Category Archives: Research

Death in Dunhuang and Central Asia

Death in Dunhuang and Central Asia: Material Culture, Discourse and Ritual Practice (4th to 11th century)

Directors: Pénélope Riboud (INALCO, ASIE)

Permanent Members: Jean-Pierre Drège (EPHE), Sylvie Hureau (EPHE), Christine Mollier (CNRS), Costantino Moretti (EPHE), Eric Trombert (CNRS), Françoise Wang-Toutain (CNRS)
Associate Members: Catherine Despeux (INALCO), Nathalie Monnet (BNF), Pénélope Riboud (INALCO), Kuo Li-ying (EFEO)
Doctoral Students: Arnaud Bertrand, Henriette Deleuze, Diane Zhang-Goldberg.
External Partner: Dunhuang Academy

While funerary rites have been the subject of numerous studies and publications with regard to discourses on death and the organization of funerary sites, the late Chinese medieval period (220-589) and Sui and Tang periods remain so far largely unexplored. Yet the profound social, economic, political and religious changes that characterise these periods raise the issue of the transformation of individual or collective discourses and attitudes with regard to death. The polymorphous developments of Buddhism and Taoism resulted for instance in a redefinition of the eschatological landscape and ritual conduct. The political instability and the coexistence of peoples of different ethnic origin also led to a redefinition of the criteria determining social elite membership. Sinicized Central Asia, owing to its complex cultural stratification and the abundance of documentation discovered in the region, represents an ideal field for investigation. The aim of the project is to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the various discourses on death (written, oral or depicted) and funerary practices within multi-cultural and religious environments. The unique proximity of sepulchres, liturgical or canonical texts, ritual objects and images related to death found in Dunhuang and Turfan has led the various experts involved in this project to conduct a collective analysis of the different steps that define an individual’s or a social group’s relationship with his/her/its post-mortem fate. The research focuses on three main areas:

The symbolic and ritual dimension of texts in funerary space: Why are religious texts found in tombs? What do these texts tell us about the world in which a person projects himself or herself after death? What do they reveal about the ritual funerary programs characterizing each religion or their adaptations? Research in this particular area will be based on written material (manuscripts, inscriptions and talismans) discovered in the tombs and will aim at highlighting their specific function within funerary space through a comparative study with other types of funerary objects and similar items found in Central China.

Death and its exemplary dimension: How are different representations of death and the deceased, written, oral or depicted used for pedagogical purposes or moral edification? The researchers involved in this particular line of enquiry will focus on the didactic impact of divinatory recitation and representations of hell, as well as on the moral and edifying function of funeral orations and the biographical account of a monk’s death.

Economic and social importance of funerary rites: What was the economic importance of funerals? Were there specific social categories associated with funerary rites in Sinicized Central Asia? What type of social organization does a cemetery reveal? In this study both the internal organization of individual tombs and the dynamics involved in the organization of the tombs in relation to one another will be examined in the light of economic and socio-cultural criteria. A study of the social categories involved in funerary rites will also be carried out to determine for instance whether contact with death stigmatised certain social classes, and also to identify the different artisans that manufactured the items discovered in the tombs. This study will rely on an analysis of the archaeological data yielded by the excavations of cemeteries in Central Asia as well as on written sources (economic and legal documents) discovered in Dunhuang and Turfan. Several activities leading to the publication of a collective work will be organized: seminars in which members of the project and specialists from outside will be invited to give talks, translation workshops and a conference.

