Editor's note:

The Silk Road has been connected for thousands of years, connecting the east and west, carrying the road and blending cultures. For more than 2,000 years, along the ancient camel bell road and merchant shipping routes of the Silk Road, the diverse cultures of different regions and ethnic groups have stirred and blended, and countless treasures that confirm the exchange and mutual learning between the East and the West have been scattered among them. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the "Belt and Road", China News Service "East-West Question" has launched a series of "Silk Road Treasures" to explore the historical footprints of Silk Road civilization exchanges and mutual learning from the cultural relics in the collection.

Handan, 10 Oct (ZXS) -- Question: Why is it said that the Northern Wei Tan deputy statue is a witness of the integration of Eastern and Western cultures?

——Interview with He Liqun, associate researcher of the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and head of the Yecheng archaeological team

China News Agency reporter Niu Lin

Yecheng (present-day Linzhang County, Handan City, Hebei Province) is the "Homeland of the Three Kingdoms and the Ancient Capital of the Six Dynasties", and has given birth to many famous monks and Buddhist leaders in history. In 2012, a burial pit of the largest Buddhist statue discovered since the founding of the People's Republic of China was excavated here, ranking first in China in terms of the number, appearance and material of Buddha statues unearthed at one time, which is rare in the world.

These Buddha statues can be called "half of the history of Chinese Buddhist statues", and the restored part is now in the Yecheng Archaeological Museum, and the Tan Vice-statue is one of the "treasures of the town hall". How did the relevant statue styles introduce to the Central Plains through the Silk Road, and how did they witness the cultural integration of the "Buddha Capital of China"? China News Agency's "East-West Question" recently interviewed He Liqun, associate researcher of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and head of the Yecheng archaeological team, to reveal the past of civilizational exchanges on the Silk Road.

The following is a summary of the interview:

China News Agency: How was the Yecheng Buddha statue discovered? Why are they buried underground in Yecheng?

He Liqun: Linzhang, known as "Ye" in ancient times, was successively used as the capital of the six dynasties of Cao Wei, Later Zhao, Ran Wei, Former Yan, Eastern Wei and Northern Qi during the Han and Wei dynasties, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties. Although Yecheng was founded in troubled times, it is the birthplace of capital planning, the birthplace of Jian'an literature, the place of Buddhism and the flourishing of Buddhism, and the collision of diverse cultures, and has made great achievements in political system, urban construction, literature and art, and religious dissemination, and has a profound impact on future generations.

According to records, Yecheng is one of the important towns of Buddhism in the east. Buddhism first flourished during the Sixteen Kingdoms period and flourished in the Northern Dynasty. During the Later Zhao dynasty, the Western Regions monk Buddha Tucheng promoted Buddhism in the northern region of the Central Plains and was extremely respected by the Later Zhao royal family. In 534, the Eastern Wei Dynasty moved its capital to Yecheng, and the monks and nuns in Luoyang City accompanied him, and Buddhism flourished and reached its peak in Northern Qi.

During the Spring Festival in 2012, the Yecheng Archaeological Team, jointly established by the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Hebei Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology (now the Hebei Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology), rescued and excavated the remains of a Buddhist statue burial pit in the eastern part of the Yecheng site in Linzhang County.

He Liqun conducted on-site excavations at the remains of the Buddhist statue burial pit in Dongguo District, a site of Yecheng. Photo courtesy of the Yecheng archaeological team

The burial pit is located in the north of Wuzhuang and the north side of the south embankment of the Zhanghe River in Xiwen Township, Linzhang County, and the mouth of the pit is located under the quicksand layer, which is an irregular square earthen pit specializing in burying Buddhist statues, with a side length of about 3.3 meters and a depth of about 1.5 meters. This site is located about 3 kilometers east of the eastern city wall of the ruins of the known Eastern Wei capital of Northern Qi, that is, the presumed Guocheng outside the city of Northern Qi in Eastern Wei.

The excavation period coincided with the Spring Festival, which lasted 16 days, and a total of 2895,3000 Buddha statues (blocks) and about 300,<> Buddha statue fragments were unearthed. After collation and research, it was found that most of the unearthed statues were whitestone, and a few were bluestone or other stone. Among them, there are about <> inscribed statues, mainly concentrated in the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi periods, and a small number of Northern Wei and Tang dynasty statues.

