China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
At once durable and transparent, crystal’s marvelous ability to refract and reflect light made it a precious rarity in medieval China, one that informed Buddhist allegories of transformation and enlightenment. This paper draws from recent work on “crystalline aesthetics” to develop a new account of transparent rocks in medieval Chinese visual culture. Commonly imported to China from the Gandharan region, rock crystal was one of the “Seven Treasures” in Buddhism and was frequently found in Buddhist reliquaries. At the same time, it was carved into cups and beads as luxury artifacts for the Tang elite. My paper uses two rock-crystal balls and related translucent artifacts found in the relic crypt in Famen Temple and various medieval tombs to explore the shifting relationship between transparent vessels and understandings of the human body in Sui-Tang China. Juxtaposing crystalline objects with paintings, Buddhist textual sources, poetry, and records of diplomatic tributes, I show how the materiality of crystal—as a translucent, seemingly empty, yet solid form—inflected philosophical and poetic discussions of light and vision. I argue that the enchantment of crystal rocks provided a new idiom for thinking of how the human body might be perfected as a pure and luminous container.