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Off With the Heads October 28, 1999
Text and Photographs by Bruce Doar

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 centuries.

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.

[image] [LARGER IMAGE] Ch'en Yung-tai, a Taiwanese businessman, was responsible for purchasing all 18 arhats and restoring them to the Zishou temple. [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

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.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America