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Donors of Longmen is the first work in a Western language to recreate the history of the Longmen Grottoes, one of China's great stone sculpture treasure houses. Longmen, a UNESCO World Heritage site located near the old capital of Luoyang in modern Henan Province, consists of thousands of ancient cave chapels and shrines containing Buddhist icons of all sizes that were carved into the towering limestone cliffs from the fifth to the eighth century. Beyond its superb sculpture, Longmen also preserves thousands of engraved dedicatory inscriptions by its donors, who included emperors and empresses, aristocrats, court eunuchs, artisans, monks, nuns, lay societies, female palace officials, male civil and military officials, and ordinary lay believers.
Based on wide reading of both Asian and Western-language scholarship and careful analysis of the architecture, epigraphy, and iconography of the site, Amy McNair provides a rich and detailed examination of the dynamics of faith, politics, and money at Longmen, beginning with the inception of the site at Guyang Grotto in 493 and concluding with the last major dated project, the forty-eight Amitabhas added to the Great Vairocana Image Shrine in 730. Believers sponsored statues and cave shrines as public acts of giving (dâna) and merit (karma) to generate social credit in the political realm and karmic merit in the spiritual. Although donors' choices of icons reveal the changes in Buddhist religious concerns over the 250-year life of the site, the discussions of expenditure in the dedicatory inscriptions reveal not only how much was spent, but also the rhetoric appropriate to the donor's station in life, gender, and the intended audience. McNair argues that donors made conscious decisions regarding the style of their sculptures--a lively interplay between native Chinese imagery and icons and styles of art from the Buddhist holy land of India--so as to imbue the images with meanings that were immediately comprehensible to their contemporaries.
Through the her sensitive and well-informed exploration of Longmen's huge repository of remarkable early sculpture, McNair gives voice to a wide array of medieval believers, many of them traditionally excluded from history. Hers will be the definitive work on Longmen for years to come.
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Amy McNair is associate professor of Chinese art at the University of Kansas.
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