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3,000 Ancient Buddha statues found in China

April 22, 2012

The head of a Buddha statue peeks above the dirt in Handan, China, where archaeologists have reportedly unearthed nearly 3,000 Buddha statues, which could be up to 1,500 years old. Photograph by Sun Zifa, Imaginechina/AP

National Geographic has published images of some of the 3,000 statues of Buddha recently unearthed in China. According to their online article:

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.

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. Photograph by Sun Zifa, Imaginechina/AP

Photograph by Sun Zifa, Imaginechina/AP

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.

Bodhisattva, Photograph by Sun Zifa, Imaginechina/AP Sun zifa

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.

Photograph by Sun Zifa, Imaginechina/AP

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.”

Photograph by Sun Zifa, Imaginechina/AP

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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