More supervision needed to prevent wayward repair of relics

Photos: image.baidu.com

Recently, a cultural relics enthusiast posted on Chinese social media contrasting photos of a historical Buddha sculpture before and after it received a botched repair work, provoking a public outcry over such amateur work that’s believed to have ‘disfigured’ many other cultural relics in China. Lack of government supervision is said to be the key reason behind the problem.

Xu Xin, a tour guide with the Dunhuang Academy, a state-run agency promoting Mogao Grottoes studies and tourism, first posted the controversial pictures on Twitter-like Weibo. According to Xu, photos of the newly renovated Buddha statue in Anyue town, southwest China’s Sichuan province, were from a friend.

The photos show the formerly archaic statue is now covered in cartoonish colors of red, blue, green and yellow. Xu’s post was soon forwarded over 15,000 times, with many netizens lamenting over the loss of grandeur and beauty of the cultural relic. “It has been disfigured by ‘such thick make-up’,” a netizen commented.

The Fengmen temple in Anyue, which houses the vulgarly repaired Buddhist relic was built in the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), featuring 23 bas-reliefs on precipices. The temple has been preserved by the local government as a cultural relics site since 1988.

This is not an isolated case. After the two photos went viral on Chinese social media, several netizens reached out to Xu Xin and published through his Weibo account multiple other photos of ancient Buddha statues in the area or neighboring areas which were carelessly repaired and painted in garish colors.

The local Administration of Cultural Heritage in Anyue responded later, claiming in a notice that none of the questionable work was done recently as Xu alleged but during the mid-1990s, with funds voluntarily contributed by local followers of Buddha. After authorities found out what’s going on, they put a stop to it, the agency noted.

The South China Morning Post previously reported that Anyue township is known for its stone sculptures. The official local government website describes it as “the City of Buddhist Sculptures”. There are more than 230 sites housing more than 100,000 sculptures, going back as early as the 900s, in the township.

It was known that a similarly poor work was done on a reclining Buddha sculpture in the Lezhi county of Sichuan province during the same period, although that case was disclosed immediately after the restoration was done. A reclining Buddha is a major iconographic pattern of Buddhism, which represents the Buddha during his last illness, just before the Nirvana.
 
 
The full-length Buddha was carved in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). He is lying on the right flank, with his head resting on a cushion. As it is one of the most-celebrated historic stone Buddha statues in China, the news of it being gilded by local devotees in 1992 caught national attention. The work made the cultural relic so ‘glittering’ that the damage is said to be irreversible.

The international restoration work on historical sites generally adopts the “fix old as old” principle, meaning the restoration work should leave the original forms and appearance unchanged as much as possible.

The Procuratorate Daily reported that according to China’s Cultural Relics Protection Law, any repair work on relics must first be approved by local authorities before being executed. Anyone who severely damages cultural relics would face penalties ranging from 50,000 yuan to 500,000 yuan. In extreme cases, the culprits are even subject to criminal charges.

“Besides a lack of awareness among local villagers, the other reason is that all bas-reliefs on precipices are far away from the cities. For those scattered in the outlying countryside, there are no effective protection measures in place yet,” Yang Jianshun, a professor with the law school of the Renmin University of China, told the Procuratorate Daily.

According to the third official survey on cultural relics, by 2011, there were a total of 766,700 irremovable cultural relics in China, with 83.8 percent of them being scattered in the countryside or remote areas. Due to inadequate regulation, criminal or civil cases involving historical relics occur all the time.

Yang Jianshun proposed to set up a pre-warning system to protect the irremovable cultural relics. “Firstly, there should be regular supervision and examination to find out the conditions of relics and then decide if they should be preserved or go through restoration,” he said. Yang also suggested engaging the general public in the efforts to protect historical sites and relics by constructing an information-sharing platform.

But some netizens hold different opinions. “In the ancient times, people could always donate to renovate or rebuild Buddha statues, so why are they not allowed to do it today? asked a netizen. Another replied, “That’s because there was no concept about cultural relics or heritage back then. Now we live in a modern world, so we could not follow those old rules.”

Lei Yuhua of the Chengdu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology told the Procuratorate Daily that pooling money for gilding or clothing Buddha statues has been a long tradition in China dating back thousands of years. Local villagers regard such activities as paying tribute to the God. As long as they have extra money, they would endeavor to restore local deity statues based on their own perceptions.

Wang Zhenzhong, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, elaborated that cultural relics in China went through two major destructions in history — one was during the war times and the other during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1979. He suggested local governments to use various media channels to help spread the awareness about preserving historical sites and relics among villagers.   
 

 


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