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Autel domestique de Lu Jiacan 陸家璨, sculpteur, Hunan, Pingkou, 2009. Photo James Robson
Autel domestique de Lu Jiacan 陸家璨, sculpteur, Hunan, Pingkou, 2009. Photo James Robson
Special Lecture 2018
26 JUNE 18
École française d’Extrême-Orient
Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University
Special Lecture

Essay on History of Cultic Images in China. The Domestic Statuary of Hunan

Speaker: Alain Arrault  (École française d’Extrême-Orient)

Tuesday, June 26th, 18:00h-19:30h

Kyoto University, Institute for Research in Humanities, Seminar room 1

Statues of deities need to be alive in order to transcend their status of material objects. In order to be animated, Asian cultures have developed rituals of consecration in the course of which sundry objects and artefacts (i.e. sacred texts, pieces of cloth, pearls, names of donators, replicas of organs and viscera, various pharmacological materials – materia medica – etc.) are inserted into the statues. Statues are not mere “presentifications” of divinities but their very bodies. The earliest written documents and materials mentioning the “impregnation” of statues date back to the ninth and tenth centuries. A significant number of studies have been written on Japanese statues and statuettes (mostly Buddhist) from the Heian period (794-1185) to the Edo period (1603-1867) and on Korean statues from the Goryeo period (918-1392) to the beginning of the Joseon period (1392-1910). Conversely, very few studies deal with Chinese works though written sources mention the existence of similar practices. Thanks to an international research program, almost 4000 statuettes from southern China (Hunan Province) have been data processed ( Each entry in the catalogue is based on consecration certificates found inside statuettes, which include the name of the statuette, of donors, of sculptors, the date and place of the consecration ceremony, and the various amulets and talismans used. These statues have been fabricated during a period spanning more than four centuries (from the sixteenth century to today). Alongside computerized cataloguing, field studies have been conducted in recent years. In order to provide a scientifically accurate overview of this long-neglected if not entirely ignored artistic protection, we will introduce quantitative data, chronological and spatial distribution. This method clearly shows that statuettes were not used in shrines or in communal institutions but within domestic altars. Therefore, this artistic production is not connected with the imperial Court or with wealthy shrines but belongs to what can be classified as “local art”–i.e. works of art that were more popular in basic family units than among local clans. We will after examine the implications of the fact that alongside great Buddhist or Daoist deities such as Guanyin–­­­­­­­­the Bodhisattva of mercy–, Guan Yu, famous for his martial prowess, the God of Wealth, the God of the Southern Peak, the Kitchen God, and various deities associated to specific professions such as the God of Carpenters or the God of Medicine, local deities worshipped in a specific region or, sometimes, in a small number of villages are also present on the altars. Even more significant is the fact that ancestors and masters–both distant and recent ones; i.e. family ancestors, parents, founders of lineages and initiation masters–share those altars with popular deities such as the ones mentioned above. Through this process of divinisation and iconic representation, these “lesser deities” contradict the basic rules of ancestor worship starting with the most important one: the interdiction of visual representation. This phenomenon forces us to reconsider the entire history of visual representations in China. A study of first-hand written sources–consecration certificates–makes it possible to establish a chart of local religious practices using a bottom-up approach (as opposed to the top-down approach that has prevailed in a majority of studies on Chinese religion until today). Indeed, participants themselves define the religious orders to which they adhere and not the other way around: i.e. officials and scholars presenting religious orders according to pre-established categories. If institutionalized religions – Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism – are indeed part of the local religious structure, they have been reordered in a system in which officiating priests have often received a double (at times triple) ordination. Ubiquitous specialists of exorcism rituals, avail themselves of other teachings such as the ones related to the Sovereign of the Origin or of Apricot Mountain. The chart is completed with a study of many categories of religious specialists–faith-healers, sculptors, mediums, midwives, actors, hunters, etc.–who also have recourse to specific teachings. The landscape of local religion in China is insofar far more complex and diverse than some global studies suggest. 

Biography: Alain ARRAULT was born in 1960 in France, Alain Arrault obtained a master degree in Western philosophy (1985, History of philosophy in Late Antiquity and Medieval Age) and a Phd degree in Chinese studies (1995). Concerning Chinese Studies, his main field was on a first step the history of thought and religion in Pre-modern China (Sung and Ming dynasties), especially on Wang Yangming (master degree) and on Shao Yung (Phd degree), and on a second step on the history of Annual Chinese calendars from IIIrd AD to Xth century. Since 2002, he has been involved in common religion studies, in particular in Hunan province religious practices through domestic statuary from XVIth to the beginning of XXth century and contemporary fieldwork studies. He was professor at the Centre d’études chinoises of the University of Liege (Belgium) from 1996 to 2000. He is currently directeur d’études (Professor) at the École française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of Asian Studies), and professor at the Research Center on Modern and contemporary China (École des hautes études en sciences sociales - School for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences). From 2001 to 2006, he was director of the Center of École française d’Extrême-Orient in Peking, and director of the international research program entitled “Taoism and Local society. Liturgical structures in Central Hunan” (2002-2005) funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation. In 2015, he obtained from Harvard Yenching Institute a three months grant as “coordinate research scholar” to collaborate with Prof. James Robson (EACL) on the Hunan statuettes research program.  He was member of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs scientific committee for French Institutes in Asian Countries (2007-2017), elected representative of the EFEO researchers at Scientific and Administrative Councils (2009-2017), and is currently HCERES (French High Council for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education) two evaluation committees president.

This lecture will be held in English
EFEO Kyoto