China retrieves Buddha-head sculpture missing for a century

A stone Buddha head stolen from one of the statues in north China’s Tianlongshan Grottoes almost a century ago has been retrieved, the National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) said Thursday.

The Buddha head, which was brought back from Japan on Dec. 12, is the 100th relic retrieved by China from overseas in 2020, according to the NCHA.

The NCHA first identified the Buddha head in September 2020 when the sculpture resurfaced at a Japanese auction house. The house cancelled the auction after the NCHA contacted it and requested that the sale be halted.

The NCHA said it contacted Zhang Rong, a Chinese national and board chairman of the auction house, in an effort to retrieve the relic. In late October, after buying the Buddha head from the Japanese owner, Zhang decided to donate the sculpture to the Chinese government, according to the NCHA.

Purchasing the relic was the simplest way to bring it back to China, instead of conducting lengthy negotiations with the foreign collector, Zhang told Xinhua.

Zhang said that, as a Chinese citizen, his actions in helping to retrieve the sculpture were also driven by patriotism.

The Tianlongshan Grottoes, in the city of Taiyuan in Shanxi Province, are notable for the Buddha statues located within them. Construction of the grottoes began in the Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550) and continued until the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

In the 1920s, a large number of statues — over 240, according to the NCHA — were stolen from the grottoes and smuggled overseas, and are now housed in Japanese, European and American museums or have been obtained by individual foreign collectors.

There are now 25 caves and over 500 Buddha statues at the Tianlongshan Grottoes. With many of the sculptures missing or scattered overseas, researchers have been working for years to recreate the original splendor of the grottoes through digital imaging.

Examinations and evaluations conducted by experts after the Buddha head arrived in Beijing found that the relic had been stolen from a statue in Cave 8 of the grottoes in around 1924.

The Buddha head was shown to audiences on Thursday at the Spring Festival gala of China’s state broadcaster and will be exhibited at Beijing Luxun Museum from Feb. 12 to March 14. It will then be sent back to Taiyuan and archived in the museum of the Tianlongshan Grottoes, according to the NCHA.