Surprise Discovery of a Headless 'Buddha' Statue Beneath Chinese Apartments

Surprise Discovery of a Headless 'Buddha' Statue Beneath Chinese Apartments


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A huge, headless religious statue has been discovered carved into the rock face under apartment buildings in China. It is of questionable age - some claim it’s from the Republican era and others assert that it’s a ‘thousand-year-old relic.’ The origins are also debated, with some sources claiming it’s a Buddha statue and others suggesting it may be related to a folk religion instead.

The imposing statue is 30 feet (9.14 meters) tall and is missing its head. The surprising find was made in Chongqing,southwest China during renovations at the residential complex which removed the thick layer of foliage covering it.

The ‘Buddha’ statue (location identified with the red square) used to be covered by dense foliage. ( Weibo)

The headless figure still has some moss growing on it, but some of the details of the statue’s clothing are visible, such as folds in the fabric. This statue depicts a seated individual with “a badly damaged left foot,” according to Shine.cn. Its forearms are resting in its lap and the figure’s hands are holding a round object, possibly a stone.

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Viral News about an ‘Ancient Buddha’ Statue

There are images of the supposed “Buddha” all over social media right now, but what’s the real story behind the artwork’s history and origins? There are a couple of very different ideas being reported.

The huge headless ‘Buddha’ statue was discovered in a residential complex in Chongqing, southwest China. ( Photo by Weibo user " 现在")

Last week, Archaeology News Network reported that this is a Buddha statue and that a resident in the apartment complex with the surname Yang says that there was a temple near the statue years ago and “I heard the Buddha statue was built nearly a thousand year ago.”

A 60-year-old resident has also stated that the statue has been known about for some time before this re-discovery. That person said, “The statue was here when I was young. There was a head on it but was later damaged.” When the Archaeology News Network made their report on the statue they concluded by saying that “The local authority of cultural relics has launched an investigation.”

More Recent Reports Provide a Different Story

CNN’s report is more recent and it may include the results of the cultural relic authority’s investigation. It suggests a much younger age for the so-called Buddha statue, explaining that a national survey of cultural relics from just over a decade ago dated the statue to China's Republican era (1912-1949).

But after that survey, it seems the huge statue “had been neglected and appears to have been completely forgotten until recently.” The district government is said to have written on Weibo (a Twitter-like platform) that the curious statue’s head was probably destroyed during the 1950s. This date is a little earlier than the 60-year-old’s memory of the statue having a head when he or she was young. The district government also reported that the apartment buildings were built around the statue in the 1980s.

Regarding the figure depicted in the artwork, the district's cultural relics management office says the impressive sculpture is “not of Buddhist origin and is likely related to a folk religion.” CNN notes that there was once a temple near the statue, but it was torn down in 1987, confirming part of Yang’s statement. That temple is said to have honored the Daoist (Taoist) god of thunder.

The thunder god Leigong depicted in a 1542 painting from the Ming dynasty.

The Paper states that despite its recent appearance and apparent neglect over the years, the religious statue was recognized “as a district-level cultural relic” before 1997.


    Surprise Discovery of a Headless ‘Buddha’ Statue Beneath Chinese Apartments

    A huge, headless religious statue has been discovered carved into the rock face under apartment buildings in China. It is of questionable age – some claim it’s from the Republican era and others assert that it’s a ‘thousand-year-old relic.’ The origins are also debated, with some sources claiming it’s a Buddha statue and others suggesting it may be related to a folk religion instead.

    The imposing statue is 30 feet (9.14 meters) tall and is missing its head. The surprising find was made in Chongqing,southwest China during renovations at the residential complex which removed the thick layer of foliage covering it.

    The ‘Buddha’ statue (location identified with the red square) used to be covered by dense foliage. ( Weibo)

    The headless figure still has some moss growing on it, but some of the details of the statue’s clothing are visible, such as folds in the fabric. This statue depicts a seated individual with “a badly damaged left foot,” according to Shine.cn. Its forearms are resting in its lap and the figure’s hands are holding a round object, possibly a stone.


