Monday 11 October 2021

The Missing Buddhas, guest post by Tony Miller

Tony Miller has just published The Missing Buddhas through Earnshaw Books (Hong Kong). Tony arrived in Hong Kong in 1972, with a degree in Modern Arabic, intending to stay three years and learn Chinese, he quickly changed his mind about leaving and spent the next 35 years serving in local government. Along the way, he developed a keen interest in Chinese painting, porcelain, jade and the conversations across borders that have influenced art and style through the ages. He is a former President of Hong Kong’s Oriental Ceramic Society and a member of the Min Chiu Society. He has published a variety of papers on previously unresearched aspects of Chinese antiquities. Since 1979, he and his wife Nga-Ching have wandered all over China, happily exploring its historic sites and natural wonders.

In the early 1900s, as chaos reigned in China, a group of life-size terracotta Buddhist monks suddenly surfaced on the antiques market and caused a sensation in the West. Sculpted vividly from life, these luohans (defenders of the Buddhist law) were completely unlike anything previously seen in Chinese art. Museums and collectors around the world competed for them, but who made them and when? And where had they been hidden before they suddenly emerged into the light?

The Missing Buddhas tells the story of these statues and unravels the question of their origins. For the past century, scholars, curators and connoisseurs have all seemed mesmerized by the German dealer, Friedrich Perzynski’s account of his search for them in inaccessible caves southwest of Beijing, where monks had allegedly hidden them from barbarian invaders. Perzynski documented his search in Jagd auf Gotter (Hunt for the Gods ). Tony takes a scalpel to Perzynski's ideas about the statues' provenance, explores a window on a fascinating period in Chinese history, and introduces an extraordinary cast of characters as he leads the reader clue by clue to the real origins of these beautiful enigmas.

So, over to Tony...

When I first read Hunt for the Gods, I was fascinated by way Perzynski conjured such a vivid sense of time and place. Puyi, the last of the Qing emperors had abdicated and General Yuan Shikai had been installed as Provisional President. The present was interesting, but dangerous and the future was far from certain. Money no longer flowed from the treasury to pay the labourers working on the Guangxu emperor’s tomb. Poverty prevailed and, in Perzynski’s memorable words: “Frost and hunger destroy all reverence…In the absence of Government restrictions, China’s Gods have become a lively article of trade.”

The more I read, the more fascinated I became. Perzynski has a keen eye for detail and I found myself, with him, smelling the morning cooking smells, feeling the wheels of the cart bumping over the ruts in the road and sharing the discomforts of scrabbling up steep slopes through prickly brambles. It is all too easy to fall under the spell of his words and, as I gradually began to sense, that is what had happened to more than one generation of scholars.

Perzynski published his account of hunting for luohan statues in the hills above the Western Tombs at Yixian in October 1913. Two of the statues had already been exhibited and sold in Paris earlier that year, and Perzynski planned to sell two more in Berlin in November. In the absence of any other information, his colourful account became the de facto provenance for the whole group. Hunt for the Gods is not a scholarly archaeological treatise, which might have frustrated some academics, but it does offer plausible explanations for the questions that routinely run through the minds of curators confronting all new acquisitions. More than that, it anticipates them with the author’s own rhetorical questions thereby ingeniously discouraging further probing by providing a reasonable excuse for not asking more. It is a very clever piece of writing.

A measure of Perzynski’s success as a purveyor of myths is that for the better part of a century, almost all academic interest has focused on only one question: when these enormous statues were fired. The romantic notion that monks had hauled them up impossibly steep mountains and hidden them in caves to save them from the depredations of marauding nomads diverted attention from whence they might originally have come.  The fact that they had been hidden and lost to human memory explained why nobody appeared to have seen them before, painted or sketched them or written about their beauty. Their later discovery by unemployed labourers and the latter’s clumsy attempts to retrieve them were all the reason needed for the incompleteness of the set and the damage most had suffered. 

I had had my first encounter with one of the brethren in the British Museum many years before I began the research that led to my writing The Missing Buddhas. A chance meeting with two more in the Met in New York several years later, piqued my curiosity about how many more there might be, but other distractions got in the way and the thought slipped away into my subconscious. 

A still later visit to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto dug it back up again and started me on the path that led to Perzynski’s account and the suspicion that his tale might have been taller than previously assumed. At some point, I began to wonder what made his story so plausible and I determined to go back to source, to learn more about the period, to get to know the players, to put myself in their shoes and to try to see the statues through their eyes, with their understanding of Buddhist iconography and Chinese history and sculpture. 

It quickly became an obsession, but it has been enormous fun. I never expected to meet such an unlikely assortment of interesting characters; serious scholars amongst them, but also not a few adventurous rogues, missionaries and merchants, troopers and traders, saints and sinners. Eat your heart out, Central Casting! 

Two that I would particularly like to have met are Robert Lockhart Hobson, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, and his counterpart, Sigisbert Chretien Bosch Reitz - Gijs to his friends - at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Hobson’s insight that he was looking at a missing link between Tang realism and the Nara school of sculpture left me stunned. In his words, it was “as if the veil had been lifted,” but given the limited knowledge of Far Eastern sculpture at that time, how on earth had he seen it? I would love to have that conversation with him.

With the brilliantly meticulous Bosch Reitz, the conversation would be more about whom he had talked to in arriving at his careful tallying of the number of Luohans extant. His count of ten challenged the eight suggested by Perzynski. Gentleman that he was, he proffered a polite excuse for the difference, but what did he know of the whereabouts of the two as yet unseen statues? His reference to several baskets of bits and pieces suggested that the whole set had suffered major trauma at some point in the past, but where had he got this information from? 

I ran my draft manuscript past my mentor Peter Lam, now retired from the Art Museum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Rose Kerr, formerly of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Both were very helpful, but it was Rose who rapped me over the knuckles with the comment that, while I had spent a fair amount of time debunking other people’s theories, she thought me “somewhat reclusive” in setting out my own. It had not been deliberate. I had thought that the observant reader would have absorbed them along the way. She was, however, right and like Hercules Poirot I drew the threads together in a composite answer to the five-part riddle that I had posed. Initially, I took some satisfaction from this, but it also brought home to me that there were still several stones that needed turning. I console myself with the thought that, assuming I am right about Perzynski’s deliberately misleading provenance, the field is now open to younger, abler specialists to look for the evidence that will either prove or disprove my theory as to the statues’ real origins.

As the date of publication loomed, I had only one regret and that was that the pandemic had made it impossible for me to go to Beijing, to pay my respects to the Abbot of the Ordination Temple and to apologize to him in advance for the greater interest that others might in future show in the history of his temple and the secrets of the cavern above it on Rahula Ridge.

Details: The Missing Buddhas is published by Earnshaw Books (Hong Kong) in paperback and eBook. Priced in local currencies.