Skip to main content

Sonya Lee

Associate Professor of Art History, East Asian Languages & Cultures, and Religion

Contact Information
Phone: (213) 821-2582
Office: VKC 351

Curriculum Vitae

Biographical Sketch

Dr. Sonya Lee is Associate Professor of Chinese Art and Visual Cultures at the University of Southern California, where she holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Art History, East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Religion. A specialist in religious art and architecture of pre-modern China, Dr. Lee has published widely on the material culture of Chinese Buddhism. Her first book, Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture (Hong Kong University Press 2010), focuses on the nirvana image, one of the quintessential motifs in Buddhist art across Asia. She argues that representations of the Buddha’s “death,” while sharing the same iconographic configuration over the centuries, were made anew each time by a particular community of patrons and makers in medieval China in order to confront the fundamental anxiety of the Buddha’s absence.


Currently, Dr. Lee is working on two major projects. One is a book manuscript titled Cave Temples of Sichuan in Eco–Art History, in which she develops an earth-centered approach in art history that explores the interrelationship between art and the environment. China’s southwestern region offers a particularly fertile ground on which to carry out research in eco–art history, as the cave-building tradition in Sichuan and Chongqing was intricately tied to how local inhabitants made use of their natural resources over a millennium. She has been awarded a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to receive further training in conservation science to further her work on eco–art history. The other project concerns the collecting history of wall painting fragments from the ancient Central Asian kingdom of Kucha that are now dispersed in museum collections worldwide. This is part of a larger effort to develop new ways to understand the later development of cultural monuments and their contemporary relevance through the history of collecting, conservation science, application of digital technologies, and international collaboration. In January 2015, she organized a major international symposium at USC and Los Angeles County Musem of Art on Asian art collections, an event generously supported by a grant from the American Council of Learned Socieities and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.


Dr. Lee received her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Chicago. She is the recipient of prestigious fellowships and research grants from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., A.W. Mellon Foundation, Getty Foundation, Japan Foundation, Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, and Asian Cultural Council. 



Ph.D. Art History, University of Chicago, 6/2004

Description of Research

Research Specialties

Buddhist art and architecture of China and Central Asia, interrelationship of art and the environment, Asian art collecting



Lee, S. S. (2010). Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture. Hong Kong University Press.

Book Chapter

Lee, S. S., Zuckerman, B., Zuckerman, K., Lundberg, M. (2015). Digital Technologies for the Documentation and Preservation of Mural Paintings in Cave Temples. Proceedings of the 2011 International Conference o pp. 86–92. Beijing: Kexue chubanshe.
Lee, S. S. (2015). The Development of Sichuan Cave Temples as Cultural Relics Protection Units. Proceedings of 2014 International Symposium on Daz pp. 12. Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Lee, S. S. (2012). Storytelling in Real Space: Viewership and Nirvana Narratives in Cave Temples of China. Rethinking Visual Narratives from Asia pp. 127-39. Hong Kong University Press.
Lee, S. S. (2009). Le Nirvana du Bouddha et les dépôts de reliques en Chine médiévale. pp. 134-157. Paris: Image et imagination: Le Bouddhisme en Asie/École française d’Extrême-Orient.
Lee, S. S. (2004). Nirvana Buddha and Its Doubles: Coffin Image, Maitreya, and the Rhetoric of Continuity on the Art Institute of Chicago Stele. pp. 191-234. Beijing, China: Between Han and Tang: Visual and Material Culture in a Transformative Period/Cultural Relics Publishing House.

Book Review

Lee, S. S. (2011). Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan, ed. Katherine Tsiang. Journal of the American Oriental Society.

Journal Article

Lee, S. S. (2015). Central Asia Coming to the Museum: The Display of Kucha Mural Fragments in Interwar Germany and the United States. Journal of the History of Collections. Vol. 26 (3), pp. 20.
Lee, S. S. (2012). Repository of Ingenuity: Cave 61 and Artistic Appropriation in Tenth-Century Dunhuang. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 94 (2), pp. 199-225.
Lee, S. S. (2010). Transmitting Buddhism to a Future Age: The Leiyin Cave at Fangshan and Cave Temples with Stone Scriptures in Sixth-Century China. Archives of Asian Art. Vol. 60, pp. 43-78.
Lee, S. S. (2009). The Buddha's Words at Cave Temples: Inscribed Scriptures in the Design of Wofoyuan. Ars Orientalis. Vol. 36, pp. 36-76.


Lee, S. S. (2007). The Pathway of Great Buddhas in Sichuan. In Art Museum of Dazu Rock Carvings (Ed.), pp. 540-547. Beijing, China. Proceedings from the International Conference on Dazu Stone Carvings 2005/Cultural Relics Publishing House.

Research Report

Lee, S. S. (2014). What Changes at Cultural Heritage Sites in China Mean for Researchers. Dissertation Reviews.

Honors and Awards

Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, 9/2014-8/2017  
American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship Recipient, ACLS Fellow, 2011-2012   
Asian Cultural Council Humanities Fellowship, 2011-2012   
Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Research Grant, 2011-2012   
Residency at the Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2011-2012   
Getty Foundation Non-Residential Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2008-2009   
Japan Foundation Short-Term Research Fellowship Award, 2008-2009   
Metropolitan Center for Far Eastern Art Studies Individual Grant, 2008-2009   

Service to the University

Administrative Appointments

Director of Undergraduate Studies, Art History, 2014-2015   
Faculty Advisory Board, USC Pacific Asia Museum, 2014-2015   
Director of Undergraduate Studies, 2013-2014   
Director of Undergraduate Studies, 2009-2010   

Service to the Profession

Conferences Organized

Principal Organizer, Ideas of Asia in the Museum, USC and LACMA, An international symposium with 23 panelists, 2014-2015   

Editorships and Editorial Boards

Associate Editor and Board Member, Grove Art Online, 03/01/2013-02/28/2015  

Professional Memberships

Association of Asian Studies, 2003-  
College Art Association, 2003-  
Faculty may update their profile by visiting