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China Daily Global / 2021-04 / 02 / Page005

Volunteers in Dazu devoted to defending rock carvings

By TAN YINGZI and DENG RUI in Chongqing | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-04-02 00:00

Grotto guardians in Chongqing have been protecting ancient Buddhist relics since 1987

A group of volunteers in Chongqing have guarded the Dazu Grottoes for decades, forming a concerted effort with the local authorities to protect the world heritage site.

The grottoes, which are spread over 100 locations in Chongqing's Dazu district, date back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and peaked in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).

They are generally considered to represent the world's last such comprehensive rock carving artworks, and the five most representative locations were added to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list in 1999. Among them, the cliffside carvings complex on Mount Baoding reflects the high point of Buddhism's localization in China.

The concept of volunteer guardians who would help protect the grottoes from theft and vandalism was introduced in the 1980s because the local cultural relics protection department didn't have enough workers to cover all the sites scattered among the mountains.

"We had only four staff members in the center, and there are more than 800 cultural relics sites scattered around the district," said Yang Guangyu, director of the carving safety protection center of the Chongqing Dazu Grottoes Research Institute.

So the center came up with the innovative idea of recruiting local residents to help protect the grottoes, Yang said.

The first batch of volunteers started working in 1987. They often serve alone at the site.

Some families have guarded the grottoes for two generations.

Luo Kaihong, 46, is the youngest volunteer. He took over the job of protecting the Fozuyan Grotto last year from his father, Luo Junshi, who had guarded the grotto for 32 years until he was too old to carry on.

But the son was hesitant. The voluntary post would take up all his working time, and the average subsidy for the sentries is only 1,000 yuan ($153) per year-hardly enough to care for his family.

To Luo Kaihong's surprise, his wife, Huang Ping, turned out to be very supportive of the idea.

"We regard it (guarding the grotto) as a blessing," Huang said."Our father has protected the Buddhas for a lifetime, and we also have developed feelings toward them as well."

To help make ends meet, Huang is planning to become a migrant worker this year so that her husband can stay and protect the national treasures.

Wang Xinshu, is the oldest of the sentries. The 82-year-old was recruited by the local cultural relics protection department in 1987 and has guarded the Jianshanzi Grotto-among the Dazu's most ancient-ever since.

"There was no road to the grotto deep in the mountain," he said. "I had to walk uphill for an hour and a half to reach the site. I think it is my destiny to protect this grotto."

Zhou Yaode, 74, has spent 34 years protecting Douwanzhai Grotto at Fengshan village in Zhong'ao town. He is also a leader of a cultural relics protection team protecting the national treasures in five villages.

His wife, Zeng Kaibin, supports his protection efforts. The couple make a living by farming and raising livestock.

Zhou started guarding the grottoes at night in 2007, and has hardly slept at home overnight since.

Four years ago, Zhou wanted to quit because Zeng was very ill at the time, but she encouraged him to continue.

"You are doing the job quite well, why quit?" Zeng asked him then.

She died last year.

"I've never asked for leave, except last year when my wife passed away. I asked for a five-day leave and was sick for a while," Zhou said. "But I came back to the site as soon as possible because my responsibility (to guard the grotto) is huge."

Yang, the director of the protection center, said he was pleased with the volunteers' efforts.

"Their work has proved to be effective and reliable. The relics are in much better condition than in the past," he said.

"But I'm afraid the volunteers are a bit too old for the job now. Most of them are ages 50 to 80."

To assist them, the center has incorporated modern technology into the relics protection effort. The center now carries out monthly inspections by using a mobile phone app developed by Chongqing's Municipal Bureau of Cultural Relics. The inspectors can upload photos of the sites via the app to maintain records of the condition of the relics.

Tourists visit the cliffside carvings complex on Mount Baoding in Chongqing's Dazu Grottoes. LIU ZHIYONG/FOR CHINA DAILY

Luo Kaihong at the Fozuyan Grotto in Chongqing's Dazu district. CHINA DAILY

Zhou Yaode has spent 34 years protecting the Douwanzhai Grotto in Dazu. LI DONG/FOR CHINA DAILY

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