BEIJING — As China celebrates the 50th anniversary of communist society and evolves toward a more prosperous future, it is once again recognizing the value of its rich past.

China never was the monolithic power it seems to be, but always a web of different ethnic, cultural and economic influences from Central Asia to the eastern seaboard. As the excesses of the Cultural Revolution fade, new archaeological discoveries remind us that ancient times were just as turbulent as the recent past.

Outstanding among 10 major finds in 1996 was a cache of over 400 Buddhist statues unearthed in the eastern province of Shandong, halfway between Beijing and Nanjing. The unique beauty of these images and the mystery attached to this large hoard aroused excitement among both experts and the public. As a result, 80 outstanding pieces have been selected for a superbly displayed exhibition at the National Museum of Chinese History in Beijing to mark the 50th anniversary of the Revolution.

That Buddhist art should be a symbol of changing political attitudes is nothing new, as the exhibition itself illustrates.

“Returned to Light: Masterpieces of Buddhist Statuary from the Longxing Temple Site, Qingzhou” spans 500 years from the Northern Wei (386-535) to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126), the earliest example dating from 529 and the latest 1026.

The stone images were buried in three tiers within an underground vault and seem to have been deliberately broken, with the heads arranged along the sides and the bodies in the middle. Scattered coins and traces of ritual fires suggest an elaborate ceremony, but why and exactly when this took place are questions that divide the experts.

Was it during the reign of Song Emperor Huizong (1101-26), a fervent Taoist known to have ordered the destruction of over 1,000 Buddhist temples around the year 1111? Or were the statues being protected from the invading Jurchen, ancestors of the Manchus, who forced the Northern Sung court to flee to the south in 1126?

Whatever the answers to the historical questions, the unique artistic quality of the images is beyond doubt. Preserved for nine centuries in the alkaline loess soil, they have returned to light, finely carved in stone but also painted in exquisite colors and covered in gold leaf, as fresh as when they were created, mostly in the early 6th-century Northern and Eastern Wei Dynasties. Faces and bodies of Buddhas emanate a soft golden glow, contrasting with robes in crimson, vermilion, or pale green. Princely Bodhisattvas, Buddhas-to-be, wear extravagant jewelry, their blue tresses adorned with pink ribbons and baubles.

Stone statues of the same period which have been exposed to the elements, including the famous monumental carvings on mountain sides along the Silk Roads, have lost their original pigments and appear in subdued tones of gray and beige. One example, the Buddha triad of 523 in Lungmen, near the ancient Wei capital of Luoyang, inspired the bronze masterpiece of the Horyuji Temple in Nara, made exactly 100 years later.

One has to imagine the Lungmen Buddha, however, in resplendent colors, just as one should visualize the pale European statues on the porches of Gothic cathedrals in their original gaily painted form. Among the most exquisite pieces exhibited in Beijing, a Bodhisattva of the Future, dated mid-6th-century, may not inspire in us now the meditative mood his stance suggests, dressed as he is in fanciful red, blue and gold. In Japan, we are more used to seeing the simplicity of unpainted wood in the Miroku of the Nara Chuguji or Kyoto’s Koryuji.

Beyond questions of personal taste, though, the discoveries in Qingzhou are challenges to accepted views of Buddhist art. They may also change familiar notions of the spread of Buddhism and the role of the Silk Roads.

The simple view is of a flow of commercial, cultural and religious exchanges from the Roman/Mediterranean world at one end, to Japan at the other, with Changan (today’s Xian) as its cosmopolitan center during the heyday of the Tang Dynasty (7th-9th centuries). Most travelers, after stopping in the bustling caravan town of Kashgar in Central Asia (still famous today for its Sunday market), took the route north of the Taklamakan desert, via the oases of Kizil, Kucha and Turpan.

Earlier travelers in the 2nd-4th centuries, however, had preferred going south of the desert, through Khotan (where you can still buy fine carpets). Either way, the two roads joined in Dunhuang before reaching the capital. Dunhuang, of course, is where most tourists now head to see the Buddhist paintings in the ancient grottoes.

There were several alternative trade routes overland, and far more than silk passing along them. Last but not least, there was the sea route. The Silk Roads were indeed many and Ferdinand von Richthofen, the geographer who first coined the expression in the 1870s, in fact referred to them in the plural, as Seidenstrassen.

Qingzhou then, in the eastern province of Shandong, may seem far off the main thoroughfares — but it is close to the Yellow Sea. In 412, the famous Master Faxian, the first Chinese monk ever to travel to India, returning by the sea route, landed on the Shandong coast and spent a year teaching at the Longxing temple in Qingzhou. In 840, a Japanese monk, Genjin, on his way to Changan, also came to Longxing and studied there.

Such noted visitors, the discovery of the hoard and the remains of the long-lost Longxing Temple confirm that Qingzhou was a major center and give us a fresh picture of what the silk routes really meant. Today again they offer discoveries and surprises to travelers.

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