Buddhist Economy in Medieval Inner Asia

Buddhist Economy in Medieval Inner Asia


Directors: Étienne de la Vaissière (EHESS, CETOBAC), Éric Trombert (CNRS), Costantino Moretti (EPHE), Pénélope Riboud (INALCO)

Post-Doctoral Members: C.J. Ching (Post-doctoral student from Marie Curie working with the Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, BBAW)
Collaborators: D.Durkin-Meisterernst (Turfanforschung, Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, BBAW), Nicolas Engel (Musée Cernuschi)
Partner Institutions: Centre for Turkish, Ottoman, Balkan and Central Asian Studies (CNRS-EHESS), Centre for Studies on East Asian Civilizations (CNRS-EPHE-Paris 7-Collège de France), Turfanforschung Centre of Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften

The work of G. Schopen has profoundly renewed our knowledge and understanding of Buddhist economic systems in Ancient and Medieval India. His works, namely Buddhist Monks and Business Matters (2004) and Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India (2005), based on Indian Tibetan and Chinese sources, has changed our understanding of the vinaya, the monastic rules, and the various schools of Buddhism. Particularly noteworthy is his focus on the casuistry prevailing in the management of “heavy goods” (land, methods of payment, etc.) in relation to the different schools of Buddhist thought: direct management of the community goods by the monks themselves, management of their own private goods, intervention of secular delegates, etc. This casuistry had important and diverse consequences on the local economy and hierarchy depending on the school. This particular project aims at extending this field of research to Central Asian sources and at taking advantage of the abundance of new sources available on the economic history of Buddhism in these regions that G. Schopen has not exploited. The research is intended as a tribute to J. Gernet’s work, Les aspects économiques du bouddhisme dans la société chinoise du Ve au Xe siècle (1956) (The Economic Aspects of Buddhism in Chinese Society from the 5th to the 10th century) that will be taken up and further developed thanks to newly available source material. Indeed, significant headway has been made in the analysis of the monastic community members’ conduct in the oases of Central Asia, largely owing to documents from Dunhuang and Turfan. The thirty thousand or so fragments that were found in the Turfan tombs and that have been progressively published since the 1980s have proved decisive in completing the Dunhuang collection of documents covering an earlier period. Ms Ching Chao-Jung’s recent thesis (Research on Secular Documents in Tocharian: Buddhist Economy and Society in the Kucha Region, EPHE, 2010, Jury: G.-J Pinault (thesis supervisor), D. Durkhin-Meisterernst, O. Hackstein, É. de la Vaissière, G. Schopen, É. Trombert, G. Zhang), based on texts from Turfan, Dunhuang, Kucha and Khotan demonstrates how crucial it is to combine research on these various Central Asian oases for the periods covered by the new sources (5th to 8th centuries). This project was born from readings of Ms Chin Chao-Jung’s remarkable thesis. Moreover, numerous Chinese and Japanese sources also deal with the role played by monks in the societies of the Central Asian oases and several researchers of the CRCAO are working on this subject. A number of Tibetan sources attest to the role, real or claimed, played by Buddhism in the development of agriculture and irrigation in Khotan, and it is interesting to note that archaeologists have found a similar model further to the north in Kutcha. To the west in Bactria, namely the Nawbahar complex, described by Xuanzang as the ‘largest Buddhist monastery north of the mountains’, seems to represent a fundamental step in the dissemination of certain practices and has been the focus of recent studies. It would seem that in the 7th century, Buddhist monks controlled the majority of the land and irrigation networks of the oasis of Bactria. Archaeological studies also show that they rebuilt large monasteries using styles hitherto unknown in the Buddhist world prior to the Arab conquest. Further to the south in Logar Province in Afghanistan, excavations of the monastic complex of Mes Aynak reveal that the Buddhist community controlled an antique copper mine —now the largest copper mine in Afghanistan—and shed unexpected light on the question of Buddhist economy as well as on Indian data on the subject.
The idea is to bring together a group of young scholars who will carry out further research in this field and attempt to draw a global picture of the system highlighting aspects common to the different monastic communities that originated with the diffusion of the vinaya as well as their distinctive regional cultural characteristics. Participants will include researchers in Chinese, Turkish, Persian, and Buddhist studies as well as specialists in ancient economic systems and archaeologists.

From 2014 on, monthly seminars will be held in Paris or Berlin focusing on two or three thematically related subjects. The first session will take place on 16 June 2014 and will focus on the role of mines and agriculture in the monastic economy of Xinjiang and Afghanistan.