Imperishable Civilisation at the Stone Carving Art Museum
The Beijing Stone Carving Museum houses over 2,600 priceless relics excavated in the capital, including statues, tombstones, carvings, tablets and steles bearing the calligraphy of many eminent figures.
Beijing is home to as many stone tablets, carvings, tombstones, steles and statues as there are peaks in the Yan Mountains. Like the Great Wall’s mountain range, these stone masterpieces have stood the test of time, carving out a record of the millennia of history of Beijing. The Beijing Stone Carving Museum features rare statues of the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386– 534), tombstones from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618– 907), stone carvings from the Jin ( 1115– 1234) and Yuan ( 1206– 1368) dynasties and stone tablets and steles bearing calligraphy of eminent Qing Dynasty ( 1644– 1911) figures— over 2,600 priceless relics excavated in the Beijing area that speak of the capital’s history as well as the developmental history of Chinese calligraphy, architecture and religion.
The Revival of Zhenjue Temple
The Beijing Stone Carving Art Museum, located on the former site of the Mingera Zhenjue Temple, is a specialised museum for the collection, study, display and protection of stone- carved relics in the vicinity of Beijing. Covering nearly 20,000 square metres, the museum contains a great number of stone carvings, displaying a substantial number of cultural deposits. The prosperity of the Han (206 BC–AD 220) and Tang dynasties; the national melding and cultural exchanges of the Liao (AD 916–1125), Jin and Yuan dynasties; and the imperial grandeur of Ming and Qing dynasties are housed in these halls. The Zhenjue Temple itself has been listed among the first batch of units for national cultural relic protection since 1961.
Built in the Ming Dynasty, the Zhenjue Temple is also colloquially known as the “Five Pagoda Temple” for its “diamond throne” pagoda. The construction of this pagoda, built from brick, white marble and blue and white stones, was completed in 1473.
To celebrate his mother’s 70th birthday, Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736–1795) had the Zhenjue Temple renovated in 1751 and 1761.
In the late Qing Dynasty, a disastrous fire burned down the temple, leaving only the diamond throne pagoda and two ancient ginkgo trees that stood in front of it. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the government began making extensive renovations. In 1987, the Beijing Stone Carving Art Museum was established based on the diamond
throne pagoda’s exquisite stone carvings, making the ancient royal temple shine brilliantly again.
Diamond Throne Pagoda: a Precious Treasure
The Diamond Throne Pagoda is the most precious treasure of the museum. Built in the style of the Great Bodh Gaya Tower of ancient India, it is unlike more standard Chinese Buddhist pagodas. The main structure consists of a pedestal and five small pagodas. Architecturally referred to as a “diamond throne pagoda,” only about 10 such pagodas still stand in China. Of those, the Zhenjue Temple’s is the most ancient and most exquisite, truly the most representative work in the Middle Kingdom. The base of the foundation is a Sumeru throne, built on a rectangular base. From the Sumeru throne to the top of the foundation there are five layers. Each layer is carved with niches on all sides. A Buddha is seated inside each niche and there are 1,561 in total. The five small pagodas are built on top of the foundation, the largest in the centre, with the others standing on each of the four corners.
The carvings on the foundation and its pagodas are breathtaking, making the whole Diamond Throne Pagoda a colossal work of art from top to bottom. Carved using traditional Chinese crafts, the Diamond Throne Pagoda is steeped in religious motifs: the Five Great Buddhas in seated position; Sanskrit and Tibetan inscriptions on the towers; such figures as Bodhisattva, Heavenly King and Arhat; and animals such as lions, peacocks, greenfinches and the personal mounts of the Five Great Buddhas. Each carving seems to have not only a static but also a dynamic stance, as if imbued with supernatural power, full of wit and humour. Among its noteworthy features is a pair of Buddha’s feet in relief in the middle of the Sumeru throne, its soles pointing outwards. In Buddhism, Buddha’s feet indicate that the footprints of kindness are left all over the world. A lotus flower in full bloom is under the feet, surrounded by the Eight Treasures of Buddhism and curly grass patterns. It is a unique feature among temples in Beijing, as all the other carvings of the Buddha’s feet are intaglios.
The shape of the Zhenjue Temple’s Diamond Throne Pagoda comes from India. Yet in its design, with its short eaves, corbel brackets and glazedtile roofs, there is an obvious, distinct, traditional, Chinese style. The pagoda stands as a masterpiece created by integrating foreign culture into Chinese architecture.
A Rare Collection
The massive, ancient pagoda is surrounded by nearly 80 percent of the museum’s collection of stone carvings. This open-air exhibition area is split into eight display zones including zones, for the Mausoleum Stone Carvings, Temple Tablet Inscriptions, Tablets of the Society of Jesus, and Tablet Inscriptions of Tombs and Memorial Halls. Each display zone has stone carvings with their own prominent artistic features. Among the Mausoleum Stone Carvings, 28 carvings and statues used in mausoleums are displayed. Each tells a story, such as stone figures and animals symbolising the status of the buried, as well as the carved hall and throne acting as “palace” facilities. A notable exhibit is the stone hall carved for the Mausoleum of Fushou, Prince Xian of the First Rank (a court title), by order of Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1662– 1723) in 1675. This stone hall exhibits architecture at its finest, consisting of more than 30 carvings in the likeness of a wooden buildings.
Behind the diamond pagoda are the extremely rare Shendao ( literally “Path of the Gods”) columns and Shendao watchtowers erected on the path leading to the tomb of Qinjun, You Prefecture scribe of the Han Dynasty. First unearthed in June, 1964 on the north slope of Laoshan Hill in Shijingshan District, they consist of 16 fragments bearing an inscription that reads “the first year of Emperor Yuanxing,” which was the year AD 105.
Leaving the open-air exhibition area there is a posterior building behind the Beijing Stone Carving Art Museum, which is mainly used to elaborate on the distribution, features, history and the present situation of stone carvings in the Beijing region. In the exhibition hall “Shipo tianjing” or “heaven-shaking and earth-shattering” one can observe the stone carvings found on the path leading to the tomb of the scribe Qinjun, one of the most precious treasures of the museum, which is also acclaimed as the “No. 1 ancient stone carving in Beijing.” The Chinese characters on the stone columns are clear, in the simple- yet- elegant style of Han script. Compared with seal characters, this Han script is free and easy and has all the features of official script, yet it is not as conventionally decorative as mature Han script found in later tablet inscriptions.
Many other pieces of extremely valuable stonework are also housed here. One is the most ancient and highest-ranked stone carving in the Beijing region, the Stone Winged Beast of the Tang Dynasty. Excavated at Liutaizhuang Village, Wangzuo Township, Fengtai District, in 1982, it has been inferred by experts to be a stone animal on the path leading to the traitorous General Shi Siming’s tomb. A Taoist statue with a chronological record is nearby, the first of its kind ever found in the Beijing region, and the Coloured Zhenwu (or Xuandi, a deity) Statue of the Yuan Dynasty, which was unearthed at the Guo’erzhao Hotel to the southeast of Xizhimen Flyover in 1998. Each of stone masterpieces hail from different periods, reflecting the evolution of indigenous culture and religion and are important parts of the history of Beijing.