The site of the excavation of the remains of the Buddhist statue burial pit in the Dongguo District of the Yecheng site. Photo courtesy of the Yecheng archaeological team

In the 4th century AD, Buddhism was highly developed during the Sixteen Kingdoms and Later Zhao Dynasties, and reached its peak in the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi Dynasties in the mid-6th century, becoming an important Buddhist cultural center in the northern part of the Central Plains. At the same time, from the available indications, the Buddhist statues unearthed at the Yecheng site generally experienced the "difficulty of building virtue" by Emperor Wudi of Northern Zhou, and were later restored and continued to be used in the Sui Dynasty, but after a political movement in the Tang Dynasty, these statues were damaged again and buried here until they were seen again more than a thousand years later.

Due to the arduous work of color sealing, gold reinforcement and fragment splicing and conjugation of the surface of the unearthed Buddhist statues, the restoration of these statues has continued for more than 10 years.

China News Agency: Why can these exquisite Buddha statues be called "half of the history of Chinese Buddhist statues"? What is the unique artistic value?

He Liqun: The discovery of Buddhist statues in Yecheng is one of the most important harvests of Chinese Buddhist archaeology, with great academic, artistic and historical value.

The number of statues reached 2895,<> pieces (blocks), which is the largest number of Buddhist statue discoveries known to have been unearthed since the founding of New China. The strata of the burial pit are clearly accumulated, and the characteristics of the statue era are remarkable, which provides important clues for exploring several legal difficulties and the system of burying Buddha statues (yì) in Chinese history.

In particular, the excavated statues are exquisitely crafted, exquisitely shaped, diverse in types and rich in subject matter, representing a peak of Chinese Buddha statue art. Most of them are back-screen statues, and some are single round carved Buddha and Bodhisattva statues. The main themes include the statue of Shakya, the statue of Amitabha Buddha, the statue of Maitreya, the statue of Shakya Treasure, the statue of the Prince of Meditation, the statue of Avalokiteshvara, the statue of the double bodhisattva, etc. Most of them have good traces of painting and gilding, which fully shows the historical status of Yecheng as the center of Buddhism and Buddhist art in the northern region of the Central Plains in the late Northern Dynasty.

The head of the Buddha excavated from the Buddhist statue burial pit in Dongguo District, the site of Yecheng. Photo courtesy of the Yecheng archaeological team

These statue era spans the Northern Wei, Eastern Wei, Northern Qi, Northern Zhou, Sui and Tang dynasties, and is inscribed with the chronology of the Northern Wei, Eastern Wei, Northern Qi, Sui and Tang periods, and the era is connected before and after, and the characteristics of the statue are obvious, which provides a reliable specimen for the study of the types and themes of Buddhist statues in the northern part of the Central Plains centered on Yecheng from the late Northern Dynasty to the Sui and Tang Dynasties, and is of symbolic significance for the study of the development and evolution history of Buddhist statues in northern China.

China News Agency: As one of the "treasures of the town hall" of the Yecheng Archaeological Museum, what kind of cultural relics is the deputy statue of the Northern Wei Tan? Why is it so high?

He Liqun: The "Tan Deputy Shakya Statue" is 1.28 meters high, the main figure is 77.7 centimeters high, and it is made of bluestone. It is made of dozens of pieces spliced together, and is one of the earliest Northern Wei statues from the era of excavations in the Yecheng area, and it is also one of the larger ones.

Lord Shakyamuni stood on a lotus throne dressed in a full-shouldered coat. The Bodhisattva Serving Standing on a lotus throne supported by Lux and Dharma Protector Lion, he has a distinct exotic character. The carvings on the back of the statue are also very delicate. The lower part has an inscription, and the font is a typical Wei stele, which records the background of the statue and the prayer for the safety of the Guotai people. The upper part is inscribed with the Emperor Shi Tian, the Great Brahma King, the Nanda and Varanda Dragon Kings, the Lotte and other Dharma Protectors, as well as the images of many providers, including the parents of the statue creator Tan Vice Tan, Tan Vice husband and wife and children. The secular costume patrons wore humble clothing with narrow sleeves and draped skirts and soap hats, and it can be speculated that this statue was carved before and after the Northern Wei Xiaowen Emperor implemented the Taihe Reform and imitated the Southern Dynasty's comprehensive implementation of the Sinicization reform.

