Wang Qingsong’s Use of Buddhist Imagery - Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky

Wang Qingsong’s Use of Buddhist Imagery

(There Must Be a Buddha in a Place Like This)

Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky

The re-creation of Buddhist icons is a recurring theme in Wang Qingsong’s body of work; they appear in some of his earliest efforts and continue into his most recent. Incorporating Buddhist motifs is not rare in contemporary Chinese art;1 most notable among Chinese artists using them is Zhang Huan who, since 2002, has been creating sculptures that in title and subject elicit this icon.2 Zhang Huan recreated fragments of the Buddha in large scale and experimented with a wide variety of materials—in 2006 he cast in copper a limb of a colossal Buddha, and in the following year he made Buddha heads out of incense ash; Zhang Huan’s Buddhistic work has also been discussed in an article written for this journal by Amerila Mariani.3 In contrast to Zhang Huan, however, Wang Qingsong has not taken Buddhist vows nor does he identify himself with Buddhism. Rather, the number of works in which Wang Qingsong employs Buddhist images represents his changing attitude towards Buddhism in particular, and religion in general, within the context of the dramatic social evolution that has taken place over the last two decades in China. Wang Qingsong’s works are also a response to the renewed role of religion in China since the liberalization policy of the 1980s. To consider his works from this perspective also affords a view of his artistic evolution. Looking at these images alongside the artist’s writing about them, and the information gleaned through multiple interviews I had with the artist in his Beijing studio and elsewhere,4 reveals the artist’s attitude not only toward the revival of this ancient religion, but also toward the role of religious practice in China.

As early as 1998, Wang Qingsong appropriated the characteristics of a typical Buddhist icon to create a self-portrait. Like most of his works, these photos are large in scale. Wearing  reen-striped bathing trunks, but otherwise naked, in Thinker the artist is seated in a cross-ankle position, his hands held before his chest, crossing one palm over the other. With his head inclined, he looks upward, reverently. Most significant for the reading of the image are the quasi-Buddhist posture and the green cabbage leaves that replace the traditional base of lotus leaves. Emblazoned on his chest is the McDonald’s golden arches and logo. Occupying the background is a blurry nocturnal urban scene, like a photo taken from a fast-moving vehicle. To begin to understand the work, it is useful to consider to what Wang Qingsong has written:

In food, it is well known that McDonald’s and Pizza Hut are just fast-food stores in Europe and America, nothing more than convenience. However, when they came into China, 

Wang Qingsong, Thinker, 1998

they became the top cuisine and hot rendezvous for people to have parties, invite friends, celebrate birthdays and meet lovers. On the surface, this phenomenon of going after what is Western style represents an ideal for Euro-American materialistic life. But in such an era of globalization, does this ideal also represent worship that can create a lot of ridiculous contradictions? With this thinking, I created many photographic works including Thinker (1998), Prisoner (1998), Catcher (1998), Requesting Buddha series (1999), Can I Cooperate with You? (2000), Look Up! Look Up! (2000), Bath House (2000), Forum (2001), and Beggar (2001).5

The comment above, like the image, touches upon several issues. First and foremost is the subject of food. Chinese cuisine is important both as daily pleasure and as a source of national pride. It is so fundamental to the culture that the way to say “How are you?” is “Have you eaten?” Thus, in the 1980s and 1990s, when Western food chains became increasingly popular, they were perceived as a threat to Chinese culture, much as they once had been in France. The introduction of Western fast food chains stimulated fierce competition for the traditional Chinese restaurant. Criticism of the fast food phenomena in the West was not only directed to the health aspects of the food that was served, but included the charge that such restaurants were destructive to the integrity of families, for they replaced the leisurely communal meal that bound together friends and family through common experience and shared conversation.6 However, James L. Watson has pointed out that, ironically, in China fast food restaurants seem to be an antidote for the new problems of urban isolation caused by the small size of the nuclear family and the large population of elderly single retirees who gather for companionship there.7 In his statement, Wang Qingsong expresses his belief that adulation of Western commercial enterprise is problematic, noting in particular the disparity of their status in the West and China—the cachet of fast food restaurants has transformed them into trendy spots, leaving the Chinese open to Western ridicule. By way of explanation of this craze, Yunxiang Yan described how the fast food chains’ friendly service, modern technology of food production, and concerns for hygiene made them a more modern and desirable destination for eating out than local Chinese restaurants.8 The upscale appeal is such that in Hong Kong, McDonalds even has a wedding package.9

