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View of Bamiyan valley and the Small Buddha © UNESCO

Reimaging Bamiyan’s Lost Buddhas The Art of Xie Chengshui Sajid Rizvi The Chinese artist most widely celebrated for reproducing murals from the caves of Dunhuang has employed his skills to reinvoke Afghanistan’s rock figures of the deity, almost as they existed before their destruction by the doomed Taliban regime


ny talk of preserving what is left of the Bamiyan Buddhas, dynamited on orders of Afghanistan’s former Taliban government in March 2001, rings hollow when soldiers from the West’s own armies in Iraq face charges of wanton destruction in Babylon, and passive or active connivance in the looting and arson at museums, galleries and archives in Baghdad. Yet preservation of Bamiyan’s remains is actually happening, under the aegis of a UNESCO/Japan project. Unlike Babylon, which is precious in the context of the world’s heritage but not a point of pilgrimage, Bamiyan is a religious site, a spiritual home for millions of practising Buddhists worldwide, and now a lost gem of human endeavour. Bamiyan’s destruction is mourned by secular, culture-conscious people, too. Only a mixture of diplomatic restraint, Realpolitik and Afghanistan’s relative inaccessibility as a war zone have prevented stronger reactions to the ruination visited upon the Buddhas. Deep Wounds But emotions run deep, and the hurt felt by people of different ideological and religious persuasions does get expressed both publicly and in private. The Taliban’s single most dramatic act of state vandalism, amidst their many shocking (and some darkly hilarious) transgressions, that helped legitimise the West’s military intervention shortly afterwards, has gone a significant way towards contributing to a generic demonisation of all things Islamic/Islamist/Muslim that gained momentum after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. The Taliban’s action has created fissures in Buddhist-Muslim relations, though Eastern Art Report • No 49 [2005 / 1]

both sides have maintained a discreet silence, so far. And for every rock fragment of the Bamiyan Buddhas spirited away from the ruined site or preserved by scientists there is a theory in currency about what happens next. Would / should the Buddhas be rebuilt? Would / should there be enough money made available for such a task? With the extent of likely restoration far from determined, there is in evidence an odd blend of religious devotion, diplomacy and international cooperation, amidst the culmination of the many months of work undertaken by individuals and institutions under UNESCO’s umbrella. From Dunhuang to Bamiyan Not long after the various debates over the future of Bamiyan ensued, London was a temporary home for Chinese artist Xie Chengshui, perhaps best recognised for his painstakingly accurate rendering of mural paintings from the caves of Dunhuang. The cave-temples in China, arguably the world’s most extraordinary gallery of Buddhist art,1 have been home to Xie Chengshui’s toils over many years. (See inset: Life and Art: Xie Chengshui). As a guest for many months of Professor Roderick Whitfield,2 Chengshui became almost a habitué of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. It was after these encounters that we asked him if he had been to Bamiyan. He hadn’t. Then we asked him how he felt about the destruction of Bamiyan, taking care not to enquire after his faith, a somewhat more intrusive question, given the ambivalence of attitudes to religion and faith in a fast modernising but still officially communist China.

We asked Xie Chengshui if he would apply his considerable gift, as demonstrated in his exemplary reproduction of the Dunhuang murals, to bring Bamiyan back to life on paper. Our idea was that reimaging Bamiyan would be an apt tribute to the work of the unknown multitudes who, in the fourth century or thereabouts,3 carved the two giant Buddhas and clusters of caves around them in the sandstone rockface of Bamiyan’s mountains. True, the sculptures were far from perfect before their destruction due to the vagaries of time, having been stripped of the original stucco coating that would have given them a splendid appearance in years past, in the heyday of Buddhism in present-day Afghanistan. But their magnificence was all too apparent from the images and photographs that Xie Chengshui used to prepare for his paintings. The colouring he chose for the rock restored to the images a grandeur long lost. Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk who visited Bamiyan around 630, when it was still a flourishing centre of Buddhism, witnessed the figures “decorated with gold and fine jewels.”4 Despite the looting and plunder of the various Buddhist artefacts and stones over time, the Buddhas escaped attention from the more bigoted and obscurantist of Islamist militants, such as those who had systematically destroyed minority Muslim sect shrines on the Arabian Peninsula when Saudi Arabia came into being. By 2001, however, like-minded militants were in ascendancy in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and, while the story of the destruction is riddled with conjecture and hearsay, there is no doubting the determination of those who gave themselves the wrecking brief. Only the outlines and some battered 17

