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Author Topic: 3,000 Ancient Buddhas Unearthed in China  (Read 368 times)

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Offline Anestan

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3,000 Ancient Buddhas Unearthed in China
« on: 23 April 2012, 12:56:52 PM »
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The head of a Buddha statue peeks above the dirt in Handan (map), China, where archaeologists have reportedly unearthed nearly 3,000 Buddha statues, which could be up to 1,500 years old.

The discovery is believed to be the largest of its kind since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, an archaeologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told reporters in late March, according to the Associated Press.

The Buddha statues—most of which are made of white marble and limestone and many of which are broken—could date back to the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi dynasties (A.D. 534 to 577), experts say.

The statues—discovered during a dig outside of Ye, the ancient capital of the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi dynasties—may have been rounded up and buried after the fall of the Northern Qi dynasty by later emperors in an attempt to purge the country of Buddhism.

"It may have been that some of the ruins and broken sculptures from the past were gathered from old temple sites and buried in a pit," said Katherine Tsiang, director of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago.

In some cases, the Buddhist statues may have been buried by the faithful themselves in times of danger.

"In other sites, there are inscriptions that suggest that old damaged sculptures were not just dumped in a pit, but respectfully buried in an orderly way," Tsiang said.

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On March 20 Chinese archaeologists stand at the edge of a pit where thousands of ancient Buddha statues were unearthed in January. The statues range from about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long to life-size.

While rare, such finds are not unheard of, Tsiang said. In the 1950s, for example, archaeologists found more than 2,000 fragments from broken marble Buddha statues at the site of a temple in Dingxian in China's Hebei Province.

"Many sculptures from these sites are similar in style to those found recently at Ye," Tsiang said. But this "may be the largest find. I don't know of larger examples."

The fifth and sixth centuries were important periods for the spread and development of Buddhism in China, she added.

"We know that Buddhism"—which began in India around 500 B.C.—"was introduced to China during the Han dynasty" several hundred years before the newfound artifacts are believed to have been created, Tsiang said.

"At first, it may have only been practiced by foreigners. ... Gradually it became much more popular after the Han dynasty fell. And by the fifth and sixth centuries, there was quite a lot of trade across the Silk Road into China from Central Asia.

"So [Buddhist] monks from India were coming in, and Chinese monks were traveling and learning. There were also translation projects, so the texts of Buddhism were being translated into Chinese."

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A Chinese archaeologist gingerly holds an ancient headless Buddha statue, one of thousands recently uncovered in a pit in northern China.

Such "freestanding" Buddha statues—typically shown wearing monk-style robes like the one shown here—were widely made in northern China from the middle of the fifth century A.D. onward. Before this time, the Buddha was usually shown standing in a group, with pairs of attendants.

The life-size or nearly life-size nature of the freestanding Buddha and the lack of a standard body type or facial expression for the statues have led some scholars to speculate that the sculptures were results of a new understanding of the Buddha in human terms, rather than as a supernatural divinity or immortal.

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A stone Buddha missing its body is one of nearly 3,000 ancient statues depicting the enlightened prince that were unearthed in northern China earlier this year.

The Buddha's head is surrounded by a halo with a large central lotus-leaf blossom—an important symbol in Buddhism of purity and rebirth.

"The Buddha had a bump on top of his head that represents his extra wisdom," Tsiang said. "In this case that extra protuberance is not very high. It's just shown as a slightly raised part of the skull."

In fifth-century China, Buddhists would often pay to have craftsmen carve a statue of the Buddha, which they would then donate to temples.

"It was a way of doing good deeds, generating merit," Tsiang said. "People who gave gifts to temples were considered deeply deserving of rewards, which could include good health or protection by the Buddha."

Often the statues would include inscriptions wishing a deceased loved one a good rebirth or the attainment of enlightenment.

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Some of the statues gifted to Buddhist temples by ancient Chinese donors—such as this newfound sculpture of a bodhisattva, or enlightened Buddhist being—were elaborately decorated at great expense.

"People wanted to show their generosity with the use of expensive materials like marble and bronze and expensive pigments and gold," Tsiang said.

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Statues like this one—of young figure in a cross-legged pose common in Buddhist art—were common in fifth-century China. Such sculptures refer to a formative period in the Buddha's youth, when he had first contemplated the suffering of life and resolved to detach himself from this world while seated in the shade of a bodhi tree.

"This is an image derived from India that appeared in scenes of the life of the Buddha, and it shows the Buddha as a prince before he went in search of enlightenment," Tsiang explained.

The popularity of this "contemplative" pose amongst Buddha statues in fifth-century China may be related to the growing belief at the time that living Buddhist practitioners could also achieve enlightenment, Tsiang said.

"People learned that Buddha himself was a human," she added, "and that it was possible for them to become enlightened through study, cultivation of spirit, and meditation."

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