Cover of Performing the Visual by Sarah E. Fraser
Performing the Visual
The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960
Sarah E. Fraser


400 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9780804745338


Excerpts and More

Winner of the 2004 Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award.

Performing the Visual explores the practice of wall painting in China from a new perspective. Relying on rare, virtually unpublished drawings on Buddhist themes from a long-hidden medieval library in western China, the author analyzes the painters' pictorial strategies. She also examines the financial accounting of Buddhist temples, providing practical information that ninth- and tenth-century critics ignored: how artists were paid and when, the temple's role as mediator between patrons and artists, and the way painters functioned outside the monastic system, working in guilds and secular academies affiliated with local government.

Based on the careful study of hundreds of inaccessible wall paintings at Dunhuang, arguably Asia's largest and most important Buddhist site, the author shows that although critics celebrated spontaneous feats with brush and ink, artists at Dunhuang were heavily dependent on concrete tools such as sketches in the preparation of wall painting.

About the author

Sarah E. Fraser is Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University.

"Fraser's book contains a tremendous wealth of information on painters and their practice at Dunhuang,and for this it is invaluable."

Religious Studies Review

"...students and scholars will find many observations and alayses both interesting and challenging, yet the neophyte too will find this a good starting place for further pursuits of their own special interests. Simply put, this book is among the most informative available..."


"Performing the Visual is a fascinating study of the artistic process involved in the conception and rendering of wall paintings in the Mogao and Yulin Grottos at Dunhuang, Gansu province, one of China's most important groups of Buddhist cave temples."

—Canadian Journal of History

"This is an enthralling and essential read for all of those who are interested in Central Asian art, workshop practices and Chinese painting."

Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society

"...Fraser has provided us with a valuable and rich study of the religious, cultural, and visual world of Buddhist Inner Asia."

Journal of Asian History

"Working with previously unstudied manuscripts and drawings from Dunhuang, Sarah Fraser convincingly demonstrates their profound potential for understanding visual culture in medieval China, especially Chinese Buddhist culture."

History of Religions