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Villagers’ spontaneous repair efforts cause permanent destruction to China's ancient statues

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A man who specializes in restoring ancient sites works on a sculpture on July 18 at a temple in Taiyuan, North China's Shanxi Province. Photo: VCG

The Buddha statue at the Fengmen temple in Sichuan's Anyue county before (left) and after restoration by local worshippers in 1995 Photo: Courtesy of Xu Xin


Restoring a weather-beaten Buddha statue normally takes years. Worshippers near a temple in Southwest China's Sichuan Province found a faster solution — using heavy makeup and painting the statue with bright colors.

This "restoration" of the Buddha statue in Sichuan's Anyue county triggered wide controversy online this week, after photos comparing it to the original statue were posted on Weibo by Xu Xin, a guide at China's Dunhuang Academy. 

Opponents said the move "damaged" the statue, and questioned why such "bizarre" aesthetics could be applied to the statue in the Fengmen Temple, which was listed as a provincial-level cultural relic site in 2012.

"The painting of the statue was funded and done by local worshippers in 1995, and authorities stopped them from painting more statues after arriving at the scene," Fu Chengjin, former director of the Anyue Cultural Relic Bureau, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

"But the 'restoration' could not be fixed because of the irreversible damage the paints have done to the original mineral pigment," said Fu. This kind of situation could not be repeated now, because the restoration of cultural relics has to be approved by authorities and conducted by professionals, Fu stressed.

The online discussion has led to other unconventional restorations drawing public attention.

A Water-moon Guanyin statue, one of the most frequently seen deities on altars in Chinese temples, was also painted with bright colors, in Sichuan's Guang'an.  A huge man's arm, about one half the length of the deity's body, was attached to the statue after the original arm fell off, according to photos shared by Xu.

Such restorations are not exclusive to China. In June, St Michael's Church in Spain shocked religious circles after hiring a local workshop to freshen up a 16th-century wooden sculpture of St George. The result made the figure look "more like a childish model of a cartoon character than a precious piece of art," the New York Times reported.

Good will vs bad deeds

The bizarre restorations result from aesthetic differences between modern and ancient times, and also the difference of technology between modern times and eras when such work was done by highly skilled craftsmen, Liu Zheng, a member of the China Cultural Relics Academy, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

"The public and private sector can build or renovate a statue as they wish, as they are entitled to do so and it's part of religious freedom. But the restoration of statues that are listed as cultural relics is a totally different situation," said Liu.

Weak supervision from authorities also allowed such restorations to occur, Liu noted, adding that the restoration of cultural relics should be performed by qualified parties.

However, in jurisdictions below the county level, where the awareness of and measures for relic conservation are weaker, such restorations were not rare in the 1990s, said Fu, who was the deputy head of Anyue's cultural relic department in 1995.

Anyue is famous for its large number of Buddhist statues. More than 100,000 of these statues are located throughout 218 grottoes throughout the county, the majority of which were built during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.

Large numbers of Buddha statues in townships and villages were damaged, because their shelters were torn down during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the statues were exposed to air pollution and acid rain, said Fu.

Local worshippers believed that it's a good thing to "beautify" or "freshen up" the statues, which appeared broken and shabby, with what they thought of as "new clothes," and few of them realized they were "damaging cultural relics," Fu noted.

Local cultural relics departments were also severely short of staffers, techniques and money. "We only had around five staff members in the 1990s to take charge of more than 200 relic sites scattered across more than 60 towns and villages in Anyue," Fu explained.

Around 50 percent of Chinese counties lack administrative structures for cultural relics protection, Liu Yuzhu, head of China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage, wrote in a commentary published in October.

According to government data released in 2017, China has over 766,000 unmovable cultural relics and over 108 million movable cultural relics, with only 0.04 percent of the latter listed as "precious" relics and the rest being "general" relics.

The items listed as "general cultural relics" are mostly located in townships or villages, which makes grass-roots involvement more urgent, Li said.

He noted that the solution is to enhance local villagers' awareness of preserving cultural relics.
Newspaper headline: Disfiguring fix


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