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Lee, Sonya

Art History, East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Religion

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

Curriculum Vitae

Ph.D., Art History, University of Chicago

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 reserach interests also include material culture of the ancient Silk Road, art and ecology, Asian art collecting, and heritage conservation.

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. 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.

Currently, Dr. Lee is completing a book manuscript titled Cave Temples of Sichuan and Chongqing in Eco–Art History. Conceived broadly as an art historical response to the debate on climate change, the book makes a case for understanding the complex relationship between humans and the environment through the creation and reception of cultural monuments. Focusing on the millennium-long tradition of building religious structures as part of mountain cliffs and along rivers in China’s southwestern region, Lee explores the impact of the environment on the designs of select sites through three key aspects of nature as perceived by the original builders and patrons: water, healing, and network. 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 awarded a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to receive further training in conservation science to further her work on eco–art history as well as explore opportunities for international collaboration to advance this kind of research in China.

In addition to individual research projects, Dr. Lee is Editor-in-Chief for the Grove Encyclopedia of Asian Art, a project which aims to expand the presence of Asian art through a multi-volume print publication and a series of updates to the premier online database in art history administered by Oxford University Press. She is working with seven area editors to carry out this project in the next few years.

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.

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. (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.

Book Chapters

  • 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 Articles

  • 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. 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
Adminstrative 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-