    Inspired by the Gardens of Suzhou

    Liu Fang Yuan is inspired by the gardens of Suzhou, a city located near Shanghai in southeastern China. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), wealthy scholars and merchants there built tasteful private gardens combining architecture, waterworks, rockeries, plants, and calligraphy. Many of the features in Liu Fang Yuan are modeled on specific Suzhou gardens, eight of which are depicted in the woodcarvings in the Love for the Lotus Pavilion (Ai Lian Xie 愛蓮榭).


    The sculptures had not always been so carefully tended. All were broken in some way: many had been violently smashed, others showed traces of burning some had only minor damage, been repaired, but broken again before burial. It is likely that some suffered during natural catastrophes (earthquakes fire) and others were casualties of the intermittent persecution of Buddhism over the 700 years before they were interred. Fortunately, most figures had intact faces.

    Of the 400 individual sculptures, 35 of the best preserved and most exquisite are on display in London as part of their first European tour. The sculptures come from a crucial time in Chinese Buddhist history, and Shefan lay at the end of the Silk Road so was open to a host of cultural influences from as far west as the Mediterranean. Hoards of other Buddhist objects (including over 1,000 sculptures) have been discovered in cave complexes and in reliquary chambers beneath pagodas in China, particularly in and around Qingzhou, but this find is probably the most important.

    Also found in the pit were coins, porcelain, earthenware, lacquered wood and cast iron fragments that suggest the pit was filled some time between 1200-1250 AD. The sculptures, however, are considerably older, dating from a short span of less than 50 years: 529𤰱 AD. Most were carved from a fine-grained limestone, permitting crisp detailing, and it is remarkable how much of the original paint and gilding has survived the burial – providing a glimpse of how they must have appeared originally, faintly lit, within the recesses of a dark temple.

    The size and decoration of the sculptures depended on the resources of those who commissioned them as acts of worship. The first exhibit is the smallest (less than two feet high), and earliest (529 AD), it bears a touching inscription from the donor – a widow who dedicated the offering to her late husband, two dead children and her only surviving child. It takes the form of a triad, a Buddha flanked on either side by a bodhisattva against a mandorla (a decorated, almond-shaped background). The Buddha has achieved nirvana, enlightenment he is depicted with idealised features and a solemn yet serene expression. Bodhisattvas have delayed their own enlightenment in order to assist others on their own paths to nirvana. They are smaller than the Buddha, with more realistic faces and richly decorated robes. This triad is typical of the Northern Wei dynasty, during which sculptors shed some of Buddhism’s Indian influences and adopted more traditional Chinese elements: the Buddha has large, open eyes, a smile, and tiered, decorative robes that hide the shape of the body.

    The largest exhibit is also a triad, some 10 feet high, five feet wide and weighing over a ton. Stylistically, however, it appears to be from a later period, when China was ruled by the Northern Qi dynasty whose aristocracy were nomadic, militaristic and hostile to indigenous Chinese culture. They favoured art styles from far afield – India, Afghanistan, Persia – areas influenced by the Greeks since the conquering armies of Alexander the Great in the 320s BC (whose name still echoes in ‘Kandahar’, the ancient capital of Afghanistan).

    Along with such triads there are two other main groups of sculpture: Buddhas standing alone, and bodhisattvas standing alone.

    The solitary bodhisattvas of the Northern Qi period (after 550 AD) gave sculptors greater scope for stylistic experimentation. The most spectacular example in this exhibition is life-sized and as naturalistic as possible within the constraints of the form. The oval, full-mouthed face is austere yet compassionate and his richly decorated robes appear as crisp and fine as the day they were carved – with strings of pearls, tightly woven silk ropes, embroidered panels, and illustrations of fantastic creatures derived from Hindu mythology.

    Another bodhisattva sits on an hourglass throne, with his left foot resting on a column growing from a dragon’s mouth. The face is gilded and framed by black hair he wears a diadem still richly red, green and gold, colours that also remain on his pleated robes.

    Buddhas of the Northern Qi are shown in slight motion with thin, plain garments that cling to the outlines of the body in a more naturalistic style. Two headless torsos of the Buddha from the Northern Qi period are strikingly similar in style to a red quartzite torso of Nefertiti in the Louvre – one of the great sculptures extant from Egypt’s brief flirtation with monotheism. Although the art and practices of the heretical Armana dynasty were later suppressed in Egypt, a more naturalistic styling in painting and sculpture persisted throughout the following New Kingdom dynasties and on into the time when Alexander became the first Greek pharaoh. It is purely this author’s speculation that a style originating in the Nile Valley in 1358 BC may have penetrated as far as the Pacific shore of China 1,800 years later.

