This article examines the various ways in which the Northern Wei emperor Wenchengdi (440–465; r. 452–465) was portrayed to his subjects. As is the case with many monarchs in many countries, he played different parts before different groups. For his soldiers, he was represented as a great hunter and marksman; to farmers in the lowlands, as a caring protector and benefactor; to potentially rebellious groups on the periphery, as a strong and steady observer of their actions. At the same time, it was in his reign that the Northern Wei court began efforts to use Buddhism as an overarching way to justify rule to all within the realm, by initiating construction of the famous cave-temples at Yungang, where “Buddhas became emperors and emperors Buddhas.” The spectacles through which Wenchengdi was portrayed are contextualized by a parallel examination of the very difficult life of the person behind the pomp and circumstance.
Published in Frontiers of History in China, Volume 7 • Number 1 • March 2012.