Twenty years ago, a seated Buddhist saint – Patriarch Zhanggong– was reported missing from Yangchun village in Southeast China's Fujian province. This March, the gold-lacquered statue was discovered in the possession of a Dutch art collector in the Netherlands.
A CT scan shows a body, whose internal organs were removed, concealed in an ancient Chinese statue of a Buddha. [Photos provided by the Drents Museum]
With a centuries-old smile that appeared to be radiating from inside, the eastern style Buddha impressed audiences. It also sparked questions among experts and the general public in China and overseas. How was the monk's body preserved? Who was the monk? Why is he being worshipped?
Scientific study of the Buddha
According to a 1997 examination, when the statue was removed from its base plate, a handful of dead beetles fell out together with a linen scroll inscribed with Chinese characters. Inspection revealed a number of brittle bones poking through dried skin, and the remains suggest the statue contained a mummified body of a Buddhist monk.
In 2013, the statue was taken to Germany, where a CT scan was conducted under the German Mummy Project. The result showed that inside was a perfectly mummified body, with the entrails removed.
"There was also some tissue like stuff where the lungs would have been and we suggested they had been preserved, but they turned out to be paper with Chinese characters," said Vincent van Vilsteren, curator of archaeology at the Drents Museum.
Carbon-14 radioactive isotope dating showed that the Buddha died between 1022 and 1155, proving that the Buddha had lived during the Song Dynasty (960-1297). It was also estimated that the monk died in his 30s or 40s.
Erick Bruijn, an independent researcher on Tibet, Zen and other aspects of esoteric Buddhism, took part in a study of the mummified Buddha by the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany. According to Bruijn, the monk might have died of disease or an abstemious, vegetarian lifestyle.
"He obviously pined away, it might be his fasting near the end of his life to prepare for his mummification," Bruijn said. "Given that such an abscess develops slowly, the monk must have suffered excruciating recurring pains over a long period of time".
Some monks would live on dried linseed biscuits and yellow wax beans only, which implied that after two years they tend to be near death and would have skin as tough as leather. This is how mummified monks were preserved.
Benevolent master Zhanggong
The Buddha Zhanggong, being worshiped by villagers in Yangchun village, was a monk named Zhang Qisan. He was known for his benevolence.
Historical records show that Zhang was a skillful doctor who healed many patients. It is said local people wouldn't have escaped a plague were it not for his efforts, another reason why he was worshipped as their ancestor, or Zushi in Chinese.
Worshipping Zhanggong has been a tradition maintained for centuries, and renovation of the Buddha has been passed down through generations. The most recent being during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Inscriptions in classical Chinese on the linen scroll where the statue was seated indicated when and why the statue was renovated. The village head in Yangchun called on residents to donate money to renovate it in the hope that with a renovated Zhanggong, a declining population could be reversed, people would be happy and a rich harvest in prospect.
The inscription also reads that the renovation was done on a particularly auspicious day by performing divination – at hours of Yisi, Day of Renchen, Month of Yisi, Year of Renchen.
According to Bruijn, the lucky symbols, the dragons on the clothes of the Buddha were designed with more care and attention than other decorations, in "a style of the Ming Dynasty", which also confirms that the statue was redressed and gilded again during that time.
Incantation and belongings signify Buddha's origin
The seated Buddha wears two sets of clothes. A grey lining could be seen from the wide collar, and on top of it is delicately carved Buddhist garb.
Auspicious clouds and curving lines are knitted on the clothes and on the wide collar there are pictures of flowers. Carved dragons decorated the right sleeves and around the stomach.
"The ornamentations on the clothes show that the statue was renovated during the Ming Dynasty, which corresponds with local records of that time," said Chen Qizhong, curator of the Museum in Dakou, Fujian province.
Patterns on the clothes are auspicious, and "dragons embody longevity and irresistible power," said Bruijn, adding that the words and adornment also reveal a lot of information.
On the left shoulder hangs a black belt, with its two ends on the left chest and back. On the left back of the statue was written with Chinese character "佛"(Buddha).
A philosophy ring also hangs on the left chest and below the ring hang some ladder shaped decorations, which read a variant of "吽", signifying "disasters turning into auspicious" and "delivering all living creatures from torment".
While on exhibition at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, the Buddha was shown holding a flywhisk in his right hand, the symbol of the office of a Ch’an master.
The flywhisk, which stands for compassion in Buddhist symbolism, is not found on a portrait of Zhanggongzushi kept by villagers in Yangchun. But Bruijn believes that it might have "got lost at some point".
"This waving movement received the metaphoric meaning of sweeping away all doubts, worldly thought and desires, therefore symbolizing the ablation of all obstacles one's path to enlightenment," Bruijn said.