.
Anthropological Aspects (Dr. Dinah Jung)
The second part of the project deals with aesthetics and anthropology, focusing on olfactory substances in contemporary ritual in China and its surrounding diaspora communities. Special attention is given to the West and Southeast Asian origin of perfumery materials, their artistic refinement and marketing, and their specific use in rituals.

Main Topics

- Confession and death rituals
- Ritual space
- Materiality