Age of restoration
A sleeping Buddha image is one of the most representative rock carvings in Baodingshan, Dazu district, Chongqing, and was threatened by seeping water. [Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

Editor's Note: In May, President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province, and highlighted the importance of ancient grotto temples to display characters of Chinese civilization and the mixture of different cultures. In October, the State Council, China's Cabinet, issued the first national-level and long-term guideline specifically for the protection and study of grotto temples. China Daily journalists talk with researchers and conservators to showcase the cultural splendor.

Dazu Rock Carvings, being studied, preserved and protected in Southwest China, provide a fascinating insight into Chinese culture, Wang Kaihao reports in Chongqing.

This place is called Fozu village. It is named after a Buddhist grotto known as Fozuyan, or "the Buddha rock", which is more than 800 years old. For villager Luo Kaihong, 46, a native of Dazu district, Chongqing municipality in Southwest China, the rock is not only a piece of the country's cultural heritage carved into a mountain, but also a definition of home carved in his mind.

"I began to play around the Buddhas when I was a boy," Luo recalls."It's part of my life."

Luo's home is just 100 meters or so away from the 5-meter-high and 12-meter-wide rock carvings, which depict four Buddhas, a Buddhist niche and a stele.

Almost every day, Luo climbs up to the site to check its condition and do some cleaning.

An 8-year-long restoration of the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara was completed in 2015. [Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

His father had been devoted to his role as a volunteer, patrolling the area and safeguarding the Buddha rock for decades.

After his father died last year, that torch was passed to Luo.

Dazu district boasts 75 rock carving sites, spanning the Tang (618-907) to Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

There are more than 50,000 sculptures or carved images on the cliffs-collectively known as the Dazu Rock Carvings, which were inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999, the second grotto temple entry from China, after the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu province.

In Dazu district, 62 local villagers voluntarily patrol and oversee the rock carvings.

They were given an annual subsidy of thousands of yuan by the government, but money is not the main reason for their dedication.

Many of them echo Luo's sentiments. "If I take good care of the Buddha, I think the Buddha will bless me," says the villager.

The Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)-when Fozuyan was carved-witnessed the pinnacle of the carving work, according to Li Fangyin, director of the Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings, a Chongqing-based institute, which is also in charge of the administration of the sites.

Over a period of decades, a Southern Song era monk, named Zhao Zhifeng, was responsible for massive carvings on the rock in his hometown. A site called Baodingshan ("mountain of the precious summit") then became the heart of the Buddhist pilgrimage.

A restorer works on a stone relic at the academy's conservation center in December. [Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

The grotto temples, which were carved into rocks or mountains for religious pilgrimage, originated in India. They were introduced into China along the Silk Road in the third century.

While this Buddhist art form faded away elsewhere, it continued to thrive in Dazu, absorbing local artistic styles.

So, according to the timeline, Dazu Rock Carvings was the last of the major grotto temples, Li says.

"Dazu carvings not only represent state-of-the-art craftsmanship of the time and talent from ancient history, but also show how Buddhist art adopted a localized style,"Li says.

Compared with other grotto temples in China where sculptures and frescoes follow themes that are also derived from Buddhist scriptures, Dazu is more "down-to-earth".

For example, other than the grand, exquisite Buddhas, many rock carvings of Baodingshan are like picture books, encouraging people to be filial to their parents, behave well and not be greedy.

"For local people, these rock carvings represent a nostalgic link to their home," Li says.

"That's why generations of people-fathers and sons, husbands and wives-have guarded it."

Researchers from the Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings make a detailed survey of Fozuyan, or "the Buddha rock", in Dazu in December. [Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

Lasting effort

The carvings have also enjoyed a unique status among Chinese grotto temples for mixing Buddhism with indigenous beliefs like Confucianism and Taoism, Li explains.

In some grottoes there, the Buddha is even worshipped together with statues of Confucius and Laozi, the founder of Taoism.

But this remarkable heritage, blending the three beliefs, which may have been pivotal for Luo's ancestors for centuries, remained isolated and unknown to the outside until the 1940s during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). Chongqing then was China's wartime provisional capital and the hub for the country's top-tier scholars.

The first investigation group was composed of iconic historians and archaeologists, like Gu Jiegang and Ma Heng, who arrived in 1945 and surprisingly found the Dazu Rock Carvings had a significance comparable to the Mogao and Yungang caves.

Since 1952, when the first conservation institute for the Dazu Rock Carvings was founded, generations of researchers have been fascinated by the place. More than 100 people are regularly stationed at the Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings for relevant studies.

According to Deng Qibing, deputy director of the academy's archaeology department, one of the biggest achievements in recent years was the publication of an 11-volume archaeological report on the carvings, completed in 2018.