climate is severe. Communications at that time were not easy, and there was no way for most people to go there. Moreover, in central China at that time, there was no way of seeing the true tradition of Chinese painting. I always wanted to go to Dunhuang because I knew that over the past century many great artists had obtained inspiration and ideas for creation from the art of that part of China.

Life & Art | Xie Chengshui

1950 | Born in Changting, Fujian province, lives in Nanjing, where he teaches at Dunhuang Art Research Centre, Nanjing Normal University 1976 | BA in Fine Arts (Oil Painting), Fujian Normal University 1977 | Participated in overall planning and exhibition work for the Changting Museum of History l978 | Worked in the Cultural Office, Changting County, Fujian, creating original works and leading popular artistic activities 1979 | Elected member of the Association of Chinese Artists l984 | Began work at the Dunhuang Research Institute, researching, drawing and painting in the Mogao caves, Dunhuang 1987| Appointed Research Fellow and Associate, Dunhuang Research Institute 1991 | Appointed Head of the Fine Art Research Section, Dunhuang Research Institute 1995 | Exhibition of works at the National Art Gallery of China, Beijing 2000 | Invited to be Chairman and Research Fellow of the Dunhuang Research Centre, Nanjing Normal University; taught courses on the art of Dunhuang 2002 | Invited by the University of London to research Dunhuang silk paintings at the British Museum 2004 | Public sculpture, Tree of Knowledge (pictured below), unveiled in the centre of his native town, Changting Xie Chengshui has published numerous articles and monographs on the subject of his research, on Chinese painting and sculpture and the use of materials in his own art and Chinese art practice Xie Chengshui


What inspired you to initiate work on mural paintings and sculptures at Dunhuang?

Xie Chengshui’s preliminary pencil drawing and (right) his painting of the Great Buddha

features remain — not enough to attract tourists but still the piece of thread held dear by Buddhist devotees. So, while physically unfamiliar with the site before and after the destruction, Xie Chengshui applied his Dunhuang painting techniques and the palette as he proceeded to reinvoke the lost Buddhas. Once finished, the Buddha paintings represented an extraordinary addition to Xie Chengshui’s oeuvre. There was talk of having exhibitions centred round the Bamiyan scenes, and of special publications. These may yet materialise. In the meantime, what follows is an edited summary of Xie Chengshui’s comments (rendered into English by Professor Whitfield) in response to questions from Eastern Art Report. The Interview What is your most abiding memory of the years that you spent painting in western China and how did it all begin? I am a painter in oils. In 1982, when I was researching in the oil painting department of the Chinese Institute of Fine Arts, the Chinese government had already begun a policy of opening to the outside world, and a large number of Chinese artists began to come to the West. However, I decided to first investigate the art of the largest cavetemple site in the western desert at Dunhuang, before coming to any further decision. Dunhuang is some 1,600 miles (3,000 km) from eastern Chinese cities. As it is in the desert, the

