Lecture: Lessons on Ecology and Sustainability from Cave Temples of Sichuan (by Sonya Lee)

Date of event:   27/01/2022 − 27/01/2022

Title: Lessons on Ecology and Sustainability from Cave Temples of Sichuan
Lecturer: Sonya Lee (University of Southern California)
Format: Online over ZOOM
Date and time: 27 January 2022; 7:00 PM ET
Organized by: Dunhuang Foundation, Houston, TX, USA


The lecture will examine what the cave temples of Sichuan can teach us about ecology and sustainability. It will be 60 minutes long and include an additional 30 minutes for a Q&A session.

Cave temples are outstanding examples of art embedded in nature that have altered the landscape and have influenced the behaviors, values, and worldviews of users through multiple cycles of revival, restoration, and recreation. As hybrid spaces that are at once natural and artificial, they embody the interaction of art and the environment in the longue durée. In this talk, Sonya Lee will discuss how cave temples help bring Asian art history into dialogue with the current discourse on environmental issues and contribute to a new understanding of the ecological impact of cultural monuments. Focusing on the tradition in China’s southwestern region of Sichuan and Chongqing, she will explore how the natural setting has shaped the initial design of iconic sites such as Leshan and Baodingshan. The remarkable longevity of these places also makes it possible to consider their impact on the local community and surrounding landscape in later times. This expanded mode of historical inquiry––ecological art history in short––provides a more holistic perspective on issues of sustainability at cultural monuments. As cave temples evolved from religious centers to tourist destinations and protected heritage properties in the modern era, site managers, visitors, and restorers understood what they sought to maintain or add at these sites differently, having relied on disparate methods to achieve these goals.

Sonya Lee is Associate Professor of Chinese Art and Visual Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She is also the Director of the East Asian Studies Center at the university. A specialist in religious art and architecture of China and Central Asia, Dr. Lee has published widely on the Buddhist material culture in premodern times. She is the author of Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture (Hong Kong University Press) and Temples of the Cliffside: Buddhist Art of Sichuan (University of Washington Press). Dr. Lee has several ongoing research projects. One of them concerns climate change and burial practices during the Tang dynasty (618–906). This project will be the first to introduce an ecological perspective on the study of Chinese tombs by focusing on the use of plastered murals and sancai or three-colored ceramic sculptures. Another is a small-scale exhibition on the Silk Roads that is slated to open in the USC Doheny Memorial Library in the spring of 2022. It will feature thirty-some objects from the library’s Special Collections as well as from USC Pacific Asia Museum, UCLA Library Special Collections and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition will provide the faculty and students involved in this project a unique opportunity to reassess the topic’s history and contemporary relevance for a general audience. Dr. Lee received her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Chicago. She is the recipient of research fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Getty Foundation, Luce Foundation, Japan Foundation, Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, and American Council of Learned Societies.

For more information, please visit the website here.