"It took 16 years," Deng says. "It filled in a blank of overall archaeological reports for large-scale grotto temples in China."

Last year, improving archaeological research was particularly emphasized in the State Council's first national-level and long-term guideline specifically for the protection and study of grotto temples.

Li Fangyin, director of the Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings, a Chongqing-based institute, which is also in charge of the administration of the sites. [Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

While the larger grottoes within the core zone of the Dazu Rock Carvings have been under spotlight in the past two decades, the smaller ones that are scattered in the wild, like Fozuyan, are still marginalized, and lesser known to the public.

"But these (smaller) sites are part of a well-planned system centering on the holy place of Baodingshan,"Deng says, adding that ancient pilgrims would first see those rock carvings along the road before they arrived at Baodingshan.

The surrounding sites, like Fozuyan which is 2 kilometers away from it, were thought to form barriers to the holy place, Deng adds.

To better protect these smaller sites, a comprehensive conservation and research project was launched in September to cover all of the 68 medium- and small-sized sites and is set to continue until 2023.

Deng's team will conduct detailed surveys and take high-definition photos of Fozuyan as a reference for archaeological research.

However, the project is not just for academic purposes, Li adds.

"We have to improve facilities for visitors to rest and worship the deities."

According to the academy's plan, on average, about 700,000 yuan ($108,000) will be allocated for the renovation of each site.

By 2025, all potential hazards to these medium-and small-sized sites will be addressed.

Fozuyan was last renovated in the late 19th century, according to the stele inscriptions left in the grotto, and it remains in good condition, but many similar sites are also in need of restoration.

[Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

For a goddess' well-being

Chen Huili, director of the academy's conservation center, says many aging carvings have suffered the ravages of time and are on, or close to, unstable cliffs.

In the last decade, 246 million yuan has been put into 24 restoration projects in Dazu.

"A big challenge is how to balance the artistic, historical and social values of the artifact," she says.

For example, in 2015, an eight-year restoration of the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara (better known as Guanyin in Chinese, or "the goddess of mercy"), also of the Southern Song Dynasty, was completed. At the time it was China's most highlighted stone relic conservation project.

This complex combination of sculptures, rock carvings and colored drawings is considered to be one of the most popular sites for tourists to Baodingshan.

However, until its completion, the project was dogged by online controversy when a brand-new gold leaf facade was given to the goddess, and people questioned whether it detracted from the original intent of the sculpture.

[Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

Another task was carried out after the restoration was finished-close monitoring of the microclimate around the relic became the new focus, Chen adds.

Better management of tourists will be realized by analyzing temperature, moisture and other environmental influences of human activities, thus ensuring the wellbeing of the 800-year-old "goddess".

A similar challenge has been thrown up by Yuanjue Cave, also in Baodingshan. Conservators worry that the cave's aging ceiling may collapse.

The pity is that they can only use hydraulic iron frames to support it, although they know it is not pleasing to the eye.

"Our solution is better than making a hasty plan before any tailored technology is developed through interdisciplinary studies," says the academy director Li.

"Reliable plans can only be created in deeper academic research. Some methods that we had initially thought inadequate may turn out to be the best solution later."

[Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

For Yan Xuefeng, the academy's leading engineer on the restoration, the seeping water in the rock that damaged its stability is his nemesis.

"We used to spare no effort to try and keep all water from seeping into the rock carvings, but we later found that if we don't allow any water in, the rock carvings will face another danger," he says, pointing out that dehydration is just as damaging.

"Water flows in the cracks of rocks like blood flows in our veins, and it's part of nature. As long as no water is seen to flow on the surface of the rock carvings after restoration, it will be all right," he adds.

According to Chen, restoration opens a window to the past.

The restorers have a duty to represent the original as closely as possible and should always work on the side of caution. In these cases their work allows updates to be made later, she adds.

"In our work, we often find vestiges of previous restorations, some stretching back hundreds of years," she says and smiles.

"We admire our predecessors' wisdom and devotion, and it's amazing to have a dialogue with those masters across the expanse of time."

[Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

In 2018, a Sino-Italian joint conservation laboratory was established at the Dazu academy, benefiting from a low-interest loan provided by the Italian government.

The lab introduced leading stone-relic restoration technology from Italy, Chen says. Restoring grotto temples in China also helps the Italian researchers to gain relevant experience as there are no similar grotto temples in Italy.

It is also crucial for Chinese researchers to have dialogue with those who show the most concern for the rock carvings-local residents like Luo, Chen adds.

In December, she hosted a lecture at the academy and gave a briefing of her recent work, inviting local communities to attend.

As many local villagers became migrant workers looking for better jobs in the cities, it's getting more difficult to find suitable candidates like Luo and his compatriots to join the volunteer patrols.

"But protection of the carvings still needs wider public participation," she says.

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