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Returned to Light: Buddhist Statuary from Longxing Temple, Qingzhou

by Bruce Doar
formerly Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Xia Mingcai, Yang Hong, Su Bai and Wang HuaqingThe reputation of Shandong province, and in particular the Qingzhou region, as a potential treasure trove of Buddhist statuary has now clearly spread well beyond the sphere of archaeology, art history and other academic disciplines. "We were surrounded by dealers from the moment we began excavating," commented Wang Huaqing, Director of the Qingzhou Municipal Museum. Wang was the first to see evidence of the remarkable hoard discovered in 1996 as he stood chatting to workmen resurfacing a basketball court adjacent to the museum. Their bulldozer had uncovered several arm-like objects, and Wang described to us in vivid detail how security forces were brought in to throw a cordon sanitaire around the Qingzhou Museum team as they worked into the night to save the hoard of statues from the bulldozer--and the dealers.

We later witnessed the lengths to which thieves will go to satisfy an expanding market for the elegant and priceless Buddhist figures from Qingzhou and its environs. After a climb to the Buddhist grottoes on Tuoshan (Camel Mountain) outside Qingzhou, Wang pointed out how the heads of five Northern Wei Buddhas in niches towards the summit of the mountain had been crudely hacked from images carved into the stone cliffs. Once such vandalism might have been ascribed to Red Guards, but the perpetrators in this case were young, commercially-minded, but down at heel thieves from Hebei province for whom the desecration of a religious and artistic masterpiece was irrelevant except for its profitability.

Statues thought to be from the Shandong area have already appeared at overseas auctions where they attract high prices. For example, in December 1989 a white marble figurative stele thought to date to the Northern Qi dynasty was sold by Sotheby's in London to a Japanese buyer for 850,000 pounds. On 7 April 1999, the press also reported the attempted robbery in March of the tomb of the adopted daughter of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei, located in Heguan township in Qingzhou. Fortunately the young thieves were caught by locals who reported them to the police.

One of the reasons why the Longxing Temple hoard is so important is that it provides an historical continuum of the Buddhist plastic arts in China from the Northern Wei through to the end of the Northern Qi, and thus a chance to document stylistic changes influenced by shifting alliances between north and south during this turbulent period. While exhibitions such as The Art of Contemplation-Religious Sculpture from Private Collections (National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1997) do allow a public viewing of some of the statues "removed" from Shandong in recent years, the provenance of these images has been lost, and there is no longer any way of fitting them readily into the temporal or geographical framework of other finds from the province or elsewhere.

N.Wei - E.Wei Buddhist triad from QingzhouThe storeroom at the Qingzhou Museum is, however, still packed with fragments of stone, a row of lifelike fingers in a glass case, the ethereal head of a minute apsaras and rows of feet awaiting eventual reunion with their original Buddha or Bodhisattva. Piles of unidentifiable shapes also litter the floor, all parts of statues that the museum staff must painstakingly match, rematch and hopefully eventually reassemble. Some of the more complete figures have bright, well-preserved colour painting and gilding that gleams eerily in the subdued light. Work on a new extension to the Museum is currently underway and when completed will house the results of this gigantic undertaking. The majority of limestone figures were broken before burial, no one yet know why, nor why such a massive hoard was buried at all. Two reasons have been proposed: the constant warfare in the area during the Song and Jin periods, or the persecution of Buddhism that occurred in the year 1111 during the reign of Song Huizong, who was a Daoist. Care was obviously taken to ensure that no further damage occurred; traces of matting have been found, suggesting that the figures were wrapped before interment, and many of the smaller pieces of stone were protected under large figurative stelae.

The statuary from Qingzhou, which includes Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and arhats, as well as a large number of elliptical figural stelae, offers an interesting contrast in styles. The earlier Northern Wei Buddhas generally wear a loose outer robe that covers both shoulders and an undergarment tied at the neck, a combination known in Chinese as baoyibodai, and representing a Sinicisation of the traditional Indian Buddha robes. By the Northern Qi period, the flimsier robes covered only the left shoulder and were closely moulded to the soft contours of the body, a style that can be seen both in early Indian Buddhist sculpture and that of Buddhist regions of Southeast Asia, such as Kampuchea.

