“Book Culture in Buddhism and Beyond” Lecture Series: The Most Popular Buddhist Book Printed in Ming Beijing circa 1450

Speaker: Prof. Shih-shan Susan Huang (Rice University)

Date and time: Tuesday, May 7, 2024, 14:00 (London)

Location: Runcie Room, Faculty of Divinity (Sidgwick Site, Cambridge, CB3 9DP)


Abstract: The 1450s represent a landmark decade for the history of the book and print culture. In Christian Europe, Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible, the first moveable-type book, is rightfully celebrated, but often mistakenly described as the beginning of printing worldwide. Mistakenly, because in Beijing, at the very same time, an indigenous Chinese Buddhist book, the Dharani Sutra of the Buddha’s Essence (Fodingxin tuoluoni jing佛頂心陀羅尼經), was becoming the most popular illustrated Buddhist book in print; and it was printed, often on-demand, using a woodblock printing technology that had been in use in East Asia already for centuries. The text represents a melding of cultural traditions and beliefs, integrating a long-standing devotion to the compassionate bodhisattva Guanyin 觀音 (Avalokiteśvara), elements of talismanic culture, and common popular beliefs. Women and their families hoping for a baby boy or fearing childbirth’s dangers formed a large and mainstream audience. This is evident in the donors’ prayers, the illustrations highlighting women’s anxiety related to pregnancy and childbirth, as well as talismanic Esoteric Script Seals (mizi yin 秘字印) at the end of the text that claimed to be “efficacious in rescuing [a woman] from difficulties in childbirth” (neng jiu chan’nan 能救產難).”


Speaker: Shih-shan Susan Huang (Ph.D., History of Art, Yale) is an Associate Professor at Rice University’s newly-founded Department of Transnational Asian Studies. Her current research focuses on the 10th-to-14th-century Daoist and Buddhist visual culture in China. Prior to joining the Rice faculty, she taught at the University of Washington, Seattle, and was a Mellon Post- Doctoral Fellow at Columbia University. Her dissertation The Triptych of Taoist Deities of Heaven, Earth, and Water and the Making of Visual Culture in the Southern Song China (1127-1279) has been awarded the Blanshard Prize at Yale University. Her articles appeared in peer-reviewed journals as Artibus Asiae, Ars Orientalis, Journal of Daoist Studies, Palace Museum Research Quarterly, the Zhejiang University Journal of Art and Archaeology, and others.

Her book, Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China (Harvard Asian Center, 2012), translated into Chinese by Dr. Zhu Yiwen, was published by Zhejiang University Press in 2022. She co-edited Visual and Material Cultures of the Middle Period China with Patricia Ebrey (Brill, 2017). Her recent articles explore Song-to-Ming book art of the Lotus Sutra and Diamond Sutra, Buddhist printing under Tangut Xi Xia rule, and painting and printing connections.

Huang’s new monograph, The Dynamic Spread of Buddhist Print Culture: Mapping Buddhist Book Roads in China and its Neighbors, forthcoming in the Brill series Crossroads – History of Interaction across the Silk Routes, examines printed images and texts as objects “on the move”, as they were transmitted along networks and book roads in a transnational context. For more information, visit https://shihshansusanhuang.com


“Book Culture in Buddhism and Beyond” Lecture Series:

This new lecture series, launching in Michaelmas Term 2023, features talks on writing and publishing in the Buddhist tradition and in related religious and cultural spheres. Lectures in this series offer insights into the various ways in which writing and printing has been shaping Buddhism, as well as the multifaceted impact of Buddhism on book culture in East Asia, past, present, and future.


Registration is not required. The lectures are free and open to scholars, students, and the public.

Please note: all events take place in person at the University of Cambridge. Exact times and location will be circulated via email and posted on the webpage of Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

This lecture series is organised by Dr Noga Ganany (ng462@cam.ac.uk) in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge with the generous support of the Glorisun Global Network.


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