When, with some difficulty, I came to Dunhuang, I saw this amazingly preserved treasury of desert art. It really surprised me. Here were 4,500 square metres of wall paintings and 2,000 or more stucco sculptures, with an uninterrupted history of more than a thousand years from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, over 10 dynasties. Of course, what astonished me more than anything was that the colourful murals in each of the caves made a miraculous world, a world altogether different from the monochrome ink paintings of Chinese painting tradition. The colourful beauty of Dunhuang murals is bright and peaceful, pure and lofty. Moreover, there is an extremely moving line flowing easily and swiftly through this peaceful realm of beauty. This is truly the kind of world that western artists are seeking. I was completely won over by this kind of greatness. I decided that I would work here for a fairly long time. In 1984, I received a formal invitation from the Dunhuang Research Institute, to come and work at Dunhuang. This was how I began my work on the art of Dunhuang. You are credited with pioneering a new painterly style that honours the integrity of sculpture in flat art not only in terms of line and perspective but also the use of materials. Can you elaborate on how you came upon it? I began by copying, for only in this way could I gain a profound knowledge of ancient Chinese painting, its line, colours and composition. Because I had studied western oil painting, I was very sensitive to form and perspective, the appearance of near things being large and far off ones being small, the orthodox perspective of western painting. In Dunhuang murals there were quite a few instances of things

Eastern Art Report • No 49 [2005 / 1]


Japan and Japanese institutions have been in the forefront of the UNESCO-led effort to coordinate restoration at Bamiyan. Most notably, the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (NRICP) and Japan’s NHK have helped UNESCO, and the Government of Japan donated more than US$1.8 million in 2003 as UNESCO Fundsin-Trust, according to Christian Manhart, who spoke at a symposium held in Tokyo in December last year in conjunction with the meetings of the Third Expert Working Group on Bamiyan. Experts and decision-makers involved with the restoration of Bamiyan attended the meeting. According to Manhart, “UNESCO responds firmly to the challenge of rehabilitating Afghanistan’s endangered cultural heritage, which has suffered irreversible damage and loss during the past two decades of war and civil unrest. The safeguarding of all aspects of cultural heritage in this country, both tangible and intangible, including museums, monuments, archaeological sites, music, art and traditional crafts, is of particular significance in terms of strengthening cultural identity and a sense of national integrity.” UNESCO has established an International Coordination Committee comprising Afghan experts and international specialists. Although restoration work during 2004 was somewhat disrupted by the security clampdown in the midst of the Afghan elections, NRICP, under the direction of Kazuya Yamauchi, carried out archaeological soundings and explorations of the Bamiyan valley and its surroundings in order to specify the archaeological zone and the cultural area to be protected from settlements, agriculture and other infrastructures. A preliminary master plan was presented by NRICP’s Nobuko Inaba and it now goes to Afghan authorities for developing a final master plan and incorporating it into national legislation. The University of Aachen in Germany is cooperating in this field with funding from Germany through the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Manhart told EAR that UNESCO is also seeking more funds. Preservation of Bamiyan’s mural paintings: Professors Akira Miayaji and Kosaku Maeda, who made the full inventory near being small and far off things being large, an approach considered as ‘unscientific’ by experts. Going back into my research, I discovered that this kind of reverse perspective was always in the lowest part of the painting, while the upper part of the paintings was in orthodox perspective. According to modern photographic optical theory, objects within a 60degree field appear in an orthodox perspective. With the near things appearing large and far things small, but with a wider angle of over 60 degrees the object perspective is in fact ‘near things are small and distant ones large’ — a reversal of normal perspective. However, the human eye is a lens with a wide angle capability, and Chinese painting frequently employs a composition with a view from a high point downwards. In this way one necessarily sees objects beyond the circle, and these objects beyond the circle are necessarily in ‘near is small, far is large’ reverse perspective. This is precisely the kind of perspective employed in compositions of Dunhuang murals. Because of this, I wrote my first paper, On Reverse Perspective in Chinese Painting as seen in Dunhuang Wall-paintings.5 This I termed the 20

fifth perspective in Chinese painting: “perspective beyond the circle.” Stucco sculpture While I was copying the wall paintings, I frequently found that not a few of the stucco sculptures were half modelled in three dimensions, while the other half was painted on the wall behind. This is a beautiful marriage, but only feasible when one person is able to make both sculpture and painting. So I began to research and copy stucco sculpture as well, and discovered that the forms of ancient Chinese sculpture were derived from painting, and that the lines on the surface of sculptures were identical with those in Chinese painting, and that the line in Chinese sculpture was different from that in Indian sculpture from Mathura and Gandhara. In 1990, I presented a paper, Linear method of Dunhuang stucco sculptures, at the International Conference of Dunhuang Studies, discussing the basic principles and techniques of Chinese stucco sculpture (see the Papers presented at the 1990 International Conference of Dunhuang Studies). Following the principles of ancient Chinese stucco sculpture, I began to create paintings that used

