Home­ward-bound Bud­dhas

A Bud­dha-head col­lec­tor in Tai­wan has do­nated all his tro­phies to the Chi­nese main­land. This is the third time that such re­li­gious cul­tural relics are re­turn­ing home. Han Bing­bin traces the his­tory.

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -


Thirty years ago on a Taipei street known for an­tique sales, Andy Yeh had his epiphany mo­ment when he saw the rain had tar­nished the sa­cred face of a stonecarved Bud­dha head among the items on the road­side. It was a scene that Yeh, a Bud­dhist, im­me­di­ately in­ter­preted as “Bud­dha is suf­fer­ing a catas­tro­phe”. He bought the head, kick­ing off his decades-long col­lec­tion of Bud­dha stat­ues to “save them from suf­fer­ing”.

Dur­ing his vis­its to the Chi­nese main­land in the past few years, Yeh, who is the cen­tral ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee mem­ber of the Kuom­intang party, has felt sad that many Bud­dha stat­ues re­main miss­ing, with a ma­jor­ity scat­tered over­seas. He says noth­ing is worse than be­ing home­less. He de­cided to do­nate all his col­lec­tions to the main­land, hop­ing his ac­tion would bring about the repa­tri­a­tion of more cul­tural relics.

In early 2013, Yeh’s 32 Bud­dha stat­ues, con­sist­ing of 23 heads and nine com­plete fig­ures, found their new home in Wuqing dis­trict of Tian­jin. The old­est of them traces back to the North­ern Qi Dy­nasty (AD 550577), while the lat­est be­longed to the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911).

Be­foreYe­hchoseWuqing, he spoke to se­nior of­fi­cials of many cities, all of whom promised a safe home for his stat­ues. Wuqing is the only place that touched him by promis­ing to find the home­towns of th­ese stat­ues, es­pe­cially those Bud­dha heads with­out bod­ies.

A joint col­lab­o­ra­tion by ar­chae­ol­o­gists from both sides of the Straits re­sulted in the re­turn of a 574-year-old whitemar­bleBud­dha statue, weigh­ing 760 kilo­grams, to Zhengyang county in Cen­tral China’s Henan prov­ince last July. Another420-kg statue, from the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618-907) dur­ing the reign of Em­press Wu Ze­tian (AD 625-705), is ex­pected to re­turn to He­fei, cap­i­tal of An­hui prov­ince, in­March.

Un­like Bud­dha stat­ues in grot­toes, which tend to show unique artis­tic fea­tures, it is dif­fi­cult to iden­tify the ex­act root of th­ese tem­ple stat­ues, es­pe­cially those with­out in­scrip­tions, says one of the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ex­perts, Jin Shen. He says ar­chae­ol­o­gists are only able to gauge the stat­ues’ rough iden­tity, which points to their gen­eral place and time pe­riod of ori­gin.

As partof the­home­ward-bound­cam­paign, ac­cord­ing toWangLanof theWuqing ad­min­is­tra­tion, they’ve been work­ing with re­gional me­dia to call upon the pub­lic for pos­si­ble clues, through which they have al­ready col­lected more than 200 pieces of in­for­ma­tion. Mean­while, they have es­tab­lished a web­site, dis­play­ing the pho­tos of the stat­ues in the hope of gath­er­ing global re­sponses.

Th­ese Bud­dha stat­ues, like many other cul­tural relics, were smug­gled over­seas, mostly dur­ing war­time. From the late Qing Dy­nasty to the be­gin­ning of the Repub­lic of China (1911-49) when the coun­try started to suf­fer mas­sive for­eign in­tru­sions, cul­tural relics were hauled from the coun­try “in sacks and cars”, ac­cord­ing to Tai­wan-based his­to­rian Lin Pao-yao who par­tic­i­pated in the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process.

They were then bought by en­trepreneurs or aris­to­crats, in Europe es­pe­cially, who have a pas­sion for ori­en­tal cul­ture.

“In in­ter­na­tional auc­tions, for­eign buy­ers usu­ally care more about the ap­pear­ances of Bud­dha stat­ues. To them, the his­tor­i­cal value doesn’t seem to mat­ter as much as it does to us,” says Lin.

