A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The antiquities market is destroying China's Buddhist statuary.
One of 18 Ming (A.D. 1368-1644) Dynasty arhats
On August 18, 1999, police reinforcements were brought in to restrain
hundreds of villagers and out-of-towners crowding into Zishou Temple in
Lingshi county, Shanxi province. The throng was not straining to view the
Ming Dynasty murals for which the temple is renowned, but to glimpse the
"eyes being opened" on the serene faces of the temple's 18 arhats,
exquisite Ming (A.D. 1368-1644) clay sculptures whose heads had been
removed six years previously by robbers and scattered around the globe. The
heads of this group of arhats, enlightened beings peculiar to Chinese
Buddhism who care for the poor, had now been returned to
their rightful place. In China the practice of eye opening is the most
important process in consecrating a new icon; the arhats are painted with their eyes opened, but the ceremony is thought to endow them with a lifelike gaze. Once the officiating Buddhist priest
had opened the eyes of the arhats for a second time, they were again ready
to respond to the locals' prayers for rain, as they had for the past five
The international antiques market drives the pillaging of archaeological
and cultural sites in China. Motivated by poverty and greed and imbued with
the disrespect for tradition born during the Cultural Revolution, local
thieves receive draconian punishments if sentenced. Consumers, on the other
hand, remain largely unscathed and anonymous. Collectors of taste in New York,
London, and Paris may be more reluctant these days to risk openly
displaying legally dubious offcut statuary from
Angkor in Cambodia or Gandhara in northwest Pakistan, but any slack in the market has been taken up by Asian
businessmen, who have created a demand for Buddhist statuary that now
graces the marbled foyers of corporate headquarters. The source of most
authentic Buddhist sculpture has been mainland China and collectors
have often been able to select their future pieces in situ, consulting with their partners on the aesthetics and pricing of their choice on portable phones.
This flourishing international market for Buddhist sculpture has resulted
in the disappearance of the heads of figures from Longmen, Datong, and
other vulnerable major outdoor Buddhist sites in China. The Longmen
Grottoes in Henan province constitute an architecturally monumental cliff
site where Buddhist stone carvings from the Northern Wei (A.D. 386-535)
through to the Song (A.D. 960-1280) Dynasties are preserved. The Tang (A.D.
618-906) Dynasty sculptures at this long protected and well managed site
are considered to be masterpieces of world sculpture. Yet in 1997 a Tang
Dynasty standing stone Buddha was stolen from the Dongshan area to the east
of the Longmen site. And between June 1996 and early 1997, five raids, two of them successful, were made by
robbers on outdoor Buddhist cave sites at Dazu, outside Chongqing in
Sichuan province. In fact, no outdoor site housing China's sculptural
heritage seems to have emerged totally unscathed in recent years.
Central Shanxi province is particularly rich in cultural relics of all
Chinese dynasties, but the area is also renowned for rural poverty and tomb
robbing has become a local profession. On Christmas night in 1993 the 18
arhats housed in Zishou Temple were decapitated by robbers. After scaling
the wall of the temple, forcing their way into the main hall and sawing the
heads from the figures, the thieves headed for Guangzhou the same night with the heads concealed in bags of carrots. Although the
robbery resulted in the arrest of the gang and their driver, the man to whom they sold them successfully crossed the border into Hong Kong. Buddhist statuary has been reportedly impounded by most major customs offices in China, from Tibet to
Shandong, but in this case the treasures passed through customs undetected.
Not only have Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and arhats been losing their heads,
thieves have desecrated statuary lining the "spirit way" of the
tombs of the Northern Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1127) to the southwest of Gongyi in
central China's Henan province. This necropolis contains eight mausolea
belonging to Northern Song emperors, as well as the tombs of 22 empresses
buried to the northwest of their husbands. The spirit way was a processional
avenue along which royal relatives approached imperial mausoleums. Pairs of well preserved stone
statues and observation towers line the spirit way leading up to the
southern gate of the complex. Since 1994, a total of eight heads have been
removed from statues at the Northern Song royal cemetery. In 1998 one of
these was returned by no less a visitor to China than US President Clinton.
In February this year a ninth head was removed, this time from a stone
warrior lining the "spirit way" leading to the Yongtai Mausoleum of Emperor
Zhexong (r. 1086-1100) and standing directly opposite the warrior whose
head Clinton returned last year!
The rules governing the layout of the statuary along the spirit way were
largely formulated in the Tang Dynasty, and some of the finest
examples of statuary from this period decorate the 18 imperial mausolea
found in the valleys of the Guanzhong Plain that lie beyond the Tang
capital Chang'an (today's Xi'an) in Shaanxi province. Although animal
sculptures lining the spirit way tend to be more fantastic than those at
the Northern Song imperial tombs, and their size has for the most part
guaranteed their safety, the human stone figures have been targeted by
thieves. In May 1997 five heads were removed from stone human figures
lining the nearly 1,500-foot-long spirit way of the Tang Dynasty Zhuangling
Mausoleum of Emperor Jingzong (r. 809-827), located northeast of Sanyuan
county in Shaanxi.
To stem the tide of antiquities pouring out of the country, Chinese law
enforcement has been meting out harsh penalties to local tomb robbers and
thieves, the bottom rung in the international antiquities smuggling racket.
Although most middlemen and almost all dealers evade prosecution, the
hapless pepole who supply the market, often to order, are hit with the full
force of the law. On January 15 this year Gao Yunjiu, a farmer, was
executed by firing squad in Luoyang in Henan province for the theft in
March 1997 of the head of a standing Buddha of the Tang period from
Longmen, and it was reported in July 1999 that prison sentences ranging
from three to 13 years were handed out by the Luoyang Intermediate Court to
the thieves who stole a head from the Northern Song imperial tombs. The
ringleader who had been arrested the previous month will most certainly
receive a harsher sentence if found guilty by the court. The two thieves
who removed the heads from the spirit way at the Zhuangling Mausoleum were
executed in 1998, ironically in front of the mausoleum itself. Only one of
the five missing heads has been recovered, and four are presumed to be
already on the international market.
Dancers performing in Lingshi county celebrate the "eyes being opened" of the 18 arhats. The Buddhist practice of eye opening invests the statues with a lifelike gaze and an ability to help the poor.
The outflow of Buddhist pieces is causing pangs of
nationalist sentiment among some Chinese, who feel their heritage is slipping away. In February 1998 it was reported that Ch'en Yung-t'ai, director of Taiwan's Aurora Foundation, an educational foundation, had located and purchased the
stolen heads of all 18 arhats from Zishou Temple on the international
market. Ch'en wished to return the arhats to the temple; in order to do
this, he had to arrange for special dispensation from the authorities in
Taiwan to override regulations forbidding objects more than 100 years old
from being taken from the island. With the help of diplomatic organisations
in Taipei and Shanghai, Ch'en eventually succeeded in presenting all 18
heads to China's cultural relics authorities. After being briefly displayed
in the Shanghai Museum, the clay heads have been faithfully restored with
the help of a team of scholars from the Shanxi Cultural Relics Association.
The crowds who flocked to the August 18th consecration ceremony at the
Zishou Temple were delighted that no wounds were visible on the arhats
after four months of restoration and a six-year odyssey around the world.
Bruce Doar is editor of China Archaeology and Art Digest.