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Of Palaces and Pagodas: Palatial Symbolism in the Buddhist Architecture of Early Medieval China

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image of Frontiers of History in China

This paper is an inquiry into possible motivations for representing timber-frame architecture in the Buddhist context. By comparing the architectural language of early Buddhist narrative panels and cave temples rendered in stone, I suggest that architectural representation was employed in both masonry and timber to create symbolically charged worship spaces. The replication and multiplication of palace forms on cave walls, in “pagodas” (futu 浮圖, fotu 佛圖, or ta 塔), and as the crowning element of free-standing pillars reflect a common desire to express and harness divine power, a desire that resulted in a wide variety of mountainous monuments in China. Finally, I provide evidence to suggest that the towering Buddhist monuments of early medieval China are linked morphologically and symbolically to the towering temples of South Asia through the use of both palace forms and sacred maṇḍalas as a means to express the divine power and expansive presence of the Buddha.


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