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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 5.1 (2022): 201–245;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Text and Image & Buddhist Biography)

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Beetles and the Buddha: The Tamamushi Shrine, Smallpox, and Healing in Seventh-Century Japan

Yingxue WANG 王映雪
Harvard University

Abstract: Buddhism arrived in Japan around the same time as the onset of devastating epidemic outbreaks due to a newly transmitted contagious disease: smallpox. Created in an age plagued by fear and anxiety toward immature death in rampant epidemics, Buddhist artefacts can be conceived as powerful worldmaking devices that actively construct an alternative reality in which mortality and suffering can be transcended through devotional practices. This paper studies the seventh-century Tamamushi Shrine from the Hōryūji Temple in Nara Prefecture as an informative window into the healing functions performed by Buddhist artefacts and the intertwined early histories of Buddhism and smallpox epidemics. By situating the use of beetle wings within the healing and religious traditions of premodern East Asia, I will demonstrate that the unique visual and material properties of the beetle wings supply them with medical and magical efficacy. Their presence on the Tamamushi Shrine equips the artefact with the power to provide spaces of healing and hopes of salvation in seventh-century Japan where the newly introduced Buddhist religion and smallpox epidemics work in conjunction to transform lived experiences and inhabited worlds.

Keywords: Buddhism, smallpox, material culture, animal studies, colour


About the Author: Yingxue Wang 王映雪 is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. Her research examines early Buddhist material culture in seventh-century Japan by situating Japan in the inter-regional networks of social, technological, and ecological exchange in East Asia. The particular issues she has been investigating include the transmission of novel materials (such as aromatics and incense) and technologies (such as Chinese metallurgy and medicine); the role of nascent Buddhism in generating new ritual and sensory experiences in Japan; and the connections between Buddhist material culture and healing practices. Before her Ph.D., Yingxue completed her B.A. in Art History at Yale University, after which she studied at Harvard for her M.A. in Regional Studies: East Asia.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.