Qingzhou's trove

Summary: Two decades ago, construction workers discovered a cache while digging a foundation for a school in Qingzhou city in East China's Shandong province. Then, archaeologists found it belonged to a relic site of the Longxing Temple that was built around the fi

Relics from the Longxing Temple in East China are exhibited in Beijing ahead of the World Congress of Art History, Lin Qi reports.

Two decades ago, construction workers discovered a cache while digging a foundation for a school in Qingzhou city in East China's Shandong province. Then, archaeologists found it belonged to a relic site of the Longxing Temple that was built around the fifth century and demolished some 800 years later.

The archaeologists were surprised to find that an art trove had survived underground for centuries. They unearthed several hundred Buddhist images that were made of various materials and traced back from the Northern Wei (AD 386-534) to the Northern Song (960-1127) dynasties.

The richness of Qingzhou's storage pit of Buddhist statues shocked the country, too. The discovery was ranked among the top 10 archaeological findings of 1996 in an annual, nationwide evaluation backed by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage since 1990.

Since the discovery, the statues have been widely exhibited, delighting audiences at home and abroad, and information on them has been included in many textbooks on art history.

Now 50 sculptures from the Qingzhou cellar are on display at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, as part of a special exhibition for the 34th World Congress of Art History, held in Beijing from Friday to Sept 20. Visitors are bound to be overwhelmed by the statues' smiles as well as their clothes.

Qingzhou's trove

Buddhist relics unearthed in Qingzhou, Shandong province, were among the country's top 10 archaeological discoveries in 1996.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Exhibition curator Zheng Yanwho is also a professor of cultural heritage at the CAFAhad mixedfeelings when he first saw the artworks in 1997, in the storehouse of Qingzhou City Museumwhere they have been kept and restored after being excavated.

"It was a startling sceneA bulk of the images had been broken into pieces of varying sizesTheywere scattered all over the floor," he recalls.

"Researchers at the museum managed to piece together nearly 100 fragments to see a statue'soriginal formwhile I heard there were several hundred more in need of sorting out."

It took professionals years to finally reassemble some 400 statues with some of their fingers,hands and arms still missing or incompleteAlsothere are a lot of broken pieces that can't berestored and part of them are shown at the exhibition at the CAFA art museum.

As the exhibition title Smashed and Reassembled suggestsZheng hopes the juxtaposition ofmended sculptures and groups of fragments can bring new perspectives to the viewing ofBuddhist art.

Yang Zhongkuidirector of Qingzhou City Museumsays the production of Buddhist statuesunearthed from the storage pit spanned nearly five centuries and the earliest dated to AD 529.

He says many sculptures feature a high back screen carved with intricate raised patterns thatform the distinctive "Qingzhou style".

Qingzhou's trove

[Photo provided to China Daily]

The statuesYang sayswere made of stonejadeironwood and clayThe highest is 3.2metersThey boast varieties of sculpting techniques and ornamentsproviding extensiveinformation for both archaeologists and art historians.

Many of the images were subject to damage of varying degrees - repaired and destroyed againas scholars speculate that the statues fell victim to two wholesale persecutions of Buddhism inChinaThe first was during the reign of Northern Zhou (AD 557-581) Emperor Wuwho orderedBuddhist and Taoist temples destroyed because he felt people were spending too much time inthem.

After the Sui Dynasty's (AD 518-618) founding Emperor Yang Jian took powerthe clergies ofLongxing Temple restored the remaining statues and sculpted new onesBut the sculptures ofgreat artistry were destroyed when Emperor Wuzong of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), himselfa devout Taoistabolished Buddhism in the country.

The statues were possibly buried after people found it impossible to repair the damaged onesand buried them in the storage pit around 1026.

Zheng says the remaining statues and broken pieces were placed in some order when found inthe cellarand it suggests that there could have been a burial ceremonyHe says it was a way forBuddhists at the time to achieve relief after something disastrous.

Qingzhou's trove

[Photo provided to China Daily]

"The sculptures were seen as incarnations of the BuddhaPeople believed after being damaged,the surviving parts of statues were still endowed with sacred powerslike the Buddha's relics.

"With great devotionpeople collected and buried themhoping that they would be well preservedunderground."

Alsopeople believed the smashed pieces would someday be reunited with the missing partsand reassembledimplying the arrival of a new agehe says.

If you go

9:30 am-5:30 pmclosed Mondaythrough Sept 20. CAFA art museum, 8 Huajiadi South Street,Chaoyang districtBeijing. 010-6477-1575.

Qingzhou's trove

[Photo provided to China Daily]

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