Pictorial Versions of the Mulian Story in East Asia (Tenth–Seventeenth Centuries): On the Connections of Religious Painting and Storytelling


In this paper, I analyze pictorial representations of the Buddhist story of Mulian rescuing his mother in China, Japan, and Korea in the pre-modern and early modern periods. I have collected several pictorial versions of the Mulian story in these countries, and comparison shows close proximity of several such works. All of them are related to the narrative texts that represent elaboration of the originally scriptural story (it originated in the apocryphal Buddhist scripture that circulated in China) in vernacular languages. Images of the Mulian story in the countries of East Asia had diverse nature: they could appear as separate scenes in devotional religious paintings, multi-scene handscrolls, and illustrations in the manuscripts and editions. I argue that the subject of Mulian rescuing his mother was of primary importance in the popularization of Buddhist ideas among different layers of society. The related images were used for both storytelling and reading practices and helped different audiences to comprehend the Mulian story.

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  1. 1.

    See for example Minn (1963), Miya (1968), Iwamoto (1968), Mair (1986–87), Teiser (1988), Sa (1988), Ye (1993), Huang (1998), Yakhontova (1999), Carey (2000), Liu (2003), Chen (2001), Nomura (2007), Zheng (2007), et al.

  2. 2.

    See for example the analysis of the use of the Pure Land mandala in medieval Japan in Kaminishi (2006: 57–73).

  3. 3.

    For the English translation, see Teiser (1988: 49–54).

  4. 4.

    On the discussions of the origin of the story, see Berezkin (2010: 61–62).

  5. 5.

    On the history and evolution of the festival, see Teiser (1988) and Wang (2010).

  6. 6.

    Published in Huang and Zhang (1997: 1005–1076). For the English translation of S2614, see Mair (1983: 123–166).

  7. 7.

    On the origins of these names, see Teiser (1988: 61, 95) and Mair (1983: 225).

  8. 8.

    For details see Fan and Mei (1996); Teiser (2006: 180–182).

  9. 9.

    On the origins and functions of this deity, see Zheng (2011).

  10. 10.

    See for example Sawada (1968), Mair (1989: 80–84), Teiser (1994), et al.

  11. 11.

    The images of the paragons of filial piety often appear on the Song-dynasty tombs murals; however, the Mulian story images are extremely rare.

  12. 12.

    For a photo reprint of the Japanese edition, see Miya (1968). For a critical edition (collated with the Korean edition of 1537), see Yoshikawa (2003: 116–122).

  13. 13.

    In the 1584 edition of the Sūtra he is called Fatian, the Master of Tripitaka from India (西天三藏法师法天). See also Minn (1963: 4).

  14. 14.

    The date is indicated with the use of the Chinese reign title: Wanli 万历, 12.

  15. 15.

    For comparison of details, see Miya (1968: 166–167).

  16. 16.

    See for example, Liu (1997), Che (2009: 72–76); Yoshikawa (2003, 2005).

  17. 17.

    Yoshikawa Yoshikazu has argued that the manuscript was made in the 3rd year of Zhiyuan (1337) and the sponsor was the famous prime-minister Tuotuo (Toghtō, 1314–1355) (2005: 31–33); however, his reading of the damaged inscription is doubtful.

  18. 18.

    The part of text surviving in the National Library copy was copied and published by Yoshikawa (2003: 123–134).

  19. 19.

    For the analysis of this material, see Sawada (1975: 285–299).

  20. 20.

    See for example, Che (2009: 131).

  21. 21.

    Based on the author’s own observations in Jiangsu province.

  22. 22.

    For the overview of the evidence, see Qing (2011), Che (2009: 396).

  23. 23.

    In addition to the previous discussion, one should note that these priests display images, but do not refer to them or explain them during the ritual performances (based on the author’s fieldwork in Taiwan in 2011–2012).

  24. 24.

    For the full reproduction of the scroll, see the website of Japanese national treasures “e国宝” http://www.emuseum.jp/detail/100951/000/000?d_lang=ja.