the Chinese painting line to present Chinese sculptural style. I also used Chinese sculptural techniques to paint chiaroscuro space. In this way, my painting surface could forcefully manifest a Chinese-style painting line, while preserving the mysterious spiritual character of East Asian sculpture. Having seen the Dunhuang mural paintings, I believe that they are the only ones that can compete in aesthetic appeal with western oil painting. How have these discoveries impacted on your techniques and use of materials and your convictions about current painterly practices? For a long time, Chinese painting has been done on xuan (mulberry bark) paper. Particularly in the case of ink wash painting on xuan paper, although a good deal of variation is possible, basically there is no way in which it can compare with oil painting in depth. I too, use xuan paper on which to copy Dunhuang wall paintings, and similarly encountered many difficulties, since xuan paper cannot take very thick pigment, so that one can only apply repeated ground coats, up to a dozen or more, before one can achieve the kind of depth of feeling

Bert Praxenthaller, courtesy of UNESCO

Bamiyan and UNESCO

Consolidation of cliffs and niches: Due to the imminent risk of collapse of the upper eastern part of the Small Buddha niche and the overall instability of both niches, the consolidation of the cliffs and niches was a priority task, as they shape the general appearance of the site and contain the original staircases and several caves. The backs of the two niches still include remains of the Buddhas, such as arms and shoulders. Professor Claudio Margottini carried out many tests in situ and in his laboratory. As no scaffolding could be placed in front of the Small Buddha niche, due to the slope and the loose ground, it was decided to work with mountain climbers (photo, right). The Italian firm RODIO, under supervision of Carlo Crippa and Gedeone Tonoli, has completed the first phase of emergency consolidation for the cliffs and niches of both statues. The next step, according to Manhart, will be stabilisation of the remaining areas at both niches and their long-term consolidation.

Peter Maxwell, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan

of the Buddhist paintings in the 1970s, concluded that 80-85 per cent of the paintings disappeared during the war, through neglect, theft and vandalism. Fragments of what remains were painstakingly collected, inventoried, conserved and stored in a project house on the site (photo, left). Meanwhile, access to 25 selected important caves has been banned and the caves closed with walls and locked doors.

Conservation of fragments: Two preparatory UNESCO/ICOMOS missions in September 2003 and March 2004 sought to determine the appropriate method to conserve the fragments. A particular difficulty is the large size of some of the fragments and the steep slope in front of the Small Buddha. Two stone conservation experts, Edmund Melzl and Bert Praxentaler, and an architect, Georgios Toubekis, have been to the site. A protective shelter for the conservation of the fragments is likely to be constructed, but according to Manhart there is need for further capacity building. “Bearing in mind that the stone material, which bears important information on the history of the Buddha statues, is decaying rapidly, it is essential to continue the conservation of fragments during the coming years,” Mahart told the Tokyo gathering. A Japanese company PASCO has produced a map and 3D model of the site. According to Manhart, the importance the Afghan people attache to the preservation of their own cultural identity is symbolised in the panel over the entrance of the Kabul Museum, which states, ‘‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” that is close to wall painting. But if a patch of colour or a line is repeated too many times, it will lose that kind of spontaneity and freedom as if ‘created in a single breath,’ especially in Chinese painting where one must be able to see and feel the ‘three-step curve’ of the start of the brush stroke, the movement of the brush, and the drawing in at the end of the stroke; together with the ‘breath resonance life motion’ between one stroke and another. This is also one of the most important distinctions of Chinese painting that sets it apart from any other tradition. Accordingly, I think that we have to change the paper used in Chinese painting. Can you elaborate, without revealing secrets, on the materials that you have developed for your painting? What does the new mix consist of, and how does it work and compare with other known materials? After experimenting for many years, I discovered long-lasting and nonoil-based substances, used in ancient Chinese cliff-paintings and 2,000 years old lacquer vessels, and made a base material similar to that used on canvas in oil painting. By scraping it smooth on a hemp cloth or on a wood board, Eastern Art Report • No 49 [2005 / 1]