Combining the body shape, cassock style, carving technique, Bodhisattva, flying sky and Maitreya images on the back screen, provider's clothing, decorative patterns and other factors, comparing the materials excavated from the Northern Wei caves and tombs in the mid-5th century, it can be confirmed that the carving era is the period from the Northern Wei emperor to the Taihe period in the second half of the 5th century.

A deputy statue of Tan of Northern Wei excavated in the Dongguo District of the Yecheng site. Photo courtesy of the Yecheng archaeological team

Tan Vice-statue is an important material for studying Buddhist worship concepts, image styles, plastic arts and even ancient architecture and decoration in the middle and late Northern Wei Dynasty, and is of great significance for discussing the development and evolution of Buddhist statues in the northern region of the Central Plains in the middle and late 5th century.

Elevation view of the back screen of the Northern Wei Tan sub-statue. Photo courtesy of the Yecheng archaeological team

China News Agency: Why does the deputy statue of Northern Wei Tan have Gandhara legacy? What was the connection between the Northern Wei Dynasty and Gandhara art at that time?

Ho Liqun: The ancient Gandhara state is now part of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was once one of the sixteen states of ancient India. The Gandhara region was one of the largest transportation stations on the Silk Road, and the Gandhara statue style has been introduced to mainland China through the Silk Road since the Sixteen Kingdoms, and was widely spread in the northern region of the Central Plains during the Northern Wei Dynasty. The five caves of Yungang Grottoes and the Luyeyuan Grottoes in Pingcheng, Northern Wei, excavated later, both have strong Gandhara statue elements. The main figure of the statue of Tan Vice-statue is a strong physique, with a thin shoulder waist, wearing a shoulder-covered shoulder cassock, and a fearless seal on his right hand, which is exactly the same as the posture and cassock style of the Buddha standing on the left wall of Cave 20 in Yungang, and has obvious Gandhara art characteristics.

The main statue of Cave 20 in Yungang and the Buddha on the left wall. Photo by Du Feibao

The content of the statue of Tan is rich in content, such as the main Tan Vice is a native of Fa Gan County (located in present-day Liaocheng, Shandong), and at the time belongs to Yangping County, Xiangzhou, and is a person under the Yexia. The style of the main figure inherits the traditions of the ancient Hebei region, Maitreya and the protector of the Dharma have strong Buddhist elements from the Western Regions and Hexi, the architectural style integrates the characteristics of ancient Chinese and Indian towers and halls, and the clothing of the patrons reflects the characteristics of the northern Xianbei nomads.

It can be seen that the overall style of Tan Vice's statue is the style of statue that appeared after the Northern Wei capital Pingcheng (present-day Datong City, Shanxi Province) unified the northern region of the Central Plains and gathered the cultural factors of the East and the West. The characteristics of Gandhara of the Lord Venerable, the Hexi regional style of the Bodhisattva, and the Guzi cultural factors of the Maitreya Bodhisattva Chu Tiangong Saying Fatu were all introduced to the Central Plains through the Silk Road. The statue has both Gandhara heritage and traces of localization after being introduced to northern China, which fully reflects the characteristics of East-West civilization exchanges, North-South ethnic integration, and multicultural collision in the mid-to-late 5th century.

China News Agency: Why is it said that the statue of Buddha in Yecheng proves the prosperity of cultural exchanges between the East and the West in the Middle Ages?

He Liqun: Yecheng is located on the north-south transportation artery, and historically it was also an important node on the Silk Road, a cultural exchange channel between the East and the West. Especially since the Eastern Han Dynasty, more and more ethnic minorities such as the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Qiang, Di, and Qiang have successively moved to Yecheng, and they have formed a large-scale and far-reaching integration of Han and ethnic minorities in Yecheng. Yecheng became the meeting point of cultural collision and ethnic integration at that time, and was also the political, economic, cultural and religious center of the northern region of the Central Plains from the 3rd to the 6th centuries AD.