The eyes on Buddhist statues also changed. Originally large and wide open, they became progressively smaller and were eventually depicted with the upper lids lowered. The Buddha's usnisa became rounder and flatter, and the style of the hair changed from wave-like patterns to dots, circular whorls resembling blossoms and spirals. The reasons for this transformation in sculptural representation, the origins of the new Indianisation of Chinese sculpture, and the route of transmission of artistic influences have all yet to be explained. Professor Su Bai suggests that the Mathuran arts of central India began to influence the Xinjiang region of China in the 4th century, and that these styles spread directly eastwards and were welcomed by the Northern Qi rulers who were resistant to the Sinicisation policies of the Northern Wei. The art of the Northern Qi was also undoubtedly influenced by the Xiao-Liang regime of the Southern Dynasties. Professor Su, one of China's foremost scholars on Buddhist grotto art, also notes that these Indianised statues have not so far been found in the lower reaches of the Yangzi River in the area centered on the Southern Dynasties capital Jiankang (today's Nanjing), but have appeared frequently in Chengdu in Sichuan province. The geographical proximity of the Shandong Peninsula to the southeastern coast of China, and thus the ancient kingdoms of the southern ocean, should also not be forgotten. Professor Yang Hong points out that for half a century, from 410-469, the area of Qingzhou was actually part of the Southern Dynasties sphere of influence, and contacts with the south continued even after the invasion of the Northern Wei.

The social dislocation of this period, as in any war-torn country, meant that there were massive migrations of people, and such movements may also have had a profound influence on artistic styles. It is documented that there were tens of thousands of itinerants from the Hebei area, where the carving of Buddhist statuary was already well advanced, and an eastward movement of people from Kucha and Sogdia in the Western Regions, some of whom occupied prominent positions in the Northern Qi government.

From the Western Han dynasty onwards, Qingzhou was an important communications centre for travellers from the West overland and by sea from Korea and Japan. There was also an easily navigable route by river and canal to the south and the Yangzi River valley region. The extent of north-south contact was emphasised by staff of the Qingzhou Museum in reference to the experiences of the Buddhist monk Faxian, the first Chinese monk to travel to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. In 412, on his return voyage to China, a violent storm forced Faxian's ship way beyond its intended destination of Guangzhou on China's southern coast, and he was forced to land at Qingdao in Shandong. Unsure of their exact location, although recognising from the vegetation that they were indeed in "the land of Han," Faxian questioned two hunters who informed him that he was in Changguang, a part of Qingzhou, and that they were disciples of the Buddha searching for peaches to give as an offering. The prefect of Qingzhou, possibly Le E, also a devout Buddhist, persuading Faxian to stay in the area when his ship and its crew returned to the south. The monk spent a year in the Longxing Temple, arranging the sutras he had brought with him from India and teaching the Buddhist doctrine.

The site of the present Qingzhou Museum, built in 1980, was chosen because of its supposed proximity to the remains of the ancient Longxing Temple, which fell into oblivion after the Hongwu period of the Ming. Although a Northern and Southern Dynasties carved stela bearing the name Nanyang Temple was discovered in 1979, and there have been a few sporadic finds of Buddhist statues, the actual location of the Longxing Temple remained a mystery until Wang Huaqing's fortuitous encounter. The discovery and excavation of one of the largest and most significant hoards of Buddhist statues ever found in China also disclosed the layout of the temple site itself, which is relatively clear and well preserved.

The importance of the Longxing Temple finds is highlighted by the fact that the Chinese History Museum in Beijing has chosen to display approximately 80 of the statues from the hoard as its major contribution to the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. According to Shi Shuqing, a researcher at the History Museum, the primary aim of this exhibition is not only to publicise the ancient arts of China, but to raise people's awareness of the need to preserve and protect these unique images. It is also designed to bring together representative examples so that scholars can examine more closely archaeological evidence of the nation's religious and cultural history.
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This article is excerpted from China Archaeology and Art Digest 3:1 (April 1999), 5-8.

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