    Egyptian statuary is ‘underappreciated’, by some, for being ‘impersonal’, ‘rigid’ and ‘stiff’, especially compared to later Greek sculpture with its exuberance, fluidity and depiction of motion. These Buddhas could be criticised on the same basis but for me, the restraint and formalism of these sculptures (in common with Egyptian art) actually serve to emphasise the emotion and character of both subject and artist. The effect is to illustrate both the transitory and the transcendent. The serenity and bliss promised by identification with the Buddha could not be better served and illuminated than by these works.


    In the footsteps of Marco Polo

    1998-11-22 04:00:00 PDT CHINA -- ASTANA, Xinjiang, China - The two Uighur men glowered as I approached the simmering cauldron at the roadside stand. Clearly it held more than one goat. One head lay at an angle, eyes skyward, horns removed, layered with varieties of entrails, yellow and pinkish.

    To get the photograph I wanted, I was going to have to taste their brew. The man dressed in white reached into the pot, pulled out a body part and thrust it into my hand, his eyes never leaving mine. I grinned and swallowed. His face broke into a smile. Click!

    The meat turned out to be lung - not so bad, but unfortunately a taste I have yet to acquire.

    Yakshee! I mumbled in my elementary Uighur, making the thumbs-up sign for "good." Just the same, I declined the offer of seconds.

    On the face of it, things hadn't changed much in this dusty Silk Road outpost since Marco Polo's caravan passed through the region seven centuries ago. I was in the village of Astana, near Turfan in far western China. To the north were the Flaming Mountains, fire-red in the fierce overhead sun, bone-dry and barren. East were acrid salt lakes, including the second lowest point of the world, 505 feet below the distant sea. To the south lay the wild sands of the Taklamakan Desert: "He who goes in will never come out," claims an ancient saying.

    For centuries camel caravans crossed the sandy void of the Taklamakan, carrying silk from eastern China to as far west as the Roman Empire. Along the same route Buddhist monks migrated north from India and eastward into Xinjiang and Gansu, bringing the faith of Gautama and carving marvelous cave temples with intricate painted murals and statuary. On their way along the Silk Road they crossed the kingdoms of Turfan, Hami, Kuqa, Khotan, Kashgar and others now lost to the blowing sands. I was retracing the ancient route, a modern trader, exchanging friendly smiles for photographs.

    The cultural richness and variety of Xinjiang was a surprise. For centuries these vast desert lands have seen waves of conquerors: Tibetans from the south, Han Chinese from the east, Uighur princes from the oases scattered in the deserts, Mongols from the north a constant ebb and flow of people, cultures and languages, each claiming the prized desert trade routes as their own.

    For almost 1,000 years a rich Buddhist tradition flourished here. Nestled in a valley in the Flaming Mountains near Turfan are the Thousand Buddha caves of Bezeklik. Fifteen hundred years ago Buddhist monks painted the cave walls with brilliant frescoes depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. Persian Brahmin, Indian and even European-looking figures are shown offering gifts to the Buddha.

    During the early part of this century archeologists from Europe and the U.S. scoured the ancient sites of Turkestan in an eager rush to uncover the lost cities of Central Asia. Thousands of manuscripts, statues and frescoes were dug up or cut out and transported to London, Delhi and Berlin. Walking through the caves of Bezeklik I was heartbroken to see empty spaces where magnificent images once stood. Sadly, even those frescoes which remain have been defaced by treasure seekers and local villagers.

    From the 8th century on, Islam gradually supplanted Buddhism and is now the predominant faith of the region. In the dusty early morning the sound of the muezzin wafted over the rooftops from tiled minarets. On the outskirts of Turfan the tall mud brick tower of the Emin minaret, intricately decorated, reminded me of the mosques of Tehran and Damascus. In a sheltered alcove of the covered bazaar, a white-bearded gentleman quietly reads the holy Koran. The sign above the entrance was in the flowing Arabic script of the Uighur language, a derivative of Turkish.