this made a new kind of painting material. This kind of surface that I have invented has a very good ability to absorb water-based pigments, and not only does the result compare in thickness with wall painting, but it can also clearly preserve the feeling of brush use in colour and line. Its greatest characteristic is that it is neither affected by water nor by a damp atmosphere, and it does not change. It can be steeped in water for 10 days and more (or even longer), without suffering any loss. Oil painting canvas, on the other hand, starts to have losses if it is steeped in water for even one day. In this way, we can solve the question of preservation when making wall paintings or other kinds of painting in a damp environment. With these characteristics, I have also made a painting cloth that is suitable for oil painting, and oil paintings done in this way do not require the kind of protection against damp or mould used in museums today. I have already applied for a patent on this material. Having responded to our invitation to recreate Bamiyan’s ruined sacred monuments from acquired knowledge,

mainly photographs of the site, how do you find this new genre relating to your previous work in Dunhuang? I was very willing to take up your suggestion to use this new kind of painting to depict Bamiyan’s Buddhas. It may be that my method is very suited to it. With the assistance of Professor Whitfield, I consulted a number of materials and photographs. We discussed them together, and compared them with sculptures from Mathura and Gandhara in India, and from Dunhuang, Datong, Xinjiang and other places in China. We consider that the 53 metres high Bamiyan Buddha was a work of the fourth to fifth century, one which was clearly influenced by the royal Gupta and Mathuran style. For instance, the visibility of the human body in the form and the arrangement of the drapery lines are, all displayed an extremely rigorous and complete decorative technique. This means that the making of Buddhist images in the Bamiyan area had already absorbed the Indian style. Of course, the Great Bamiyan Buddha retained some features of Gandhara art, such as the drapery lines in the receding areas of the form being modelled extremely high, while 21

those of Mathura sculpture stick much closer to the body shape. Again, on the basis of the characteristics of images of this time, I made a pencil drawing reconstructing the image as it would have first appeared. This is because it was possible to see the outlines of the whole colossus from the traces on the walls of the cave, so that it was very easy to reconstruct the original appearance of the work, with a considerable degree of exactitude and accuracy. It would be my hope one day to rebuild the work. You have created an extraordinary range of images of Bamiyan. Given the strong religious and spiritual link, how did you feel when you were doing this? Bamiyan’s Great Buddha was a sculpture of enormous power, not just because of its sheer size and mass, but even more because of its infinite capacity to energise East Asian sculpture, to inspire in people a kind of enormous awe and astonishment. As I depicted every single line and form, I sighed over the complete beauty and rigour of its design and making; it was no easy matter to make this kind of work at that time. Although the Great Buddha of Bamiyan is Buddhist, but in regard to us today, it seems to have no connection with Buddhism, it gives us even more art and great beauty. I do not know how those who destroyed it could have been so incredibly stupid. What would you define as the main elements of your creative work? I like the traditional Chinese formdefining line, full of a feeling of artistic harmony, and at the same time I like the calm and rich colouring of ancient Chinese wall paintings, and so I often use the free brushwork of modern inkwash painting and marry it with rich and strong colours when I paint. I also very much like the ‘spiritual’ character of Chinese sculpture. ‘Spirit’ is the highest plane of all art, and so I also often use the methods of traditional Chinese sculpture to produce a painting surface that displays the spirit of art. Accordingly, I like to use mineral colours in my paintings, such as cinnabar, azurite, malachite, haematite, etc, but sometimes when painting on paper I also use traditional Chinese organic pigments, such as lake, gamboge, rouge and the like. Of course, sometimes I use oil pigments for painting in oils. 22

