Natasha Heller is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, and studies Chinese Buddhism—past and present—in the context of cultural and intellectual history. She’s currently completing a book tentatively titled Raising Bodhisattvas: Picture Books and Parenting in Modern Taiwan, which looks at children’s literature published by Buddhist organizations in Taiwan in the context of global parenting. We’re delighted that she agreed to share some of her work with us here; you can also follow her on Twitter: @nheller
This past summer, a set of two wordless pictures by illustrator Xu Yurong 許育榮 was on sale in many Taibei bookstores. Both picture books focus on a temple, one Buddhist, the other Daoist, and are told entirely through Xu’s detailed illustrations.
One of the two books takes as its subject Longshan Temple 看見龍山寺, established in the eighteenth century. For each two-page spread, the reader’s eyes are drawn to a single figure that has been colored in, and so stands out against the black and white line drawings.
On the first page, we see an artist sitting on the steps with his sketch pad. We follow his
gaze, and when we turn the page, see what he was looking at—a tourist with a red backpack taking a photo.
The next page shows us the view through the camera’s lens, which includes another
photographer, his camera aimed upwards.
And so we follow the gaze of various visitors through the temple: the bird on the temple
ceiling, the two students chatting on the steps, a little boy worshipping with his family, a man with palms together, clouds, the statue of Guanyin, a tour guide, another backpack-wearing visitor, a toddler in a stroller, another photographer, the neighborhood cat, and finally a red balloon floating away.
Notice how many of these figures could be classified as tourists, or are visitors who seem to be there out of cultural interest—and indeed this is a heavily touristed temple in Taibei, very often busy and crowded in the way it is depicted here. Although readers see the statue of Guanyin, they see more of the temple architecture and the throngs of people.
The other picture book in this set does something different. It likewise focuses on a temple in Taibei, Bao an gong 保安宮, a Daoist temple first constructed in the nineteenth century based on an earlier shrine. The first pages show the temple bell, but also a small airplane, which may imply that the family shown on the following pages are visitors.
As the visual narrative opens, we see a man and a woman holding hands with a young boy as they approach the temple. As with the earlier book, here black and white line drawings dominate, with the people filled in with colors. Note that the parents are colored in neutrals, while the little boy wears brighter colors of blue and red.
The muted colors continue on the following pages, and we see that the young boy is drawn to the dramatic figures of the lions. They come to life and lead him into the temple, where a guardian deity (men shen 門神) pats him on the head, and lifts him to his shoulders. The guardian deity takes up two pages, and unlike the boy’s parents, is vividly portrayed in a full range of colors. He also looks the child directly in the eyes. After the encounter with the guardian deity, the boy continues to look around the temple, literally drawn into the vibrant depictions in its murals and elsewhere. The dragons that ornament the temple fly him into the sky, and the temple bursts into full color. No longer a dull black-and-white experience, the boy’s ability to attend to the supernatural elements of the temple give him an utterly different experience—both from his parents, and from the tourists visiting Longshan Temple.
These two books about temples represent two approaches to presenting religion to children in Taiwan. In one approach, religion is treated as a cultural phenomenon, observed by people who have limited if any interactions with the gods who may reside in the temple. In the other approach, children are able to see and communicate with deities, allowing them access to another dimension of this world (or a world beyond). We commonly see this first approach in textbooks, which recognize the importance of religious practice as part of cultural history, and as part of identity formation. We see the latter approach in books from religious organizations—such as those from Dharma Drum Mountain—which try to make buddhas and bodhisattvas accessible to
young readers. But these two approaches also make appearances in commercially-published children’s books in Taiwan, as authors and illustrators bring religion to life on the page.
Both books are published by Linking Publishing 聯經出版社:
Illustrations are from books.com.tw, where both books can also be purchased:
Kanjian Longshan si 看見龍山寺:
Here’s a neat video of the author taking viewers through the Longshan Temple book: Youtube video: 看見龍山寺 作者許育榮教你看