Lin adds that’s why Bud­dha stat­ues made in the Tang and Song (960-1279) dy­nas­ties, which dis­play a style of re­al­is­tic art fa­vored byWestern­ers, tend to be treated as the high­lights of their col­lec­tions. Bud­dha stat­ues of the North­ern Qi Dy­nasty have been also gain­ing more recog­ni­tion and in­ter­est world­wide over the past fewdecades be­cause they were ar­guably in­flu­enced by the art of the Gupta Em­pire (a phase of an­cient In­dia), which en­tered what is to­day’s Shan­dong prov­ince through the­Mar­itime Silk Road.

The re­turn of the an­cient statue to Zhengyang will not only en­hance the com­mu­ni­ca­tion across the Straits, but also stim­u­late lo­cal cul­tural tourism.”

“From 1949 to the ‘cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion’ (1966-76), the Chi­nese main­land cut off its con­nec­tion with the out­side world. Un­able to en­ter the coun­try, the sec­ond or third gen­er­a­tions of those col­lec­tors don’t have the emo­tional at­tach­ment to the coun­try, un­like their fa­thers,” says Lin.

Lin says that’s also the rea­son why they’re will­ing to sell their fam­ily col­lec­tions in the first place. From the 1970s, an­tique deal­ers started to find trea­sures from their gar­dens and sell them to in­ter­na­tional mar­kets.

In the 1980s, Tai­wan started to em­brace a fast-grow­ing econ­omy and a more open so­ci­ety, both con­tribut­ing to the for­ma­tion of a cul­tur­ally aware elite group who were will­ing to in­vest in cul­tural relics. That’s why when Chi­nese cul­tural relics en­tered the Asian mar­ket, with Hong Kong nor­mally be­ing the first stop, en­trepreneurs from Tai­wan were usu­ally among the first group of buy­ers.

In the past decade, Chi­nese cul­tural relics owned by Tai­wan col­lec­tors started to draw at­ten­tion in mar­kets in­clud­ing the Chi­nese main­land.

For ex­am­ple, a few of the con­tro­ver­sial bronze zo­diac an­i­mal head stat­ues at the Old Sum­mer Palace were re­port­edly once owned by Tai­wan col­lec­tors. In 2007, four na­tional trea­sures owned by Tai­wan col­lec­tors, in­clud­ing the Four Sheep Cop­per Pots of the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770-476 BC), ap­peared in an au­tumn auc­tion in Bei­jing.

Tai­wan has been an im­por­tant source of cul­tural relic do­na­tions to the Chi­nese main­land. In 1999, Tai­wan en­tre­pre­neur Chen Yung-tai bought 18 arhat head sculp­tures from over­seas and gave them back to the Zishou Tem­ple in Shanxi prov­ince. In 2002, a Bud­dha head was do­nated to the Shen­tong Tem­ple in Shan­dong prov­ince by Mas­ter Sheng-Yen on be­half of Tai­wan’s Dharma DrumMoun­tain.

Yeh’s dona­tion is the third such gift in his­tory. In­He­nan’s Zhengyang county, the lo­cal gov­ern­ment is plan­ning to re­build a small tem­ple to ac­com­mo­date the statue. Lo­cal res­i­dents are also re­turn­ing the stone plaque they kept af­ter the orig­i­nal tem­ple was de­mol­ished.

“The re­turn of the an­cient statue to Zhengyang will not only en­hance the com­mu­ni­ca­tion across the Straits, but also stim­u­late lo­cal cul­tural tourism,” says Yeh.

“Af­ter hear­ing about the re­turn of the statue, many peo­ple went to wor­ship it. This will push the gov­ern­ment to pay more at­ten­tion to the preser­va­tion of cul­tural relics.” Con­tact the writer at hanbingbin@chi­nadaily.com.cn.


A 574-year-old Bud­dha statue, do­nated by Tai­wan col­lec­tor Andy Yeh, re­turns to its home­town in Zhengyang county, Henan prov­ince. Yeh’s dona­tion also in­cludes Bud­dha heads, dat­ing from the 6th to the 20th cen­turies, that are cur­rently in Tian­jin.

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