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China Daily Global / 2020-06 / 30 / Page005

Relics stolen from Tianlong Mountain grottoes set for digital comeback

By LI YANG in Beijing and SUN RUISHENG in Taiyuan | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-06-30 00:00

The Buddha statues, embossments and frescos in the grottoes of Tianlong Mountain in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, have been in the care of Yu Hao for 23 years now.

That's no mean task. There are about 500 Buddha statues, 1,144 embossments and many frescos in the 25 grottoes dating back to the period from the East Wei (534-550) to the Tang (618-907) dynasties, when Buddhism came and flourished in China, on a cliff of the 1,700 meter-high mountain.

In the early days of his career, after a road was built to the cliff, the main job of Yu and his colleagues at the Tianlong Mountain Grottoes Museum was to protect the cultural relics from getting damaged by extreme weather and/or tourists.

"Back then, nobody wanted to work here because life on the mountains was tough," said Bai Jianjun, director of the office of the museum. "Many employees asked for transfers to other places. Yu is among the few who has been working here for so long."

And sometimes, during bad weather, Yu and his colleagues end up spending several weeks in a row up there, enough time for them to develop a sense of belonging.

"It is more important to make sure the grottoes are in safe hands and fit to be passed on to future generations," Yu said.

The grottoes suffered artificial damage in the 1920s and 1930s, when they were ransacked by relic dealers from foreign countries. About 162 Buddha statues were stolen from the grottoes; 127 of those pieces surfaced later in 35 museums and some with private collectors in 10 countries, including Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom.

"In 1924 and 1926, Sadajiro Yamanaka, an 'art dealer' from Osaka, Japan, arrived here for some 'archaeological investigation'," says Yu. "In 1928, he sold more than 60 pieces of cultural relics from the grottoes at an auction in Osaka."

After Yu was promoted as museum curator in 2013, he and his colleagues focused on restoring the stolen statues-using digital technology.

That year the museum signed a deal with the University of Chicago's Center for the Art of East Asia to help "more people appreciate the lost beauty of the mountain".

Ever since, 27 museums in nine countries, where 108 stolen relics from the grottoes are now stored, have consented to provide Yu's museum with three dimensional scan data of the pieces.

With the central government's help, the museum exhibited more than 100 virtual Buddha statues restored using digital technology through the project Yu initiated in Saint-Denis, a commune in the northern suburbs of Paris; it attracted about seven thousand visitors in two months.

"The digital exhibition of Tianlong Mountain grottoes in France has created a new model for showcasing Chinese culture. It is encouraging for us," says Wu Junhua, a researcher at the Shanxi Provincial Cultural Heritage Administration.

The exhibition moved to Taiyuan in September. "I had never thought that technology could help protect cultural relics," said Fu Xiaoying, an impressed local visitor. "Technology has not only helped bring out the beauty of the relics from the grottoes, but also instilled them with vitality."

The Tianlong Mountain grottoes are where the arts, religion and nature merge. "They are also witness to the humiliation and perseverance of China's recent history," said Yu. "I hope more people can see that beyond the ruins in the mountains."

Buddha statues in the Tianlong Mountain grottoes in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. CHINA DAILY

Yu Hao (first from left) discusses cultural relics protection with his colleagues in the Tianlong Mountain grottoes in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. CHINA DAILY

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