Research & Practice Areas
Buddhist art and architecture of China and Central Asia, material culture of the ancient Silk Road, art and ecology, Asian art collecting, heritage conservation
Dr. Sonya Lee is Professor of Art History, East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Religion at the University of Southern California. She is currently Department Chair of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Director of East Asian Studies Center. A specialist in religious art and architecture of China and Central Asia, Dr. Lee has published widely on the material culture of Chinese Buddhism. Her reserach interests also include material culture of the ancient Silk Road, art and ecology, Asian art collecting, and heritage conservation.
Dr. Lee’s 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 shows 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.
In her new book Temples in the Cliffside: Buddhist Art of Sichuan (University of Washington Press, 2021), Dr. Lee explores art, heritage, and ecology in her analysis of Buddhist sites with monumental cliff-side carvings in southwest China. Conceived broadly as an art historical response to the debate on climate change, the book makes a case for understanding the complex relationship between human society and nature through the creation and reception of cultural monuments. She also examines different concepts of sustainability that manifested in the sites’ later history, as they were repaired, restored, and transformed into protected heritage properties and tourist destinations.
Dr. Lee was the guest editor of a special issue for the Journal of the History of Collections published in 2016. All papers in this issue examine Asian art collections in museums in relation to conceptualizations of the Asian continent that gained currency in the cultural and geopolitical milieu at various times during the twentieth century. Based on a major international symposium held at USC and Los Angeles County Musem of Art in 2015, these studies aim to broaden the current debate on globalization by showing the importance of considering how viewpoints are shaped by visual materials in museums and the ways they are presented in exhibitions.
In addition to individual research projects, Dr. Lee is Editor-in-Chief for the Grove Art Online, the premier online database in art history administered by Oxford University Press. She is also working with seven area editors on the Grove Encyclopedia of Asian Art as part of Grove Art Online.
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, Luce Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, and Asian Cultural Council.
- Ph.D. Art History, University of Chicago, 6/2004
- Lee, S. S. (2021). Temples in the Cliffside: Buddhist Art in Sichuan. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. Temples in the Cliffside
- Lee, Sonya S. (Ed.). (2016). Ideas of Asia in the Museum. (Vol. 28, Oxford: Journal of the History of Collections, Oxford University Press.
- Lee, S. S. (2010). Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture. Hong Kong University Press.
- Lee, S. S. (2020). An Interview with Roderick Whitfield on the Stein Collection in the British Museum. Silk Road.
- Lee, S. S. (2018). Recent Publications on the Art and Archaeology of Kucha: A Review Article. Archives of Asian Art. Vol. 68 (Fall)
- Lee, S. S. (2016). 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. 417-436.
- 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.
- Scalar Exhibition: The Silk Roads: Connecting Communities, Markets, and Minds since Antiquity, 04/01/2021-05/30/2022