The Buddha statue on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest in March. (Photo/Xinhua)
The disputed 1000-year-old Chinese mummy Buddha was thrown into the spotlight once again last week as the villagers of Yangchun, a small village in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian initiated a legal procedure to have the statue returned to its Puzhao temple, while the Dutch collector insists on giving it to a bigger temple in the same province only if his conditions for repatriation are satisfied.
"I can scientifically prove that the statue does not come from that village," the Dutch collector told Xinhua over the phone. His view stands in direct opposition to the declaration of the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) that this statue known as "Zhanggong Patriarch" had been stolen from no elsewhere but Yangchun village 20 years earlier.
"Reports said villagers remember a hole drilled in the left hand of the Buddha, and that the head was lost. With my hand on my heart I tell you, there is no hole in that hand, and his head is not lost at all," said the collector who still wishes to stay anonymous though his identity has been disclosed by other media.
"Just with these two points I can prove it is not their mummy. They can see the MRI scans of the statue. If they still do not believe it, they can make their own scans," he said.
It was through scans that researchers commissioned by the Dutch collector found out that a mummified body is encased in the statue.
When the statue toured in a mummy exhibition in Hungary last March, overseas Chinese residents there noticed its resemblance to the disappeared Zhanggong Patriarch in their home village and took on a cross-continental quest for its return.
For Chinese cultural heritage researchers, details such as a hole in a hand or a crack in the neck are excerpts from the memory of just a few villagers. "These details cannot be counted as hard arguments, especially when there is a full package of really crucial evidences," a SACH official told Xinhua.
In the photos taken by the villagers in the 1980s sits a Buddhist figure with a faint smile, cross-legged, shoulders slightly hunched forward. "Compared with widely mediated images of the statue now in hands of the Dutch collector, the facial expression, the posture and the decoration do look identical.
In an interview with Dutch daily NRC published last March, the collector said the Buddha statue came into his possession by coincidence, because actually the "crazy thing" did not fit in his collection.
"A Buddha is supposed to sit upright. This man has a curved back and proportionally his head is too large. And he is golden, something the owner does not like," said the NRC article. "But this made the statue intriguing and so the collector bought it for about 40,000 guilders."
An inescapable difference between the figure in villagers' photos and the statue once in exhibition is that the statue in the photos wears clothes, which makes the Dutchman suspect the authenticity of the Buddhist faith of the villagers.
"If someone really took away the statue, why would they have taken its clothes off? That he would ever have worn clothes is ridiculous. A real Buddhist monastery would not put clothes on such a statue. It is completely decorated with decorations of symbolic and religious value, you would not hide those under clothing," argued the collector in a conversation with Xinhua earlier in May.
A SACH document of which Xinhua obtained a copy explains that the specific Patriarch belief in the south of Fujian is a Buddhist belief that has adopted local forms. It is a blend of Buddhism, Taoism, witchcraft and folk-customs. In its particular traditions, Patriarch statues are always crowned and dressed. From generation to generation, village believers have always paraded their statues in full appeal at festivals every year.
In order to convince the collector that Zhanggong Patriarch does come from Yangchun, the SACH official has also sent him pictures of the linen text roll of the village's genealogy, and of the scroll and veiling that Puzhao Temple has kept for centuries.
The ancient text roll records the origin of Zhanggong Patriarch, or "Zhanggong Liuquan Zushi" by its full Chinese name, and shows that it has been worshiped at Puzhao temple in Yangchun village from the Song dynasty (960-1279) to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The Chinese characters on these documents are consistent with those on the praying mat stolen along with the statue of the mummy Buddha, according to Chinese cultural heritage experts.
Besides, a thorough investigation across Fujian province confirmed that apart from Yangchun village there is no other place where both a "Zhanggong Liuquan Zushi" and a "Puzhao Temple" existed together. In fact, ever since the mummy Buddha gained international attention, no other institution or individual in Fujian has made any claim for its ownership.
The collector also questioned the history of Puzhao temple in Yangchun village. "The temple shown on television is completely new, it is built recently with new wood," he told Xinhua.
However, the SACH told Xinhua that the Puzhao temple has been repaired and rebuilt many times, which actually demonstrates the deep bond and attachment between the villagers and their Zhanggong Patriarch. Certain pillars of the temple still stand on four stone foundations that date back to the Ming Dynasty, which proves that Puzhao temple is not a new construction, said the Chinese experts.
Earlier in March, the Dutch collector argued that the previous owner had acquired the statue in Hong Kong in the winter of 1994-1995 before shipping it to Amsterdam in 1995, and in mid-1996 he himself "legally acquired" it. If his saying proves to be true, the mummy Buddha appeared in both Hong Kong and the Netherlands before Yangchun villagers found their statue was stolen on Dec. 15, 1995. However, the collector did not accompany his statements with any proof.
"I am willing to return it to China, but I am not willing to return it to Yangchun," said the collector in an earlier interview with Xinhua. Contacted in May, he confirmed that negotiations for repatriation were underway with Chinese authorities and he expected that "in one or two weeks" the statue would go back to China "in the smartest way possible".
Last week, the Dutch collector disclosed his three conditions for the repatriation of the Chinese Mummy Buddha, which raised serious questioning over his sincerity. His conditions have been rejected by the Chinese authorities except for the request on cooperation for researches.
"We have told him that arrangements [for his intended researches in China] will be made properly, but only under the precondition that an actual intention of return has been reached," the SACH official told Xinhua.