Scattered cultural gems sparkle once more

To date, some 50,000 statues and images carved into cliffs in the Chongqing have been placed under protection.


The repaired rock carvings in a cave temple at the Fozuyan site of Dazu district, Chongqing. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY

September 18, 2023

BEIJING – Walking along a winding path of green stone slabs through the serene bamboo forest, one is greeted by Fengshan Temple, in Zhongao town.

More than 50 figures, first carved out of the rocks during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), appear spread across a cliff wall, standing 7 meters high and 40 meters wide.

The town in Chongqing’s Dazu district received rainfall in August, but the vividly carved sculptures, shielded by a covered corridor, remained dry.

This is all thanks to an initiative launched by the Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings several years ago to protect medium- and small-sized cave temples in the area.

They are part of the Dazu Rock Carvings cluster, which were inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999, the second grotto temple from China to be added after the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu province.

It is believed that grotto temples were introduced to China from India along the Silk Road during the third century. As the Buddhist art form evolved, it absorbed local artistic elements and, in addition to exquisite Buddha images and scriptures that are characteristic of grotto temples elsewhere in the country, the Dazu carvings feature tableaux urging people to perform their filial duties, conduct themselves properly, and refrain from greed.

The carvings enjoy a unique status, mixing Buddhism with indigenous beliefs like Confucianism and Taoism.

To date, some 50,000 statues and images carved into cliffs in the district have been placed under protection, among which are the carvings in the Beishan, Baoding, Nanshan, Shimen and Shizuan mountains.

The small- to medium-sized cave temples are considered valuable physical evidence in the study of a number of different aspects including religion, art, architecture, historical clothing, folklore and also philosophical thought from different eras.

“They feature exquisite carvings, a diversity of themes and rich content, providing a true reflection of the political, economic and social history of the Sichuan and Chongqing regions during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) periods,” says Jiang Siwei, head of the Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings.

However, due to a variety of factors, their overall state of preservation is relatively poor. The 68 small- and medium-sized cave temple sites are scattered across the countryside and streets of 18 towns around the district, which creates difficulties in their management.

As their significance was increasingly recognized, the academy worked on repairing protective structures at 13 of the 68 sites in the district and reinforced rock mass at three sites between 2001 and 2019.

However, many rock carvings remain exposed to the natural environment, causing issues such as rock fissures, loosening, water seepage, moss and lichen growth, the peeling of paint and weathering.

“These problems have accelerated the deterioration of the statues, posing a threat to their safety,” Jiang says.

Multiple sites did not have sufficient power, and 50 locations did not have full surveillance facilities, which hampered safety monitoring of the statues, as well as archaeological research, among other conservation efforts, Jiang recalls.

In 2021, Dazu launched a new round of protection for scattered cave temples, encompassing the reinforcement of precarious expanses of rock, the construction of protective architecture, drainage, fire ponds, as well as security, sanitation and lighting protection facilities.

The project is spread over an area of 40,000 square meters and will be carried out in three phases, according to the academy.

The first phase has already been completed, with the condition of rock carvings at multiple small- and medium-sized cave temples improved.

At the Shuchengyan site in Zhongao, a cave temple has recently undergone preliminary restoration, thanks to the efforts of an Italian cultural heritage cluster and the Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings.

The project started in 2018, with a yearlong series of experiments and analysis conducted by both sides on gold leaf, paint, rock and microorganisms, as well as repair techniques, before restoration began.

“The temple was very popular in the past and attracted a lot of local worshippers,” says Ruan Fanghong, an official who is part of the project.

As a result, many rock carvings became covered in soot and were damaged.

The two teams applied a synthetic enzyme to remove impurities from the paint, and then used polyvinyl alcohol to paste the peeling gold leaf back in place.

“Now, several years have passed, and the restored parts are holding up very well,” Ruan says.

Moreover, the ability of relics to resist the collapse of rock mass, water damage and weathering has been significantly improved, all potential risks present in the original protective architecture have been dealt with, and the structures have been given more distinctive local characteristics.

The infrastructure and environment around the cave temples has also been improved, and precautionary measures have been put in place to ensure their protection.

“Construction takes into full consideration the integration with the rural vitalization strategy,” Jiang says.

“By building new pedestrian pathways, public restrooms and courtyards, as well as adding tables and chairs for leisure use and improving protection and signage, the changes have paved the way for cultural activities that are accessible to local residents,” he adds.

Long Gewen, a villager from Zhongao, has been guarding the small- and medium-sized cave temples in his neighborhood for over a decade.

“Everything scattered within a radius of 1,000 meters is my responsibility,” the man, who is in his 60s, says.

“I need to keep an eye on the cultural relics to ensure their safety, while doing a little cleaning every day.”

Long is one of many villagers hired by the local government to keep watch over the scattered cave temples.

Every year, safety training and work reviews are held for villagers, says Liu Jian, an official from the academy’s planning and construction division.

“All cave temple sites have been covered, and some have been placed under observation 24 hours a day by two patrollers taking turns,” Liu says.

Peng Xiulong, who also comes from Zhongao, has seen the positive changes to the Fengshan Temple cave site near her home.

“The protective structural beams were fractured, the roof was leaking, and the surrounding environment was in disorder,” she recalls.

Now, the infrastructure has been upgraded, and many independent tourists come to Fengshan village to appreciate the beauty of the rock carvings at the temple.

“It has become a clean and peaceful place for meditation and serenity,” she says.

Plaques introducing the history of the rock carvings in Chinese and English have been erected, so that visitors can better understand them.

According to Liu, one of the positive outcomes of the protection drive has been the rise in rural tourism.

Plum blossom sightseeing and boating activities have been introduced in Zhongao to complement the visitor experience.

The number of travel visits has grown significantly since last year, according to Gong Wenchuan, a town official.

In neighboring Gaoping town, protection projects at three cave temple sites have also brought in more visitors.

Homestays were fully booked this spring, something that would have been unimaginable in the past, says Huang Xiuqiong, a resident of the town.

Local officials believe that additional rural tourism potential will be unlocked once restoration of the 68 cave temple sites is completed.

With increasing national attention on cultural heritage protection, investment has been on the rise, and as the cultural heritage protection workforce has become stronger, small- and medium-sized cave temples have benefited.

The academy plans to complete the renovation of the 68 sites over the next three years.

“This will transform these relatively lesser-known cave temples into artistic gems embedded in the rural landscape, no longer hidden from public sight,” Jiang says.

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