Although all of these issues are interesting to consider, the question here is why a Buddhist-type image is the vehicle of this message? Such appropriations of art to prior periods of history may be seen within the context of other works by Wang Qingsong, which often look back to examples of art of the past as in his famous re-creations of images of the Cultural Revolution from 1997, Old and Young Soldiers and Take Up the Pen, Fight to the End.10 By employing the Buddhist image and juxtaposing it with products of commercial enterprise, Wang Qingsong creates a sense of transgression, of defilement. Secondly, his mock reverential expression in the photo conveys China’s apparent infatuation with the “brand.” Moreover, there is a sense of anachronism created by the blurry background behind the posed figure—one represents fast-paced progress, the other what will be transformed in the “great march forward.” Thus, here, the Buddhist image of the meditative figure represents the innocence of China succumbing to the blandishments of Western taste and new social conventions.

Wang Qingsong, Old and New Soldiers, 1997, C-print, 180 x120 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Before progressing on to the other examples, a short discussion of the role of Buddhism may be helpful. The form of Buddhism created by its founder, Shakyamuni, in the sixth century BCE, was largely one based upon meditation and aimed at releasing the self from the karmic cycle of rebirth. Within five hundred years, the religion morphed into a salvic system witha host of supra-human beings who could aid the worshipper in bettering his or her present life and even facilitating rebirth. With the success of the Communist party in 1949, all religions were outlawed, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the party extirpated all forms of religious practice. There were assaults on monuments of the past—temples were disassembled, icons smashed, and scriptures burned. In 1980, the government permitted worship to resume at all state regulated religious places of worship—Buddhist, Daoist, and Christian. Since that time, state funds, along with local and personal monies, have enabled the restoration of monuments, and once again Chinese visit Buddhist sanctuaries, often locatedin the forested mountains, to worship and seek help with daily problems.

Wang Qingsong, Pick Up the Pen, Fight Till the End, 1997, C-print, 180 x 95 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

In the Requesting Buddha Series No. 2 (1999), the artist has more closely re-created the appearance of a Buddhist icon, and, in this case, it is the Bodhisattva Guanyin, who as the God of Compassion has since the Tang era been equipped with multiple arms to enhance his ability to aid the devout. Typically, the hands hold Buddhist ritual objects—a rosary, scriptures, bells, and more. In the first of the two photographs, the artist, seemingly naked, is seated in the cross-legged position, supported on a faux lotus seat composed of colorful paper foil flowers and a Coca-Cola bucket. In his eleven hands, he holds a variety of consumer objects, some imported from the West—a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, a CD, a fist full of dollars, a garish trophy, the Chinese national flag, a cell phone, a golden cup, a photo of this work, and a box of camera film. The image is a fanciful recreation of a Buddhist icon and, clearly, there are many inconsistencies with traditional iconography, most notably, the number of arms—eleven (Buddhist deities always have an even number of arms), the modern products held in the hands, and the bowtie, an accessory of formal Western attire.


Left: Wang Qingsong, Requesting Buddha Series No.2, 1999, C-print, 180 x 110 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Right: Wang Qingsong, Requesting Buddha Series No.1, 1999, C-print, 180 x 110 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

The second image differs significantly, for the artist has montaged his head onto a female figure and provided her an additional six arms. She stands in a one-legged stance atop a large, artificial, brilliantly green cabbage. The fully exposed frontal posture suggests vulnerability on the part of the icon. The hands hold a can of Coca-Cola, a golden bowl, cell phone, a toy, gun, a trophy, a jar of instant coffee, and a knife. Placed across the figure’s chest is the Coca-Cola logo. In the artist’s words:

As the quintessence of Chinese traditional culture, Buddhism has accompanied Chinese civilization for thousands of years. It brings comfort and fortune to the people, inspires their soul and enlightens a responsibility for having good relations with others. This Buddha used to set its goal to save the suffering through self-devotion. However, in the current commercial society, the respectable Buddha has also been changed. It reaches out its hands insatiably for money and material goods towards every troubled person. The Requesting Buddha Series (1999) is the faithful representation of such a phenomenon, overflowing with desires, hypocrisy, and exaggeration.11

The function of the original objects in the deity’s hands—ritual objects, scriptures, etc.— was to help the faithful, but, here, in Wang Qingsong’s explanation, these are now objects of desire avidly sought by the deity. That is, the religion itself has been corrupted by the commercialism of its modern context. More than that, Wang Qingsong accuses the religion of hypocrisy. Buddhism, represented by the statue, is now polluted, and even its icons are bereft of their salvic function. The Buddha, here, expresses only the rapacious hunger of consumer society.

