This paper is an inquiry into possible motivations for representing timber-frame architecture in the Buddhist context. By comparing the architectural language of early Buddhist narrative panels and cave temples rendered in stone, I suggest that architectural representation was employed in both masonry and timber to create symbolically charged worship spaces. The replication and multiplication of palace forms on cave walls, in “pagodas” (futu 浮圖, fotu 佛圖, or ta 塔), and as the crowning element of free-standing pillars reflect a common desire to express and harness divine power, a desire that resulted in a wide variety of mountainous monuments in China. Finally, I provide evidence to suggest that the towering Buddhist monuments of early medieval China are linked morphologically and symbolically to the towering temples of South Asia through the use of both palace forms and sacred maṇḍalas as a means to express the divine power and expansive presence of the Buddha.
During the 10th–13th centuries, architecture associated with the worship of Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist divinities increasingly conformed to both palatial complexes and temples to the spirits of antiquity, thus facilitating the development of the three teachings as a category of official Chinese religion. This essay investigates the symbolic potential of the courtyard complex and palatial-style buildings: 1) The ways in which the tradition of Zhou dynasty ritual architecture was invoked to create symbolically potent monuments; 2) How regional variation in timber-frame buildings could be appropriated for particular symbolic effect regardless of sectarian affiliation; 3) Examples of how Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian complexes customized indigenous Chinese building traditions for their own purposes.