Wisdom Cinema: Buddhism and Film in Contemporary China

Wisdom Cinema: Buddhism and Film in Contemporary China
This dissertation examines the ways in which cinema serves as a vehicle of Buddhist ideas and practices in contemporary China. From analyzing the production, text, and reception of the works of three major directors – Tsai Ming-liang, Zhang Yang, and Feng Xiaogang – I discern a phenomenon that I call “wisdom cinema”: the visualization and cultivation of Buddhist-inflected wisdom, especially that related to the experiential realization of emptiness, via film and its attendant media and practices. My dissertation has two objectives. First, it uses Chinese cinema as a lens to observe how the Mahayana concept of emptiness functions as a matrix from which a host of constructive ethical and existential meanings emerge. Second, by attending to the diverse adaptations of Buddhist wisdom beyond the bounds of official, institutionalized religion, it reveals that the circulation of religious values in postsocialist China unfolds with a pragmatic vitality that cannot be exhausted by efforts at political control, doctrinal purism, or discursive categorization.

This study identifies and locates key works of Buddhistic cinema within the broader contexts of postsocialist China’s “values vacuum,” the post-Mao resurgence of Buddhism, and the overlapping formations of religion, secularism, and postsecularism in the modern world. In keeping with the interpenetration of ethics, aesthetics, and everyday culture throughout the history of religions in China, cinema, I argue, functions as a vital technology through which Buddhist wisdom is creatively and therapeutically appropriated to reimagine the good life. In illuminating the profound yet hitherto overlooked interrelations between Buddhism and film at a moment of unprecedented social change and anomie, this dissertation contributes to the literature on Chinese cinema and media, Chinese religions and Buddhism, modern and secular Buddhism, religion and film, and Buddhist and comparative religious ethics.


Teng-Kuan Ng

Defended in

1 Jan 2022 – 30 Nov 2022

PhD defended at

Georgetown University, Department of Theology and Religious Studies




Hong Kong


Art and Culture