  25. 25.

    See the museum website: http://www.museum.go.kr/program/relic/relicDetail.jsp?langCodeCon=LC1&menuID=001005001003&relicID=2285&relicDetailID=9137.

  26. 26.

    On them, see Ruch (1977), Kaminishi (2006: 137–164).

  27. 27.

    For the summary of different variants of this text, see Huang (1998: 204–209).

  28. 28.

    See for example, Sárkösi (1976), Yakhontova (1999), Chen (2001), et al.


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Correspondence to Rostislav Berezkin.

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The first version of this paper was presented at the workshop on intersections in cultural history (交錯文化史) at the National Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, Fudan University. The author would like to express his gratitude for the following individuals, who helped with suggestions and materials: Drs. Maria L. Menshikova, Kira F. Samosyuk, Victor H. Mair, Sun Yinggang, Matsuka Yuko 松家裕子, Soh Yoojin 徐維辰, Deng Fei 鄧菲, and Sheila Blaire.

Appendix: Major Written Accounts of the Mulian Story in East Asia (fourth–seventeenth Centuries, in Chronological Order)

Appendix: Major Written Accounts of the Mulian Story in East Asia (fourth–seventeenth Centuries, in Chronological Order)

  1. 1.

    Sūtra of Ullambana: Sūtra of Ullambana, Expounded by the Buddha (Fo shuo Yulanpen jing 佛说盂兰盆经), Chinese translation by Dharmaraksha (Chin. Zhu Fahu 竺法护), beginning of the fourth century.

  2. 2.

    Bianwen of Mahāmaudgalyāyana: Bianwen of Mahāmaudgalyāyana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld (Da Muqianlian minjian jiu mu bianwen 大目乾连冥间救母变文), a manuscript from Dunhuang in China dated to 921 (S2614).

  3. 3.

    Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts (Gaki zōshi 饿鬼草纸), Japan, twelfth century.

  4. 4.

    Sūtra of Mulian: Sūtra of Mulian Rescuing His Mother Expounded by the Buddha (Fo shuo Mulian jiu mu jing 佛说目连救母经), Japanese illustrated woodblock edition, re-printed in 1346 and 1558 from the Chinese original (Ningbo, 1251) and originally kept at Kinkōji 金光寺 monastery in Kyoto. There are related Korean editions with the title of Sūtra of Great Mulian, Expounded by the Buddha (Fo shuo da Mulian jing 佛说大目连经); the earliest extant woodblock edition dated to 1537.

  5. 5.

    Baojuan of Maudgalyāyana: Baojuan of Reverend Maudgalyāyana Rescuing His Mother [and Helping Her] to Escape from Hell and Be Born in Heaven (Mujianlian zunzhe jiu mu chuli diyu sheng tian baojuan 目犍连尊者救母出离地狱生天宝卷), with the alternative name Baojuan of Mulian Rescuing His Mother [and Helping Her] to Escape from Hell and Be Born in Heaven (Mulian jiu mu chuli diyu sheng tian baojuan 目连救母出离地狱生天宝卷). Two Chinese illustrated manuscripts dated to 1372 and 1440; kept in the National Library of China, Beijing, and in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, respectively.

  6. 6.

    Tales of the Three Countries (Sangoku denki 三国传记, ca. 1394), Japan.

  7. 7.

    Reflection of the Moon [in Thousand Rivers] and Genealogy of the Buddha (Wŏrin sŏkpo 月印释谱, 1459), Korea.

  8. 8.

    Records of Mokuren (Mokuren ki 目莲记), illustrated woodblock editions dated to 1664 and 1687, Edo (Tokyo), Japan.

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Berezkin, R. Pictorial Versions of the Mulian Story in East Asia (Tenth–Seventeenth Centuries): On the Connections of Religious Painting and Storytelling. Fudan J. Hum. Soc. Sci. 8, 95–120 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40647-015-0060-4

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  • Religious art
  • Narrative images
  • Chinese traditional art
  • Japanese traditional art
  • Korean traditional art