Lost Chinese Buddha Statue Rediscovered in Budapest

CT scan of statue. From Drents Museum

CT scan of statue. From Drents Museum

from Buddhistdoor International
Naushin Ahmed 2015-04-01

The statue, which contains the mummified remains of a monk, was on display at an exhibition titled Mummy World at the Hungarian Natural History Museum when its owner, a Dutch private collector, removed it on 20 March. A statement released by the collector said he had obtained the statue legally in 1994 (other reports say the transaction occurred in 1995 or 1996) from “a sincere Chinese friend in the art circles” (China Daily USA). The statue was bought for US$19,786 (china.org.cn) and shipped to the collector’s residence from Hong Kong.

That same year, villagers in Yangchun, Fujian Province, reported that a Buddhist statue had been stolen from their village temple.

Zhang Yongping, director of Fujian Relics Authentication Center, confirmed that the statues are in fact the same item: “We made several comparisons between the publicized information of the statue in Budapest, and the historical records of the stolen statue in Fujian—It’s a match. For example, Zhanggong Zushi the buddha is documented in the pedigree of Lin Family in Yangchun in the 11th century. The buddha was mummified after he died at the age of 37; Besides the identity, the cushion and kasaya on exhibit match our photo archive of the stolen statue, which were taken in 1989” (cctv.com).

On seeing the statue of their former ancestor on Chinese TV, the villagers of Yangchun wept and set off fireworks. The Cultural Relics Bureau in Fujian Province had been investigating the whereabouts of the statue since its disappearance.

The statue on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Budapest. 3 March 2015. From Xinhua/Attila Volgyi

The statue on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Budapest. 3 March 2015. From Xinhua/Attila Volgyi

Yangchun archives depict the mummy as a local monk praised for “helping people treat disease and spread Buddhist belief” (cctv-america.com). The monk, named Zhanggong Zushi, was mummified and placed within the statue after his death at the age of 37. According to the archives, the monk lived during China’s Song dynasty (960–1279). He has been venerated at the village temple ever since.

The hat and clothing the statue was dressed in while at the temple remain there as objects of worship.

Bringing the statue back to China is likely to be a difficult task, as it is legally in the possession of the Dutch collector. China Daily reports that although there are no “international conventions on cultural heritage retrieval that would apply to this case,” officials of the Chinese and Dutch governments “will seek a diplomatic solution to address the issue.” However, the Dutch collector is reportedly willing to return the statue if there is solid proof that it is the one that was stolen, and is willing to pay for further tests (china.org.cn).

From Xinhua/Attila Volgyi A thousand-year-old Buddhist relic, believed to have been stolen from a temple in China in 1995, has been withdrawn from an exhibition at a museum in Budapest.

From Xinhua/Attila Volgyi
A thousand-year-old Buddhist relic, believed to have been stolen from a temple in China in 1995, has been withdrawn from an exhibition at a museum in Budapest.

The statue had been on loan to the Drents Museum in the Netherlands before being moved to the museum in Budapest. It underwent a CT scan and endoscopy in the Dutch town of Amersfoort in September last year, when samples were taken of the thoracic and abdominal cavities. The examination revealed scraps of paper covered with writing as well as other, unidentified, material where the bodily organs would have been. The mummy was previously thought to be that of Buddhist master Liuquan, a member of the Chinese Meditation School who died around 1100 CE, and that the remains represented an example of self-mummification through following a special diet and being buried alive in a special chamber.

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