What is your view of contemporary Chinese art? Are there trends that can be identified amidst all the experimentation and borrowing? One must say that modern Chinese art is a natural product of the age. Its general direction is correct, and it needs to be done in this way. Otherwise there would be no advances in art. If we only talk about the appearance of some things that people feel to be strange, this too is normal, and we don’t need to lay too much emphasis on it. For instance in China and in other countries there are a group of modern artists, who all strive to destroy the traditional Chinese way of thinking, and who have had considerable success. Modern Chinese art and traditional art can be distinguished from each other. The main basis of this distinction is the approach, and then also the form, composition, construction and the materials used in making. For instance, Xu Bing’s works (I am not sure whether his works should be termed printed art or calligraphy), use exactly the same character structure, brush method, carving method, printing method, binding and paper as those of China a thousand years ago. What is different is that none of his characters are Chinese characters that can be read, they are a kind of fake characters. Of course, for foreigners who do not know Chinese characters, perhaps there is no way that they can distinguish real characters from the fake ones. What kind of future is there for Chinese art in the wider context of world art? It has to be said that Chinese art has enormous hidden power. East Asia is a place with a creative spirit, and China even more is a country that is famous for its ‘spiritual’ art. From a number of artists who have become successful on the world stage, we can see the leaders, such as Zao Wouki, Zhu Dequn, Zhang Daqian, Ding Shaoguang and others. At one glance, we perceive that the ‘mother tongue’ of their artistic language is that of East Asia. Zao Wouki’s ink-wash painting is a step ahead of that of Badashanren, while Zhu Dequn’s painting entirely demonstrates Chinese ‘spirit’ and ‘breath’. Zhang Daqian’s paintings, combining colour wash and line, derive from the art of the mural paintings of Dunhuang.6 Even more, Ding Shaoguang’s method comes from the decorative paintings and embroideries

of the Chinese popular tradition. Of course, in the past few years, some very talented young Chinese artists have begun to appear. But speaking in general, there have been few artists who have been greatly successful in the past fifty years. The reasons for this are manifold. In the first 30 years China did not have an open policy, and in the past 20 years when there was such a policy, there was a lack of knowledge on how to respond to such a sudden change, so that some of the artists who came to the west did not have the necessary confidence. Even now, artists within China still have no way of gaining a deep understanding of the world and the West, so although there is a big change compared to the first 30 years, it is hard to avoid an excess of volatility. However, in the past few years I have seen many artists returning from abroad who have not hesitated to visit Dunhuang to ‘complete their studies,’ and this is a very good omen. China is a country with a strong basis of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, its people are good at examining themselves with self-awareness. I very strongly believe that within a short time, Chinese art will reach a high tide, and will influence the world.

Notes 1

Dunhuang: Caves of the Singing Sands. Buddhist Art from the Silk Road. Text by Roderick Whitfield; photographs by Seigo Otsuka. London: Textile & Art Publications, 1996. Most of Whitfield’s lucid text is available online, at http:// See also Eastern Art Report Volume IV No 3.


Eastern Art Report is grateful to Professor Whitfield and Dr Youngsook Pak for their invaluable assistance throughout this project. The comments attributed to Xie Chengshui in this article were rendered into English by Professor Whitfield, who also supplemented Xie’s observations with contributions based on his extensive knowledge of the subject.


See comments by Xie Chengshui, after consultations with Whitfield, about the dating of the Bamiyan Buddha in the interview part of this article.


Wriggins, Sally Hovey 1996: Xuanzang – A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Oxford: Westview Press.


Published in 1987 in Zhonguohua yanjiu (Researches on Chinese Painting), No 5.


In the early 1940s, Zhang Daqian [Chang dai-chien (1899-1983)] spent two years in the Mogao caves, Dunhuang, to paint copies of frescoes of the period from the Six Dynasties (220-589) to the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907).

EASTERN ART REPORT ISSUE 49 | Reimaging Bamiyan's Lost Buddhas: Xie Chengshui, by Sajid Rizvi  

Reimaging Bamiyan’s Lost Buddhas: The Art of Xie Chengshui, by SAJID RIZVI. The Chinese artist most widely celebrated for reproducing murals...

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