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Carving a New Future

Dating back over a millennium, a UNESCO site in Chongqing famed for its unique rock carvings is grappling with the effects of climate change – and inspiring new breakthroughs in preservation

By Lü Weitao Updated Dec.1

A view of carvings on Mount Baoding, Dazu District, Chongqing, Feburary 27, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

In August 2023, the world’s first international forum focusing on the connections between cave temple conservation and climate change was held in Southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality. 

During the three-day forum, participants from home and abroad, including representatives of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, stressed the need for international cooperation to address challenges in rock carving protection accelerated by climate change.  

When the forum concluded, participants issued the “Dazu Declaration on Cave Temple Conservation in the Context of Climate Change.” Among its suggestions were calls for regular international exchange mechanisms, improved talent cultivation and the construction of a global image database of historical rock-carved temple heritage.  

Host city Chongqing is home to the Dazu rock carvings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising more than 50,000 statues, many of which date back more than 1,000 years. The rock carvings are hewn from sandstone outcrops at 75 different sites across five mountains in Dazu, about 100 kilometers from central Chongqing. The five mountains – Bei, Baoding, Nan, Shizhuan and Shimen – converge into a natural rock art gallery.  

Rock-carved temples originated in ancient India as a means of spreading Buddhist beliefs. Around the 3rd century, the tradition was introduced to China in mountains and deserts along the Silk Road. From the 4th to 9th centuries, intricately carved grottoes containing religious iconography emerged in North China at sites such as Dunhuang in Gansu Province, Yungang in Shanxi Province, and Longmen in Henan Province.  

By the late 9th century, these northern grottoes had fallen from prominence. However, in Southwest China along the Yangtze River, craftsmen still hammered away to create the final masterpieces in the history of Chinese carved rock art.  

Exquisite Craftsmanship 
The earliest rock carvings in Dazu started on Mount Bei during the final years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In 892, prefectural governor Wei Junjing ordered the carving of Vaisravana, one of the four heavenly kings in Buddhist mythology, as an act of penitence for the numerous killings he committed during his military career. Other prefectural officials, local gentry, monks, nuns and ordinary people followed this example after the fall of the Tang Dynasty into the succeeding Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907- 979). The practice reached its peak during the Song Dynasty in the 13th century.  

Of all the rock carvings in Dazu, the most extensive and impressive are found on Mount Baoding. Completed between 1174 and 1252 during the Song Dynasty, Mount Baoding is the only site in Dazu that reflects the development of Buddhist teachings.  

Lining a horseshoe-shaped gorge, Mount Baoding’s carvings are divided into two groups: Those on Small Buddha Bend are located high up near the Holy Longevity Monastery, while the very large group to their west called Big Buddha Bend consists of 31 carvings depicting scenes from Buddhism and ordinary life.  

Created under the direction of monk Zhao Zhifeng, the carvings served as a center to disseminate Buddhist teachings and perform rituals for Vajrayana, a tradition of Tantric Buddhism focused on mystical concepts and practices.  

Among the depictions are an indigenous tradition based on the teachings of Liu Benzun (855-907), a Buddhist layperson. Liu was an enigmatic figure said to have practiced austerity, sung incantations and sacrificed parts of his body to subjugate evil spirits and save lives. Stories of these miraculous deeds attracted many followers from the lower classes and the local gentry.  
The Mount Baoding carvings built on earlier cave temple traditions broke new ground in the development of Chinese religious and art history.  

They blend the region’s three main religions and philosophies – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism – by depicting Buddhist deities alongside Taoist immortals and folk gods. The carvings also include morality scenes, such as the punishment of evildoers, encouragement for people to do good, and the virtue of controlling desire.  

Artistically, their realistic style and subject matter appealed to the popular culture and values of the day. For example, a series of carvings on parental love depict stories about praying for pregnancy, giving birth, child rearing, parting with children upon their adulthood, and concern about how their adult children live their lives.  

The Dazu carvings are the most outstanding examples of the latest period in Chinese sculpted rock art, demonstrating ingenious artistic value and exquisite craftsmanship. After Dazu, Chinese rock art came to an end.  

Visitors to the Dazu rock carving tourist center watch a video about the carvings, June 11, 2022 (Photos by VCG)

Visitors view carvings on the northern side of the Dazu site, July 1, 2023 (Photos by VCG)

Plans for Protection 
Enduring a millennium of wear and tear, the magnificent works were under constant threat from the elements. In 1952, the Dazu Rock Carvings Academy was established to protect and restore the carvings. One of its signature projects was the eight-year restoration of the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara on Mount Baoding.  

Avalokitesvara is also known as the Goddess of Mercy, or Guanyin in Chinese. Engraved in the face of a cliff, the statue stands at about 7.7 meters tall and 12.5 meters wide. While Guanyin is generally depicted as having 10 arms, the statue on Mount Baoding has 1,007 arms pointing in different directions, with one eye carved on each hand. The statue was originally carved in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), with gold plating and painted colors added during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  

But the statue gradually fell into disrepair. During a field study in 2007, a delegation from the National Cultural Heritage Administration watched helplessly as one of its fingers fell off, a sight that caused some of its members to well up with tears.  

The following year, the statue was designated as the primary project for national-level stone cultural relic protection. As there had been no domestic or international precedent to draw from for such a large-scale restoration, the preliminary research alone took three years.  

According to Chen Huili, director of the academy’s conservation center, the statue had at least 34 different classes of problems over 830 arms, ranging from broken fingers to peeling gold plating.  

Chen and her team traveled to Sichuan, Hebei and Shandong provinces to seek out methods and materials for the repairs. For instance, repairing gold plating requires a stable and durable adhesive. It took the team more than 100 experiments to find the one best suited for sandstone and the humid climate.  

Pioneering restoration of large immovable cultural relics, the project was honored as a “national excellent cultural relic restoration project” in 2017. Now restored to its original splendor, the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara once again shines as the primary attraction on Mount Baoding. 

After this project, the Dazu Rock Carvings Academy sought to protect the carvings as through a combination of traditional engineering and modern technology. Examples include the addition of a nearly 200-meter-long tunnel to prevent water damage to the carvings and a monitoring and early warning platform that uses big data.  

The Dazu rock carvings first became known among scholars internationally through the efforts of Liang Sicheng, considered the father of modern Chinese architecture and early advocate for the preservation of ancient structures, who first introduced his research on the carvings at a seminar hosted by Princeton University in the US in the 1940s.  

In recent years, climate change has become the fastest growing threat to ancient rock carvings across the world. Although immediate and long-term risks have not been systematically recorded, climate change impacts will be critical for the preservation of rock carvings in the future, whether the threat is from more frequent flooding, changed patterns of rainfall, or changes in heat and humidity. Experts on Dazu have been collaborating with colleagues from Italy, the US, Germany, Japan, India and Pakistan to carry out scientific studies and restoration work, with special attention paid to water permeation and damage from weathering.  

An exquisite showcase of Chinese art history and craftsmanship, the Dazu rock carvings depict the blending of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, while providing fascinating insight into religious and secular life at the time. As the effects of climate change continue to escalate, the Dazu rock carvings will continue to inspire new breakthroughs in relic preservation. 

Pictured is a Buddhist rock carving in Dazu, August 17, 2023 (Photo by VCG)