Wang Qingsong, Preincarnation, 2002, three C-prints, 190 x 120 each. Courtesy of the artist.

More startling is the series Preincarnation (2002), which differs from the previous works in several essential ways. First, the artist is not the subject of the photo, second, the images are monochromatic, and third, the icons are clearly disfigured. In addition, the artist has provided no written statement, no diatribe explaining the nature of the work. In my conversation with Wang Qingsong, he proposed that these are gods existing in a stage prior to deification.12 The Buddhist references in this near transformation to the sacred are multiple. The figures, based on Tibetan bronze sculptures that stand on lotus pedestals, are largely naked, with an appreciable sensuality to their bodies. But, shockingly, they have sagging flesh, damaged limbs, and missing hands that are all too human in comparison to a Buddhist icon. Although these figures are bedecked in jewels, their bodies are coated in mud. And though they stand in yogic postures, they seem uncertainly balanced. Wafting up from the ground are drifts of fog, perhaps clouds of incense. Arranged as a trinity, with two females flanking a central male, all three deities are of the same size. And the miniscule worshippers flanking the two goddesses exhibit an extreme contrast in scale that lends the deities a grandeur and spirituality.

Dakini, Tibetan Style, Ming dynasty, 1368–1644, gilt bronze, 25 cm. Courtesy of Capital Museum, Beijing.

These worshippers, dwarfed by the icons, wear the clothes of labourers—a sleeveless T-shirt and green shorts, the figure on the left has a rolled up shirt exposing his chest in a fashion often seen in rural China in the hot summer. Thus the costume identifies the worshippers as men from the countryside and alludes to the potentially important role of religion in placating the uneducated, hungry, and impoverished of the world. The worker on the left also holds what appears to be a weapon, a gun perhaps, and the one on the right an ax. Ordinarily these figures would be the donors, whose beneficence granted them the honour of being present in the realm of the gods. All of these contradictions—clay-covered, deformed, and unstable deities— could well be the result of the corruption within modern society as Wang explained in the previous quotation. And now the gods also seemed to havesuffered from warfare as evidenced by their physical damage, the result of some violent occurrence—the central deity having lost his leg now leans on a crutch, and each of them have lost a hand. This suggests the role religion often plays in the justification of warfare, which has aided and abetted destruction—but here the gods themselves are suffering the consequences. The gods, in this case, are revealed as impotent to act beyond man’s desires.

Such down-to-earth sentiments seem in keeping with the artist who began his life far from Beijing. Born in 1966 in Daqing, Heilongjiang province, Wang Qingsong, like his father, who died prematurely, worked in the mines until he decided to go to art school in 1993 when he enrolled in the Oil Painting Department of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. Deeply dedicated to communal welfare, Wang Qingsong grew up in the shadows of communism and the Cultural Revolution, and so religion was never a part of his personal experience. Yet he seems to have started out with a respectful and hopeful attitude towards Buddhism when the state began to tolerate religious practice in the 1980s. He stated in 1999, “As the quintessence of Chinese traditional culture, Buddhism has accompanied Chinese civilization for thousands of years. It brings comfort and fortune to the people, inspires their soul and enlightens a responsibility for having good relations with the other. . . .”13 In sum, in ancient times Buddhism conferred benevolence on humanity. But he contends that the religion was soon altered by the consumer wants of contemporary China, “. . . in the current commercial society, the respectable Buddha has also been changed. It reaches out its hands insatiably for money and material goods towards every troubled person.” Following Wang Qingsong’s war series of 2001, Preincarnation continues to reflect his anti-war sentiments, posing the universal question: If there are gods, why do they allow such terrible things to happen?

Wang Qingsong, Incarnation, 2002, three C-prints, 190 x 120 cm each. Courtesy of the artist.

In Incarnation (2002), the companion piece to Preincarnation, the gods have reached their final stage of transformation which is based on the traditional Buddhist idea of gradual evolution towards enlightenment accomplished through the accumulation of good karma. Now they are seated comfortably on their lotus seats, their skin is golden, their crowns and jewels far more ornate. Evidentially, Wang Qingsong had been studying the appearance of Buddhist icons and these particular recreations are far more authentic in appearance. But the expressions on the faces of Wang’s gods, compared to the compassionate mien of a traditional Buddhist deity, are impassive, their postures stiff and withdrawn, and they seem incapable of helping mankind. At the left, one of the two tiny human devotees assumes a posture of reverence, while on the right, another appears as a tourist taking a photo.

