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  • Guoying Stacy Zhang

The Secularization of Pagoda Imagery in 18th Century Europe and China

The artifacts that we now categorize as “Buddhist art” were not always treated as art in their original context. Despite superb craftsmanship and profound aesthetics, they were created for the purposes of worship, ritual, and merit accumulation. Just as many key Buddhist terms suffer from misinterpretation in the West, so does Buddhist imagery. In fact, at one point the misuse of the icon of the Buddha became so rampant that the Buddhist community in Bangkok felt the need to put up signs across the city to educate tourists that “Buddha Is Not For Decoration.”

At various points in history, however, ignorance has at times helped to facilitate the circulation of Buddhist images. In fact, this process exemplifies how different cultural systems have interacted. For instance, when the fashion of Chinoiserie swept Europe in the 18th century, pagoda imagery introduced from China developed into a popular decorative motif in a wide range of European arts, including book illustrations, ceramics, textiles, wallpapers, oil paintings, and garden culture. What is more interesting is that this secularization of pagoda imagery also influenced Chinese material culture in return.

A nine-tiered pagoda in Fujian Province, illustrated in Kircher (1667), p.134

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