Monastery returns pagoda body after 19-year nationwide search

Updated 2017-04-17 11:01:26 China Daily
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A ceremony marking the return of a 1,300-year-old stone Buddhist pagoda body to its home in Shanxi province is held in the Shanxi Museum on Sunday. The top was taken first but has not been found, leading the museum to use a recreated top. Hu Yuanjia / For China Daily

Nearly 20 years after being stolen, a 1,300-year-old stone Buddhist pagoda body has been returned to its home of northern Shanxi province with the best wishes from pilgrims across the Taiwan Straits, officials said Sunday.

The 1.77-meter-high component, a part of a 3.2-meter-high pagoda was located in Dengyu village in Shanxi province's Yushe county. Based on inscriptions on the pagoda, it appears to have been made in 720 AD. It was included in Shanxi's first provincial list of key protection cultural relics as early as in 1965. However, its top part was stolen in 1996, and the body became lost two years later. Its octagonal foundation and eaves were left at the site.

"It's rare to see such exquisite stone pagoda of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in Shanxi, even though our province has abundant Buddhist cultural relics," said Shi Jinming, director of the Shanxi Museum, where a ceremony on Sunday was held to announce the pagoda body's return. The artifact was quietly returned to the museum in January.

"The figures are elegant and vivid," he said. "What the artifact reveals is the typically prosperous flavor during the zenith of the Tang Dynasty."

Four facades of the pagoda body were carved with Buddhist reliefs and decorated with color drawings. The inscriptions also include important historical information, Shi said.

In 2015, the pagoda body was donated by a private collector to Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Nantou county, Taiwan. Nevertheless, Abbot Wei Chueh, who since has died, founder of the monastery, showed willingness to return it via his delegates who visited the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in February 2016, noting "it was possibly an artifact stolen from Shanxi around 2000".

An official in charge of cultural relic repatriation under the administration was on a business trip in 2015, passing Yushe county and was told by locals the pagoda was possibly taken to Taiwan. Even as the administration pursued clues, the pagoda body was returned.

An expert panel was organized to compare the artifact and old pictures and files of the lost item in Shanxi. They determined the two matched perfectly and the Shanxi Museum and the monastery signed an agreement in August 2016 for the pagoda body to be returned.

"It was Wei Chueh's last wish to take this pagoda body back to enhance religion and art exchange across the Taiwan Straits," Abbot Jian Deng from the monastery said at ceremony marking the item's return.

Still, no one knows where the pagoda's top is.

"This is a remarkable event to set a good example for similar cases in the future," said Guan Qiang, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. "It encourages more people's good deeds to better protect cultural relics and bring more lost artifacts back."

The returned pagoda body will be exhibited in Shanxi Museum until May 21, and it is unclear whether it will be housed at the museum or moved it to Yushe county after, Shi said.

"If safety conditions allow, it's good to let it go back home in the village," Shi said.

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