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Yuhang Li (University of Wisconsin-Madison): Engineering Religious Bliss at the Qing Court: Jile shijie in the Beihai Park
12. July 2023, 14:00 - 16:00
In 1770, with the purpose of presenting an unusual gift to his mother Empress Dowager Chongqing (1692-1777) for her eightieth birthday, Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) ordered the imperial architectural department to construct a Buddhist compound named jile shijie or World of Utmost Pleasure on the northern shore of imperial Beihai Park next to the Forbidden City. Inside of the main hall, instead of conventional Buddhist icons staged on the lotus pedestals, an innovative three-dimensional clay mountain site scenery adorned with various deities from the Pure Land occupies the interior space. Jile shijie, a synonym for the Western Paradise and Pure Land, has been consistently visualized and contemplated since early medieval China. But the jile shijie built for Empress Dowager Chongqing is a standalone case which creates the experience of religious joy through a site scenery. The Pure Land is usually experienced as a future connected to death, which one literally cannot experience as present. However, Qianlong’s filial gift allows his mother to feel the required affect in this world, by juxtaposing transcendence and immanence. The absolute future of the Pure Land, a future that one experiences only after one has no more future on earth, becomes present at least in part, in a man-made small-scale western paradise. In this paper, I will discuss the surviving architecture, sculptural mountain preserved in old photographs, imperial documents on the design process, and Qianlong’s own writings on the given subject. Through unpacking the layers of this site, I will demonstrate how a liminal temporality of religious joy is materialized.