Chinese villagers paint 1,400-year-old Buddha statues to thank gods, damaging artifacts

The statues were discovered in 2021 and hadn't been registered in the heritage protection list. A local official said the villagers “could hardly be punished but only educated.”

Painted Shifeihe Buddha statues in Sichuan, China.via Weibo
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HONG KONG — A set of 1,400-year-old Buddha statues in southwest China was damaged by villagers who painted them with bright colors to “redeem a wish to the god,” officials said. 

Located in rural Nanjiang County in the province of Sichuan, the Shifeihe Buddha statues were carved in the late Northern Wei era (386-534) during the Northern and Southern Dynasties and have great academic value in the field of Buddhist culture and arts research, according to Chinese experts. 

They are the only statues in Sichuan to be carved on the surface of natural stone, researchers from the Bazhong City Cultural Relics Bureau and other organizations said. 

A video about the incident, which took place last month, that was posted last week has been trending on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform.

“Why are there no measures to preserve such ancient artifacts in advance? It also gives people the opportunity to paint,” a comment read.

Shifeihe Buddha statues in Sichuan, China. via Weibo

On Nov. 6, a villager asked his mother to hire someone to paint the statues in bright colors to thank the gods for fulfilling their dreams, the Nanjiang County Research Center for the Protection of Cultural Property said in a statement.

After the incident, the statement added, local authorities enhanced measures to protect the artifacts to avoid more damage.

The statues were discovered in 2021 and had not been registered in the heritage protection list, an employee from the local cultural relic protection bureau told China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV, adding that the villagers who damaged them were in their 70s and 80s and “could hardly be punished but only educated.”

The employee said that while surveillance cameras had been installed before the incident, the statues’ remote location made it difficult to protect them. The employee added that the statues had been painted with acrylics and that it should be possible to restore them, citing experts who were invited to examine the scene.

Some social media users also defended the villagers.

“That’s how Buddhists have redeemed wishes for thousands of years, and these statues haven’t been recognized as artifacts yet,” a WeChat user commented Tuesday.

It is not the first such incident in China. 

In August 2018, Buddha statues in Fengmen Temple in Sichuan were smeared with oil paint and repaired with cement, the state-run newspaper Global Times reported. 

It added that the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Cultural Relics had found 13 Buddha statues stained with pigment, most of which were stained in the 1980s and the 1990s. 

Those incidents have set off discussion on Chinese social media about how to protect cultural relics in remote villages. 

As of October, China had more than 760,000 immovable cultural relics of all kinds, including the Great Wall, only about 5,000 of which are major historical and cultural sites protected at the national level, Chen Peijun of the National Cultural Heritage Administration said at a news conference. 

Part of the Great Wall in northern China was severely damaged this year by a pair of construction workers using an excavator who were trying to find a shortcut.