The Yecheng Buddha statue is a strong evidence of the exchange of Eastern and Western civilizations and the integration of ethnic groups in the North and South, and its statue style can be called "inheriting the upper and lower" to a certain extent, which not only inherits the traditions since the Northern Wei Dynasty, but also opens a new situation after the Sui and Tang dynasties.

Three statues of the Northern Wei sitting Buddha unearthed in the Dongguo District of the Yecheng ruins. Photo courtesy of the Yecheng archaeological team

The statues of the middle and late Wei dynasties of Yecheng and Northern Wei are the style of statues formed by integrating Eastern and Western cultural factors after the high development of Pingcheng Buddhism and the formation of the Yungang model in the mid-5th century. In 494 AD, after Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei moved the capital to Luoyang, he imitated the comprehensive Sinicization policy of the Southern Dynasty, and the "Clothes and Cloths" style of Buddha clothes and "Xiuguo Qingxiang" style with the characteristics of the costumes of Southern Dynasty Shi Dafu were extremely popular, which is a typical example of the Sinicization of Buddhism.

A statue of Guanshi made by Zhang Xiong of Northern Wei who was unearthed in the Dongguo District of the Yecheng ruins. Photo courtesy of the Yecheng archaeological team

By 550 AD, after the establishment of Northern Qi, due to the political orientation of the ruling class to humble and Western Hu, Yecheng statues changed the popular sinicization tradition from Northern Wei to Eastern Wei, and a large number of popular through-shoulder and right-hand cassocks of the Gupta Dynasty in India appeared, this style was known as "Cao Yi out of the water" because of the light and soft clothing, thin and transparent dress, less carved or not carved clothing pleats.

A new style of sitting Buddha in Northern Qi unearthed in the Dongguo District of the Yecheng site. Photo courtesy of the Yecheng archaeological team

It can be seen that the Silk Road is not only a transportation route, a commercial route, but also a cultural exchange route, which has become synonymous with cultural exchanges and intermingling. With the extension and prosperity of the Silk Road, Yecheng in the Middle Ages not only had extensive exchanges with the Western Regions in terms of political system, capital planning, culture and art, architecture and sculpture, but also had a direct or indirect impact on Japan and the Korean Peninsula in the East. (End)

Respondent Profile:

He Liqun, Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, is the deputy director (in charge of the work) and associate researcher of the Cave Temple Archaeological Research Office of the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the head of the Yecheng Archaeological Team, and the secretary-general of the Religious Archaeology Professional Committee of the Chinese Archaeological Society. He has been responsible for the archaeological excavation of Yecheng site for a long time, and has successively participated in and presided over the excavation of the Buddhist monasteries of Zhao Pengcheng, Eastern Wei and Northern Qi in Yenancheng, the tombs of the Northern Dynasties of the South-to-North Water Diversion, the site of the Sixteen Kingdoms Kiln of Nanying, the site of the Northern Dynasty Kiln of Caocun, the burial pit of Buddhist statues in Beiwuzhuang, the Great Zhuangyan Temple of Northern Qi in Walnut Orchard, and the ruins of Gongcheng District in Yenancheng.

He was a visiting scholar at the Dayton Museum of Natural History in the United States, the University of Heidelberg and Heidelberg Academic Institute in Germany, and a visiting professor at Tohoku Gakuin University in Japan and Zhuhai College in Hong Kong. His research interests include the archaeology of the Han and Tang capitals, religious archaeology and the history of East Asian art, and his main achievements include "Archaeological Research on Buddhist Monasteries from the Northern Dynasty to the Sui and Tang Dynasties", "On the Development Stage and "Yecheng Model" of Yecheng Statues from the Burial Pit of Buddha Statues in Northern Wuzhuang", "Interpretation of Images of Northern Wei Tan Vice-statues Unearthed from Yecheng Ruins", "Layout and Evolution of Early Buddhist Monasteries in East Asia", "Buddhist Statues Unearthed in Northern Wuzhuang, Yecheng", etc.