    In the Muslim tradition of hospitality I was hosted for tea by a Uighur family in their home nearby. The father was a hajji, which means he had made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Proudly displayed on the wall was a photo of the Kaaba, the sacred building within the Great Mosque, toward which all Muslims pray.

    His wife served us a brimming plate of dry manaizi (mare's nipple), raisins from the family's own vines, clear glasses of sweet tea, dry Uighur string-bread and dried and roasted apricot kernels, smooth and tasting of almonds. We spoke of America, of the recent advent of tourism to the Silk Road, and of the newly independent Tajik, Kazakh and Kirghiz states nearby.

    Later that night I was treated to a feast of lamb kebab, tripe and mutton on the bone at a Uighur restaurant. On the way back to the hotel I walked under the hanging grape arbors which cover the main street and thought of the resilience of life in the midst of adversity.

    Turfan is a green oasis in the midst of a perpetually barren and dusty gebi desert. (Gebi are the small stones from which the Gobi Desert takes its name.) Summer temperatures rise above 113 degrees Fahrenheit and swirling sandstorms can arise without warning. In the distance I could see the snowcapped peaks of the Bogda Shan reaching to over 16,400 feet. From crystalline glaciers high on the mountain flanks comes the water that brings life to the desert. Underground, earthen karez channels dug by generations of weathered hands, and painstakingly cleaned and maintained, carry precious snowmelt to vineyards and fields.

    Across the desert a paved highway leads arrow-straight to the industrial city of Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang. Approaching through the grimy outskirts of town I was struck by the smokestacks spewing soot into the desert air. Sadly there are, as yet, few pollution controls. Urumchi at first glance is dismal. Yet amid acres of drab apartments built with massive Soviet aid in the 1950s rises a gleaming, 24-story glass and steel tower, the best hotel in town - the Holiday Inn.

    Built as a joint venture with Western investors, it exemplifies the new fleeting wealth of Central Asia. As I entered the marble-tiled lobby, with crystal chandeliers hanging over a swooping spiral stairway, I saw a swarthy man in a gray suit and black shirt standing in front of a massive, delicately knotted Persian rug, and talking animatedly in Uighur on a cellular phone.

    The American comforts of the Holiday Inn - chicken sandwiches, French fries, chocolate cake - seemed strangely out of place in this remote outpost. Urumchi is farther from an ocean than any city in the world.

    Long after the Silk Road faded into history, the city remains a trading center for Central Asia. Row after row of stalls teemed with merchandise - shoes, suitcases, carpets, toasters, radios, fur hats, school notebooks, copper kettles, spices, teas and herbs. Kebab merchants sold skewered lamb braised over smoky charcoal and served cups of milky tea. A fellow with black shirt, sunglasses and a cigarette hawked sharp, jeweled Uighur daggers spread on a table behind him.

    I traveled with a local photographer, Song Shi Jing, to Heavenly Lake in the Tian Shan mountains. Surrounded by alpine peaks and pine forests, the lake is popular with locals as well as tourists. Kazakh herdsmen bring their flocks to the grassy pastures above the lake for summer grazing. The Kazakhs are avid horsemen. Several men, wearing cocked embroidered hats, were dressing their horses at the lakeside. We had tea and bread with one family, sitting on woven mats in their circular yurt, and with two levels of interpreters - Kazakh to Chinese to English - spoke of our families and home towns.

    From Urumchi the Silk Road heads west across the desert through the towns of Korla, Kuqa and Aksu. They are seldom visited by modern travelers, who prefer to fly the 950 miles to Kashgar. Kuqa was a Buddhist center of learning in the fourth century. A Sanskrit manuscript, bought there in the 1890s, first ignited the Western archeological invasion of the Taklamakan.

    I had heard of exotic Kashgar, hidden in the farthest west of China, for years and was eager to see it. In the days of the Silk Road traders, Kashgar stood at a crossroads. To the west the way led over the high Pamirs to Ferghana and Samarkand to the south, over another pass, lay the Wakhan corridor and the Bactrian city of Balkh, in modern Afghanistan further south across the high ridge of the Karakoram lay the Buddhist city of Gandhara, at the northern extent of India, once visited by Alexander the Great. Marco Polo passed through Kashgar in the 14th century and noted its vineyards and orchards.

    The confluence of cultures is evident at the thriving Sunday market. International borders hardly seem to matter to the traders. From Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the northern reaches of Afghanistan, from Kirghizia, even Kazakhstan and from the surrounding countryside of Xinjiang, they come by the tens of thousands for the bustling, chaotic market.

    Early in the morning trucks unload fruits, breads, meat, cattle, sheep and horses. Herdsmen lead their flocks through the dusty streets from the outskirts of town to the marketplace. Everything from stallions to washing machines is for sale: black felt hats, furs, beaded dopas (Uighur hats), fruits, meat, breads, pigeons, snake skin and dried lizard cures of the herbalist, watermelons and apples, dumplings of fat and meat simmering in broth. Smells of braised kebabs and baking bread mingled with the smoke and pungent animal scents.

    Donkey cart drivers, some with brown-stockinged, red-capped women huddled in the back of the cart, cried Posh! Posh! as they pushed their way through the elbow-to-elbow crowd. A butcher took his ax to hanging sides of beef. A blacksmith shoed a waiting donkey while its owner chatted and puffed on a cigarette. A barber skillfully shaved a waiting head with the sharp blade of a carving knife. Melodic Uighur music echoed from tinny speakers hidden somewhere in the streetside. Sheep, horses, cows and camels were everywhere.

    I climbed onto a thatched mud roof for a better view and could see only swarming people, all the way to the horizon. As the heat rose, I stopped for watermelon. The seller, squinting in the hot sun, quickly split the dusty green fruit. I refreshed myself with its sweet juicy meat, spitting the seeds in the dust.

    Nearby, in an open-walled thatched house, a small child squatted on a red carpet watching a television set on a shelf across the room. In the midst of medieval Kashgar, this was one small reminder of 20th century.

    Later that evening I visited the Tomb of Abakh Khoja, east of town. In the long shadows of the setting sun I walked through tranquil gardens. Swaying poplar trees shaded the yellow and green tiled domes of the mausoleum. A cool interior room held the coffins of the 17th-century ruler of the region and his family. The quiet scene was far removed from the bustle of the market.

    Monday morning in Kashgar brought a great exodus. My path led south on the Karakoram Highway to Tashkurgan and across the high passes to Pakistan. Past the fertile fields on the outskirts of Kashgar and small villages shaded by poplars, the road opened into a great grassland as we gained altitude. By the side of a river I stopped to photograph several Kirghiz women. With red kerchiefs and ruddy faces they sat with their children, while the grandmother wove on a long loom set in the grass, passing the shuttle back on forth under a warp of brilliant red cloth.

    Further up the road our car stopped, surrounded and jostled by a flock of bleating sheep, while a Tajik shepherd cajoled them across the road. In the distance above the brilliant green of the forest rose the hazy white crest of the Chinese Pamir Mountains. Near icy Karakul Lake stand two of the highest peaks in the range, Mustagh Ata and Kongur. Both are over 23,000 feet high and have been climbed only recently, by American and British parties.

    The last town before the border, Tashkurgan, is closer to Baghdad than to Beijing. The Greek geographer Ptolemy wrote of a Stone Tower across the mountains, beyond which lay the land of Seres, the secret source of silk. Some think it stood near Tashkurgan. In ancient days, this was the edge of China and the boundary of the known world.

    Beyond town the road opened out into a broad valley of dry grasses and rocks. Beneath the snow-capped peaks a herd of camels grazed, as if waiting to be hired for the next caravan. We stopped to talk with a Tajik camelherder. Dressed in a blue coat, his grizzled beard sharp on his sun-darkened skin, he sat astride a donkey. The journey to town was several days and he seemed unhurried. Nearby on the banks of a curving river was an ancient Silk Road staging post, where his ancestors might have bid farewell to the camel caravans. The herdsman raised his hand in parting. Hudar hafiz, he said in Wakhi, the Tajik language. Good-bye.

    Mehrbani, I replied, pressing my palms together. Thank you.

    David Sanger is a travel photographer and writer based in Albany, California. He was recognized as the 1998 Travel Photographer of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers.&lt


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    Nara-kōen

    The most pleasant route into Nara-kōen (奈良公園) is along Sanjō-dōri, which cuts across the central district and brings you out near Sarusawa-ike (猿沢池) with the Five-Storey Pagoda rising from the trees to your left. The pagoda belongs to Kōfuku-ji (興福寺), which in the eighth century was one of Nara’s great temples. Founded in 669 AD by a member of the Fujiwara clan, it was moved to its present location when Nara became the new capital in 710.

    The prime draw here is the fine collection of Buddhist statues contained in the Tōkon-dō (東金堂) and the Kokuhōkan (国宝館). The Tōkon-dō, a fifteenth-century hall to the north of the Five-Storey Pagoda, is dominated by a large image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing. He’s flanked by three Bodhisattvas, the Four Heavenly Kings and the Twelve Heavenly Generals, all beady-eyed guardians of the faith, some of which date from the eighth century. Perhaps the most interesting statue, though, is the seated figure of Yuima Koji to the left of Yakushi Nyorai depicting an ordinary mortal rather than a celestial being, it’s a touchingly realistic portrait.

    The modern Kokuhōkan is a veritable treasure-trove of early Buddhist statues. The most famous image is the standing figure of Ashura, one of Buddha’s eight protectors, instantly recognizable from his three red-tinted heads and six spindly arms. Look out, too, for his companion Karura (Garuda) with his beaked head. Though they’re not all on display at the same time, these eight protectors are considered to be the finest dry-lacquer images of the Nara period. The large bronze Buddha head, with its fine, crisp features, comes from an even earlier period. Apart from a crumpled left ear, the head is in remarkably good condition considering that the original statue was stolen from another temple by Kōfuku-ji’s warrior priests sometime during the Heian period (794–1185). Then, after a fire destroyed its body, the head was buried beneath the replacement Buddha, only to be rediscovered in 1937 during renovation work.

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    The huge headless ‘Buddha’ statue was discovered in a residential complex in Chongqing, southwest China. ( Photo by Weibo user ” 现在“)

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    A 60-year-old resident has also stated that the statue has been known about for some time before this re-discovery. That person said, “The statue was here when I was young. There was a head on it but was later damaged.” When the Archaeology News Network made their report on the statue they concluded by saying that “The local authority of cultural relics has launched an investigation.”


    Love Finds Temple of Love — and Dogs

    In a dog world filled with fascinating personalities and marquee names, Iris Love was a standout. A breeder of champion Dachshunds – which she named after the ancient gods and goddesses whose temples and artifacts so fascinated her – Love was also associated with a number of top-winning Pekingese: She co-owned “Malachy” (Ch. Palacegarden Malachy), who won Best in Show at the Morris & Essex Kennel Club in 2010 and as well as at the Westminster Kennel Club show in her native New York City in 2012. When she passed earlier this month at age 87, Love was one of the owners of another high-profile Pekingese handled by David Fitzpatrick: GCh. Pequest Wasabi, who won the 2019 AKC National Championship before he was even two years old, and who is currently the top show dog of any breed in the country.

    Best known amongst fanciers for her love of Dachshunds, Love spent much of her life promoting the qualities she loved about her championship line. “Dachshunds are courageous to the point of brashness,” she said to the New York Times in 1996. “They’re also good strategists and very affectionate, although they can be a bit of the snob, too.”

    Love made her name in archaeological circles in 1969 with the discovery of the long-lost Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos on the Anatolian coast of modern-day Turkey. On a sweltering July day – just as Neil Armstrong was taking his first steps on the moon – Love spotted the circular temple dedicated to the Greek goddess of love. The ensuing headlines – “Love Finds Temple of Love” – made a celebrity out of the thirtysomething archaeologist, whose penchant for miniskirts and frequent use of the word “darling” made quite a contrast to her often fusty male colleagues.


    Chinese artist Sui Jianguo puts Mao to rest in colorful metaphor

    1 of 3 JIANGUO16_0087_el.jpg Sui with his piece Legacy Mantle 3-10, 2004 painted fiberglass Sui Jianguo is a noted Chinese sculptor whose work is on display at the Asian Art Museum, Event on 2/3/05 in San Francisco Eric Luse / The Chronicle Eric Luse Show More Show Less

    2 of 3 JIANGUO16_0154_el.jpg Sui with his piece Legacy Mantle 1, 1997 painted fiberglass Sui Jianguo is a noted Chinese sculptor whose work is on display at the Asian Art Museum, Event on 2/3/05 in San Francisco Eric Luse / The Chronicle Eric Luse Show More Show Less

    When Sui Jianguo needed a folkloric clay Mao Zedong from which to cast his fiberglass Mao, he went to the source: Yanan, the once-remote Chinese city where Mao and his Communist peasant army retreated and holed up after the grueling, deadly Long March of 1934-35. It became the spiritual center of the revolution they won 14 years later.

    Mao statues are made there in profusion. But Sui, a Beijing sculptor with many things on his subtle mind, had a hard time convincing the craftsman he hired to make this Mao lying on his side, lost in sleep. The late Communist leader was always depicted standing, often with an arm extended in a gesture of paternal omnipotence. To show him lying down like a mortal didn't seem right, even more than two decades after his death. But once the artisan saw the connection to famous images of the sleeping Buddha, he did Sui's bidding.

    "Mao always seemed like a god," says Sui, 48, a slim man with a mustache and small, under-the-chin goatee, standing near his monumental "Sleeping Mao" at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum. "Now, he sleeps like everyday people. I'm putting him to rest. This way, I can grow up."

    In this cool-looking piece, the man who was at the center of his nation's convulsive history for a half century rests atop a roiling bed of colors made with 20,000 toy dinosaurs made in China. These masses of marching green stegosauruses and blue triceratops -- handy symbols of the so-called "rising economic dragon" that supplies and consumes a large chunk of global market goods -- form a map of Asia. Mao dreams as the disorderly continent churns beneath him.

    "It's life moving," says Sui, who apologizes for his poor English but gets the point across. "Maybe someday he'll wake up, I don't know," the artist adds with a laugh.

    A professor at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Art, Sui was trained in Western-based Socialist Realism during the Cultural Revolution. These days, he tilts that tradition on its ear in ironic works that address China's modern past, its cultural and economic transformation and the dead utopianism of its once-deified leader.

    The Asian Art Museum is showing 14 of Sui's pieces in a show called "The Sleep of Reason." The title was cooked up by guest curator Jeff Kelley, who thought of Goya's famous etching "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" after seeing Sui's disturbing piece.

    The show also features giant empty Mao jackets that carry suggestions of contemporary fashion and hollow philosophy, and dinosaurs of varying size and substance that deal with the illusory nature of things and the danger of omnivorous economic expansion. Life-size Michelangelo figures, cast in fiberglass and painted white to suggest marble, come draped in Mao suits.

    Then there are big, gun-metal-gray jackets, stout headless forms he titles "Legacy Mantle." "Yes, they're shells," Sui says. Once a symbol of the revolution -- the plain suit was designed as a statement of democracy by the early 20th century leader Sun Yat-Sen -- the Mao threads Sui makes suggest "the utopian idea now is a shell." (Kelley thinks of them as empty suits, with all the phrase connotes).

    "The social situation has changed a lot," says Sui, standing before a row of gleaming jackets in candy-colored blue, lime and orange. "From symbol of revolution 100 years ago, it's become very -- I don't know the word -- like fashion. Some movie stars or musicians wear them."

    In other works, Sui confounds one's sense of scale and weight. A small orange brontosaurus and blue T. rex appear to be standard plastic toys. They're lead-filled bronze.

    "For me," Sui says, "it's like something in your life, that seems light, seems colorful, but in fact, it's very heavy, not like surface."

    A similar disjunction is at play in the comically menacing 13-foot red dinosaur, baring its teeth behind the bars of a red steel cage parked in front the museum's Larkin Street entrance. The clawed, bubble-skinned beast, which has "Made in China" stamped on its belly, looks like some overgrown plastic import. But it's bronze. Sui, for whom red means revolution and force of spirit, was unfamiliar with the phrase "red menace," but he seemed to appreciate it.

    The red monster suggests China's growing capitalist economic power, "which in some ways is not so good for China, for the environment and human life," Sui says. "I don't want him to continue getting bigger. You know, when the big dinosaur is out of the cage, it's like a big toy. But when I put it in a cage, in some ways it seems to have a life."


    Watch the video: The UnderWater Buddhas Sculpture. #BharatVarsh