QINGZHOU’S TROVE

Relics from the Longx­ing Tem­ple in East China are ex­hib­ited in Bei­jing ahead of the World Congress of Art His­tory, Lin Qi re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE | CULTURE - Con­tact the writer at linqi@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Two decades ago, con­struc­tion work­ers dis­cov­ered a cache while dig­ging a foun­da­tion for a school in Qingzhou city in East China’s Shan­dong province. Then, ar­chae­ol­o­gists found it be­longed to a relic site of the Longx­ing Tem­ple that was built around the fifth cen­tury and de­mol­ished some 800 years later.

The ar­chae­ol­o­gists were sur­prised to find that an art trove had sur­vived un­der­ground for cen­turies. They un­earthed sev­eral hun­dred Bud­dhist im­ages that were made of var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als and traced back from the North­ern Wei (AD 386-534) to the North­ern Song (960-1127) dy­nas­ties.

The rich­ness of Qingzhou’s stor­age pit of Bud­dhist stat­ues shocked the coun­try, too. The dis­cov­ery was ranked among the top 10 ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings of 1996 in an an­nual, na­tion­wide eval­u­a­tion backed by the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­tural Her­itage since 1990.

Since the dis­cov­ery, the stat­ues have been widely ex­hib­ited, de­light­ing au­di­ences at home and abroad, and in­for­ma­tion on them has been in­cluded in many text­books on art his­tory.

Now50 sculp­tures from the Qingzhou cel­lar are on display at the Cen­tral Academy of Fine Arts, as part of a spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tion for the 34th World Congress of Art His­tory, held in Bei­jing from Fri­day to Sept 20. Vis­i­tors are bound to be over­whelmed by the stat­ues’ smiles as well as their clothes.

Ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tor Zheng Yan, who is also a pro­fes­sor of cul­tural her­itage at the CAFA, had mixed feel­ings when he first saw the art­works in 1997, in the store­house of Qingzhou City Mu­seum where they have been kept and re­stored af­ter be­ing ex­ca­vated.

“It was a star­tling scene. A bulk of the im­ages had been bro­ken into pieces of vary­ing sizes. They were scat­tered all over the floor,” he re­calls.

“Re­searchers at the mu­seum man­aged to piece to­gether nearly 100 frag­ments to see a statue’s orig­i­nal form, while I heard there were sev­eral hun­dred more in need of sort­ing out.”

It took pro­fes­sion­als years to fi­nally re­assem­ble some 400 stat­ues with some of their fin­gers, hands and arms still miss­ing or in­com­plete. Also, there are a lot of bro­ken pieces that can’t be re­stored and part of them are shown at the ex­hi­bi­tion at the CAFA art mu­seum.

As the ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tle Smashed and Re­assem­bled sug­gests, Zheng hopes the jux­ta­po­si­tion of mended sculp­tures and groups of frag­ments can bring new per­spec­tives to the view­ing of Bud­dhist art.

Yang Zhongkui, direc­tor of Qingzhou City Mu­seum, says the pro­duc­tion of Bud­dhist stat­ues un­earthed from the stor­age pit spanned nearly five cen­turies and the ear­li­est dated to AD 529.

He says many sculp­tures fea­ture a high back screen carved with in­tri­cate raised pat­terns that form the dis­tinc­tive “Qingzhou style”.

The stat­ues, Yang says, were made of stone, jade, iron, wood and clay. The high­est is 3.2 me­ters. They boast va­ri­eties of sculpt­ing tech­niques and or­na­ments, pro­vid­ing ex­ten­sive in­for­ma­tion for both ar­chae­ol­o­gists and art his­to­ri­ans.

Many of the im­ages were sub­ject to dam­age of vary­ing de­grees — re­paired and de­stroyed again as schol­ars spec­u­late that the stat­ues fell vic­tim to two whole­sale per­se­cu­tions of Bud­dhism in China. The first was dur­ing the reign of North­ern Zhou (AD557-581) Em­peror Wu, who or­dered Bud­dhist and Taoist tem­ples de­stroyed be­cause he felt peo­ple were spend­ing too much time in them.

Af­ter the Sui Dy­nasty’s (AD 518-618) found­ing Em­peror Yang Jian took power, the cler­gies of Longx­ing Tem­ple re­stored the re­main­ing stat­ues and sculpted new ones. But the sculp­tures of great artistry were de­stroyed when Em­peror Wu­zong of the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618-907), him­self a de­vout Taoist, abol­ished Bud­dhism in the coun­try.

The stat­ues were pos­si­bly buried af­ter peo­ple found it im­pos­si­ble to re­pair the dam­aged ones and buried them in the stor­age pit around 1026.

Zheng says the re­main­ing stat­ues and bro­ken pieces were placed in some or­der when found in the cel­lar, and it sug­gests that there could have been a burial cer­e­mony. He says it was a way for Bud­dhists at the time to achieve re­lief af­ter some­thing dis­as­trous.

“The sculp­tures were seen as in­car­na­tions of the Bud­dha. Peo­ple be­lieved af­ter be­ing dam­aged, the sur­viv­ing parts of stat­ues were still en­dowed with sa­cred pow­ers, like the Bud­dha’s relics.

“With great de­vo­tion, peo­ple col­lected and buried them, hop­ing that they would be well pre­served un­der­ground.”

Also, peo­ple be­lieved the smashed pieces would some­day be re­united with the miss­ing parts and re­assem­bled, im­ply­ing the ar­rival of a new age, he says.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Bud­dhist relics un­earthed in Qingzhou, Shan­dong province, were among the coun­try’s top 10 ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies in 1996.

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