In 1996 one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century was discovered when construction workers in the Chinese town of Qingzhou were levelling a sports field. Found by accident, like the terracotta warriors discovered at Xi’an in 1974, this extraordinary discovery brought to light a cache of some 400 stone Buddhist sculptures on the site of the long-destroyed Longxing (Dragon Rise) Temple in Qingzhou in Shandong province in eastern China, one of the cradles of ancient Chinese civilisation.
Created in the 6th century, these remarkable sculptures were carefully wrapped and buried in a purpose-built pit during the 12th century for reasons that still remain unclear. They are a stunning reflection of the Buddhist beliefs which permeated many levels of local life, and of the dramatic stylistic changes in sculpture that occurred during a time when Buddhist art in China reached its apogee.
On loan from the Qingzhou Municipal Museum, 35 of the best preserved and most exquisite sculptures from the Qingzhou discovery will be on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 29 August to 23 November. Seven have not been seen outside China before and indeed all will be seen in Australia for the first time.
Art Gallery director Edmund Capon said, “What is so surprising about these sculptures is, firstly, their sheer modernity and, secondly, how distinguished and distinctive they are in their place in the history of Chinese art and Chinese Buddhist sculpture. I still, when looking at these now familiar sculptures, am struck by their innovation and their moving interpretation of spiritual and human values.”
When the sculptures were first uncovered, archaeologists were surprised to find so much of the original pigment and even gilding had survived. The majority of the figures are carved from a fine-grained, pale grey limestone which permits a high degree of precision and a silky-smooth finish. Their refined and sensual naturalism gives them a unique and extraordinary beauty which so distinguishes them from other works. A number of the figures are monumental in size: one in particular is 312 cm high and 180 cm wide and, weighing over a tonne, is the largest stele in existence.
Because Buddhist sculptures are often large and difficult to transport or are found in the great cave temples of Dunhuang, Yungang and Longmen, this exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see these sculptures. The works have been selected by the gallery’s curator Dr Liu Yang and the exhibition designed by the architect of our Asian galleries, Richard Johnson.
A fully illustrated catalogue , with essays by Edmund Capon, Liu Yang and Lukas Nickel from the University College London’s Department of Oriental Studies accompanies the exhibition.
Left: Standing figure of a Buddha Northern Qi (550-577) height 150cm. Courtesy of Qingzhou Municipal Museum and Shandong Provincial Museum
Centre & right: Standing figure of a Buddha Northern Qi (550-577) height 150cm. Courtesy of Qingzhou Municipal Museum and Shandong Provincial Museum