Archaeologists Recount a Buddhist Tale

By SOUREN MELIKIAN, New York Times, November 27, 2009

New York, USA -- All great cultures go through avatars that alter them beyond recognition. Then, mysteriously, they somehow leave their own distinctive imprint on whatever they borrowed.

Few were more successful at this assimilation game than China — and more adamant in insisting that the outside world really played a minimal part in the metamorphosis of its world perception and the impact it had on its art.

Perhaps the most dazzling outcome ever of this recurring phenomenon in Chinese history is the sculpture that emerged in the wake of the large-scale adoption of Buddhism. Its ultimate masterpieces came to light within the last 13 years in hazy circumstances. Some of them may be seen at the Musée Cernuschi until Jan. 3 in a stunningly beautiful presentation that would easily earn the international prize for Asian art exhibitions if such an award existed.

The official account of the discovery told many times has the ring of an exemplary tale. In October 1996, teams engaged in the construction of a sports facility on the grounds of the Shefan primary school at Qingzhou in Shandong Province “made an extraordinary discovery,” writes Gilles Béguin, the director of the Musée Cernuschi, in the exhibition book, which he edited.

“In a 60-square-meter pit dug out with care, two meters deep,” or a 650-square-foot pit 6 feet deep, “fragments of Buddhist statues were methodically laid down, the heads along the sides and the larger bits, torsos, and stela slabs in the central area. Some were only partially preserved. A number were reassembled after a delicate restoration job. Some reveal traces of a fire, others were repaired in ancient times with iron clasps.”

Color photographs in the exhibition book are intended to illustrate the story. In one, five men bend over broken fragments emerging out of the reddish terrain. In another, smashed stelas are summarily dumped and in a third shot, a Buddha head appears under piled-up bits of a stela. This does not quite fit the idea of an orderly burial. Sure enough, the very notion of an archaeological excavation evaporates on closer inspection.

True, the Shefan school stands on the site of a temple “supposed to have been erected in the 5th century AD. (425),” according to the catalog. It has been known since the late seventh century as the Longxingsi, “The Temple of the Dragon Awakening.” Unfortunately, Mr. Béguin observes, “the epigraphic and historical sources do not make it possible to reconstruct its history.” In other words, Longxingsi is just a name. The label pinned on the fragments is not supported by material evidence.

Another oddity is intriguing about the “Longxing temple discovery” tale. Mr. Béguin writes that it “includes between 320 and 400 [my italics] statues of which 200 are torsos, 144 Buddha heads and 46 bodhisattva heads.” No explanation is given about the discrepancy between the sum total, vaguely stated as 320 to 400, and the detailed items, which precisely add up to 400.

Earlier accounts of the “discovery” indicate that the total number of sculptures was never clearly established. That would be unthinkable in any archaeological excavation, or even in a commercial dig carried out in the presence of qualified archaeologists.

Worse, in the past decade, sculptures closely related to those in the Paris exhibition have surfaced at New York auctions, in international art fairs — notably at Maastricht, the Netherlands — and several galleries dealing in Chinese antiquities. In 2004, the Parisian Galerie Jacques Barrère alone proudly illustrated in its catalog 13 sculptures labeled “China, Qingzhou.” When archaeologists make a discovery, you don’t see part of the stuff knocking around the art market. Add that when sculptures from the supposed find were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, the stylistic disparities between various groups precluded provenance from a single architectural site. Amusingly, the Paris exhibition book obliquely admits as much. “Works originating in other shrines may have been added to statues from the Longxingsi.”

This fuels the suspicion that not one but several finds were made, whether accidentally or, more likely, in commercial digs. Did the cultural authorities eventually decide that enough is enough and choose to channel whatever they laid hands on into a purpose-built museum? Such a pattern fits material reality more convincingly than the “discovery” story. It would explain, among other things, why some sculptures from the Qingzhou Museum, including those on loan to the Musée Cernuschi, appear to have been processed for improved commercial display — the fresh breaks in several statues look suspiciously neat, as if the awkward splinters caused by smashing, systematic or accidental, had been removed to spare potential customers an unpleasant sight.

If the sculptures had merely suffered at the hands of anti-Buddhist vandals in ancient China (a known occurrence), there would hardly be so many hands cleanly removed. Spontaneous destruction is messy.

Whatever the true story, which may never be revealed in full, gathering the finds in a museum made good sense. Mr. Béguin’s decision to focus on a group of sculptures with clear stylistic unity was equally inspired.

The sixth century to which they belong marked the apex of an evolution that took centuries. The early diffusion of Buddhism in China remains unclear. It may have started around the second century A.D. and probably owes as much to the communities of Sogdian merchants from the northeast Iranian world established in Chinese cities, as to missionaries from India, where Buddhism arose around the fifth century B.C. The northeast Iranian tradesmen dominated international commerce along the routes leading from their metropolis Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan to Sogdian cities in what is now Xinjiang and, via Dunhuang (the sinicized name of Sogdian Durwang), to northern China. Countless sixth- to eigth-century pottery figures representing them have been recovered from funerary chambers and bear out their extensive presence in China proper.

In an essay on the “Buddha Images of the Northern Plains” published in the book accompanying the major 2004 “China” art show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Chinese art historian Su Bai quotes a seventh-century monk, Yanzong, praising the Indian-style images by the Northern Qi Sogdian painter Cao Zhongda. The artist, Yanzong says, was the author of “wondrous painted Buddhas ” “auspicious [images] whose model was transmitted from the West” and “foreign Buddha images of which [he] is the finest interpreter.”

Later connoisseurs continued to sing Cao Zhongda’s praise, invariably stressing his Sogdian identity. As late as the 11th century, a man of letters, Guo Ruoxu, noted that the Sogdian painter also sculpted Buddhas.

But while the iconography of Buddhism arrived in China from India and Sogdia, and foreigners occasionally participated in artistic activity, loans and influences were totally absorbed into the artistic idiom of China, by then one of the most powerful in Asia.

A stela carved in high relief around the early sixth century, at the end of the Northern Wei dynasty, is as thoroughly Chinese as the Gothic statuary of Notre Dame is French. Rapturous smiles with a suggestion of inner laughter are given by the Buddha and the two bodhisattvas on either side. They have no match elsewhere in Asia.

A musician raising to his lips Pan’s pipe, an instrument that reached China from Sasanian Iran, is uniquely Chinese with his irrepressible mirth, as if some wonderful secret had just been revealed to him.

A Buddha head carved under the Eastern Wei rulers (534-550) is absorbed in ecstatic, profoundly gratifying contemplation. Here too, the canon is foreign and the art quintessentially Chinese. The expression of unfathomable, illuminated certainty is reminiscent of some much earlier funerary terracotta figures of the Han age with enigmatic, quietly blissful smiles.

Too little is known about the third or fourth century to understand how the transition was made to the full blossoming of Buddhist art in the fifth century and its supreme expression 100 years later. But the continuity of aesthetic approach is clear enough.

Much remains to be discovered about the period separating the end of the Han age in 220 A.D. and the sixth century A.D. The Buddhist art of China then attained what could be seen as its classical moment, immediately before the violently xenophobic reaction of 574-577 A.D. that led to large-scale destruction. Discoveries will be made by the dozen the day authorities set their mind to more systematic archaeological work. So why put a fine gloss on uncertain finds? Be content with showing them in their glorious beauty.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: