Home Artifacts A thousand-year-old Buddhist treasure stolen from China, repatriation is not far away

A thousand-year-old Buddhist treasure stolen from China, repatriation is not far away


A thousand-year-old statue of a monk from southeast China, stolen in 1995, was found in the Netherlands 20 years later. The return process to China has been long as international coordination is involved.

According to the official website of Datian County Government in Sanming City in Fujian Province, on June 22, the local tourism authority said it would redouble its efforts to recover the statue from a Western collector by all means.

The priceless statue is of a monk named Zhang Gong, commonly known as Zhang Qisan, and whose art name was Liuquan, and dharma name was Puzhao. He was born in the Northern Song Dynasty (960 to 1279) over 1000 years ago. He was a doctor and was known for his benevolence.

Zhang Gong converted to Buddhism, practiced devoutly, and became a monk. He died aged 37, the date is estimated between 1022 and 1155.

Medical imaging (a CT scan) shows Zhang Gong’s mummified body, without all internal organs, sitting inside the gold-lacquered statue.

Locals carved her likeness into a statue and worshiped her as the grand master of Zhang Gong in Puzhao Hall in Yangchun Village, Fujian Province.

But since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, many such Buddhist treasures have been nearly destroyed, or stolen and shipped out of the country.

A man worships the god of fortune at Guiyuan Temple on February 20, 2018 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (Wang He/Getty Images)

Lin Mingzhao, who lived in Yangchun Village, told Chinese media The Paper on December 13, 2018 that the village has been worshiping and guarding the Buddha body statue of Zhang Gong for over 1,000 years.

“Every generation of Yangchun grew up listening to the story of the great master of Zhang Gong,” Lin said.

The villagers have followed Buddhism since ancient times.

However, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a political movement that Mao Zedong launched to consolidate his rule, traditional Chinese thought, culture, customs and habits were defined as the “four olds” and to eradicate at the root.

Buddhist temples, scriptures and treasuries were no exception to the cultural havoc.

Some locals began to protect the Buddhist treasures from destruction, so the statue of Zhang Gong was hidden.

One winter day in 1966, the “Destroy the Four Elders” task force was stationed in Yangchun Village and asked the villagers to hand over the statue of Zhang Gong.

To keep the statue hidden, the villagers moved it overnight and hid the 1.2 meter (3.9 ft) tall, 50 kilogram (110 pound) artifact, deep in the mountains.

Officials tortured villagers to reveal the whereabouts of the statue by forcing them to kneel on broken porcelain tiles.

In desperation, some villagers found a solution: a substitute. There was a statue of another monk, Chen Gong, which did not contain an undecomposed body, but had another Buddhist treasure sarira, a glowing substance found in the ashes of a cremated monk.

According to a local villager’s recollection, one night a villager led a task force to search for the Zhang Gong statue, but in fact he “discovered” the Chen Gong statue. In order to prevent the group from recognizing the statue’s identity, the villager used a knife to destroy the statue’s face. The villager then opened the base, pulled out the sarira, and threw it in the grass while no one was watching.

The group then burned the Chen Gong statue and demolished the Puzhao hall.

Then the villager quietly returned and picked up the sarira.

Thus, the statue of Zhang Gong survived a potential disaster.

Mysterious disappearance

In 1993, locals rebuilt Puzhao Hall and restored the golden statue of Zhang Gong.

But after the Cultural Revolution, more and more people sought to earn money and didn’t care so much about traditional things.

On December 15, 1995, villagers were surprised to find that the statue of Zhang Gong had disappeared, leaving only the robe and hat that Zhang Gong had been wearing. The thieves entered the Puzhao Hall by digging into a side wall.

Although the villagers called the police and searched everywhere, the statue was not found.

The millennial Buddhist treasure had mysteriously disappeared without a trace.

Thefts of cultural objects were commonplace in the 1990s. A 2013 article in Archeology, an American archaeological journal, estimated that around 100,000 people in China are engaged in this underground occupation and have excavated at least 400,000 ancient graves over the past 20 years.

Most stolen cultural artifacts are transported overseas for lucrative profits.

Epoch Times Photo
A CT scan of a thousand-year-old golden statue has been discovered by the Drents Museum at Meander Medical Center in the Netherlands, containing a meditating monk. (Courtesy of Drents Museum)

The villagers recognize the statue

On February 23, 2015, the Daily Mail reported that an expert had studied a statue and was surprised to find through CT and endoscopy that it contained the remains of a monk and could date back to the 11th-12th century. .

The report says the mummy was that of Buddhist master Liuquan, who belonged to the Chinese school of meditation. Liuquan is the artistic name of Zhang Gong.

After the scan, the mummy was taken to Budapest, where it was exhibited at the Hungarian Museum of Natural History until May 2015.

Westerners have mistaken Zhang Gong’s flesh body for being mummified, in fact, these are two different things, said Lei Shuhong, a medical doctor at the University of Tokyo, saying a mummy is a corpse treated with ‘a special way, so it’s dry. In contrast, a non-decomposing body like Zhang Gong’s does not require special treatment, and his body remains “elastic” even over a long period of time.

News of the statue’s contents was widely reported and also attracted attention in China.

A villager from Fujian Province looked at the photo and said, “Isn’t that Zhang Gong? The Fujian Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage has confirmed that the seated figure exhibited in Hungary is Zhang Gong.

Shortly after, Chinese state media claimed that the monk’s statue had been “stolen from China” and demanded that the collector return the statue to China.

Oscar van Overeem, a Dutch architect, acknowledged ownership of the golden Zhang Gong statue and said he bought it in Hong Kong in 1996 from another collector. The previous collector is said to have acquired it from an artist friend in China, Dutch News reported on July 17, 2017.

As to how the seated statue arrived in Hong Kong from the Fujian countryside, no one knows.

International pursuit

After the Chinese side contacted van Overeem in the Netherlands, he agreed to conditionally return the statue, but the two sides failed to negotiate acceptable terms.

In late 2015, village committees in Yangchun and Dongpu, Fujian Province, filed a lawsuit in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, demanding the return of the Zhang Gong statue.

On December 12, 2018, the Amsterdam District Court ruled that community groups could not be considered legal persons and therefore were not eligible to claim compensation.

The two village councils also filed a similar lawsuit in the Fujian District Court and won. But there is no bilateral agreement between the Netherlands and China to recognize civil judgments, so the outcome of the Chinese court’s decision has no meaning in the Netherlands.

Disputes for the recovery of cultural relics across borders are quite complex, involving both issues of jurisdiction and applicable law, and sometimes historical disputes.

China News reported on January 29, 2017 that data from the Academy of Cultural Relics shows that more than 10 million pieces of cultural relics left China for Europe, America, Japan, South Asia -East and other countries and regions since the Opium War. in 1840,

According to the British Museum, he collected around 23,000 objects from China.

There has been a long-standing controversy over the need to recover these lost artifacts in China. Some argue that China should find a way to reclaim its cultural relics; while others believe that if the artifacts had not been taken out of China, they would have been destroyed by the CCP and are therefore best kept in foreign museums to promote Chinese culture.

Epoch Times Photo
Buddhist monks meditate at Mendut temple on Vesak day, commonly known as ‘Buddha’s birthday’, at the Borobudur Mahayana Buddhist monument on May 09, 2009 in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

The flesh body of a monk Decompose after death

The phenomenon of a Buddhist adherent’s flesh body remaining intact after death was a common occurrence in ancient China.

The most famous is the sixth patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Hui Neng, whose incorruptible body has been at Nanhua Temple in Guangdong Province for over 1,300 years.

It was vandalized three times and nearly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1996, Li Jinsuo, a village headman from Mianshan City in Shanxi Province, was cleaning a Buddha statue at the local Zhengguo Temple when he found a tile of mud on the head of the statue. Beneath the pane he saw an exposed white skull. Li immediately reported to his superiors. Later, it was confirmed that there was a monk’s body inside. And it wasn’t the only one. The temple’s 15 statues were made from mud sculpted from the bodies of deceased monks. So far, this may be the world’s largest group of non-decaying flesh statues discovered.

The CCP, which only recognizes atheism, said nothing about this important news until 20 years after it was reported in the media.

The reason a monk’s body doesn’t decay after death, Lei told The Epoch Times, cannot be explained by modern science. Based on her practice of Falun Dafa, a spiritual discipline, she knows that monks can break through the present material world and enter another, more microscopic dimension that transcends the boundaries of time and space; thus their body of flesh will not decay after their death after hundreds or even thousands of years.

Ellen Wan contributed to this article.

Shawn Lin


Shawn Lin is a Chinese expat living in New Zealand. He has contributed to The Epoch Times since 2009, with a focus on China-related topics.