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.

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