Green Tara, Tibetan style, Ming dynasty, 1368–1644, gilt bronze, 21.5 cm, Courtesy of Capital Museum, Beijing.

This is all too common an experience at Buddhist temples nowadays, where national, state, and local associations along with benefactors have restored temples and made them a destination that is crowded with tourists and believers and well-stocked gift and food stalls that  support the local economy. Hastily, the faithful offer incense and kowtow three times under the watchful eyes of temple attendants. Often freshly painted in gold and brilliant colors, the newly refurbished deities, sometimes nearly comic in appearance, do not fail to attract visitors.

Wang Qingsong, Offering, 2003, C-print, 120 x 230 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Wang’s growing disappointment with Buddhism begins to crescendo in a work from 2003, Offering. Here, Wang Qingsong uses a new technique in which he engages multiple actors, providing them with costumes, props, a constructed setting, and dramatic lighting, thus turning the photograph into a cinematic scenario. In this work, he has re-created a vision of local worship in the countryside. An icon of a naked golden goddess, seated upon a golden lotus base with a filigree halo rising behind her head, floats in the water; she is the focus of attention of a group of almost two dozen, nearly naked worshippers most of them women, who avidly vie to give her flowers, fruits, and other ritual offerings. As in Incarnation, the deity is impassive compared to the enthusiasm of her devotees. Moreover, the watery setting suggests the island of Puto, the island home of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy portrayed in Wang Qingsong’s work, which as been the destination of many millions of worshippers over the centuries.14 In its restored state, avid devotees once again populate the idyllic island off the coast of China near Ningbo.15 Comparison can be made to another work from 2003 entitled Flooding which shares a similar aquatic composition, but here dejected naked actors—except for two clothed men—some holding onto a damaged tree trunk, look out from the composition, imploringly, in search of a saviour after a natural disaster. In the left midground of both works is the same heavily bearded man dressed in a white shirt who looks out of composition. It is not clear if this is the image of the artist himself.

Wang Qingsong, Flooding, 2003, C-print, 120 x 210 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Wang Qingsong’s most recent work to incorporate Buddhist motifs is Temple (2011). This work is much larger in scale than the previous ones, measuring nearly three hundred  entimetres in width and depicting an enormous architectural setting populated by one hundred or so actors. At the centre of this image is the figure of the Buddha of the Future, a deity who is readily identifiable in popular culture as the smiling and chubby Buddhist saviour. In Buddhist doctrine, the coming of the Buddha marks a cosmic renewal that is preceded by a period of degeneracy; the ancients saw a perpetual decline in the quality of life—from the eras of gold, silver, and copper. Thus, since the medieval period decadence among the Buddhist monks and the lawlessness and immorality of society were anticipated as the precondition for salvation. But gradually this figure was transformed into a jolly god who symbolized the giver of good fortune and children. In Wang Qingsong’s image, this immense, nearly naked and overweight figure leans against the back wall of the temple-like setting. Surrounding him is a corona formed by innumerable golden heads that extend along the sidewalls as well. Here, the representation of the Buddha is no longer a made-up human stand-in, but an immense fabrication. Kneeling before him are naked actors covered with ash, performing the ritual homage, heads bent to the ground and lost in their abject faith.

Wang Qingsong speaks with frankness of the pervasive belief in supernatural powers. He explained how it is still so prevalent that the labourers/actors who participated in this hotograph, and who for the most part happen to be Christian converts, refused to look upon the image directly. This is a compelling point, for this image is a staged creation; it has not been  anctified by Buddhist ceremony, in which priests complete the finished image then initiate its service for worship so that the deity can be present in the icon for communion with the faithful. In Buddhist belief, only then is the image a proper vehicle for the god to inhabit when called upon by the worshipper. Thus an unconsecrated image has no power or efficacy; it is an empty shell. Yet for the Christian labourers hired to pose for this photograph, the image possessed the power of a pagan idol because of its similitude to a real one.

Wang Qingsong further disparages the increasingly secular role of Buddhist belief in contemporary life, and even in Chinese politics, as religious organizations are under the  dministration of the government. Like the Party, Buddhism is never questioned; its spiritual authority lies unchallenged. Wang Qingsong also describes what he has widely observed as an increasing laxity among the orders of monastics and their growing presence in lay society. For Wang Qingsong, this is fake Buddhism, and, he says, it is easy to recognize.

But it is the attitude towards sin that seems most egregious to him. Buddhist lore is filled with stories of conversion: the five hundred thieves, for example, who, meeting the Buddha, are instantaneously transformed into peace-loving, law-abiding members of society.16 At one time, when people heard such stories, they were prompted to avoid making future mistakes and to act with compassion. But for him this practice has been corrupted. Now, like the selling of indulgences in medieval Europe, acts of contrition and ritual offerings are enacted to make amends for immoral conduct. Successful people from all ranks of society offer donations and perform acts of penitence to accumulate good karma, for, after accumulating too many depraved acts, one must restore a balance. Although, it is their hope that their behaviour will be spiritually erased, its effects on society are not, and no social redress is pursued; thus, people act with impunity by counting on buying spiritual credits in order to restore their moral status.

Wang Qingsong consciously adopts Buddhist images as a consistent theme in his large and complex oeuvre. Looking at his works over a period of nearly two decades, one can observe a progressively critical attitude in his perception of this particular religion. In these works, he criticizes a practice that increasingly fosters a superstition that masks genuine relief for life’s problems or that allows superficial remedies for the conscience of those who forsake the common good for personal enrichment. One can also observe this through the ever more convincing portrayal of the deities, the fragile appearance or physical corruption of the icons, and the growing grandeur of the religious images in relation to its diminutive devotees, a symbol of their lowly status.

Wang Qingsong, Temple, 2011, C-print, 180 x 300 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Although this work addresses the role of Buddhism in China, as a transnational artist, his observations on the role of religion in society are not limited to the context of his homeland. What started out as a statement on the innocence of a nation duped by Western commercial endeavours has become a grander statement about the blindness induced by religious belief, about the uselessness of religion to reform society and its destructive power.

Buddha of the Future, Ming dynasty, 1368–1644, bronze. Courtesy of Capital Museum, Beijing.

Wang Qingsong is adamant that he is not a believer in any particular religion; these images are simply a vehicle with which he can express his feelings about contemporary society. The nakedness of the actors reflects the human condition—we enter this world naked and leave the same way. It should be said, however, that after shooting Temple, when the stage set of was being taken apart, Wang Qingsong talked of simply walking away, of leaving the remainder to his assistants, for he, too, was apprehensive of the pseudo idol.


1 See, for example, the exhibition of 2012 in honour of the Dalai Lama titled The Missing Piece (see and other group shows such as Remember That You Will Die —Death Across Cultures, March 19, 2010–August 9, 2010, at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York City, (see

2 See the artist’s Web site for these images: See, for example, Big Buddha, 2002, wood, steel, and stone, 590 x 400 x 300 cm. 

3 Amelia Mariani, “Zhang Huan’s Big Buddha Ten Years Later,” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 11, no. 4 (July/August 2012), 56–62.

4 This article is the result of numerous meetings with the artist and the encouragement of his wife, Fang Zhang.

5 Citation from Wang Qingsong’s Web site from the caption to the work Thinker: See

6 Yunxiang Yan, “Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing,” The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating: A Reader, James l. Watson and Melissa l. Caldwell, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005): 81–103.

7 See James l. Watson, “China’s Big Mac Attack,” in The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating: A Reader, 70–79. Watson also points out that the dwindling size of the family and the large single urban populations have transformed the McDonald’s experience into one of refuge in the big city.

8 Yunxiang Yan, "Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald's in Beijing," 85.

9 Tiffany Lam,”Would you like a wife with that? McDonald’s offers weddings—Hong Kong becomes the first place in the world to have McDonald’s wedding packages,” CNN Travel News, October 12 2010

10 Images of such works are available on the artist’s Web site.

11 For the text see the artist’s Web site:

12 For this image, see the artist’s Web site:

13 For the citation see the artist’s Web site:

14 Chen Zhen, Field of Synergy (Prato: Gli Ori, 2001), 93.

15 See a description and history of the Buddhist pilgrimage spot in Chün-Fang Yü, “P’u-t’o shan Pilgrimage and the Creation of the Chinese Potolaka,” Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China (Studies on China) eds. Susan Naquin and Chün-Fang Yü (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992), 190–245.

16 For a representation of the scene painted at the Buddhist cave site of Dunhuang, Gansu province, see the Web site for the Dunhuang Institute:

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