Move over ‘monkey Jesus’, China’s technicolour Buddha joins the wall of shame for botched repair works

Garish paint job, which just like notorious Spanish fresco was work of overzealous amateurs, exposed by cultural relics enthusiast

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2018, 7:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2018, 12:35pm

The botched restoration of a historic stone Buddha statue in southwest China has prompted a storm of protest after photos of the “cartoonish” paint work came to light.

The work on the Song dynasty (960-1279) relic in Anyue township, Sichuan province was actually carried out in 1995 but the authorities have only offered an explanation after the photos went viral on Chinese social media.

The work, apparently conducted by unqualified amateur restorers, has prompted comparisons with other botched restoration jobs, including the “monkey Jesus” in a Spanish church that attained global notoriety.

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The latest incident was spotted by Xu Xin, a cultural relics enthusiast who has spent the last four years working at the Dunhuang grottoes in Gansu province, one of the country’s most celebrated Buddhist sites.

He published the photos from Anyue on Saturday on his Weibo profile, saying he received the information from a friend.

The “restored” sculpture had been covered with garish colours and appeared cartoonish.

Xu’s posts prompted angry online criticism and were instantly forwarded more than 15,000 times, with many commenters condemning the “restoration” and demanding an explanation from the local government.

“This isn’t restoration, but rather making it ugly,” one internet user wrote.

“Hundreds of years later, when our later generations see this, they’ll mistakenly believe that this is the best our civilisation has got,” another wrote.

The painting of the Anyue statues is not an isolated incident. After Xu’s exposure, another internet user posted pictures of “restored” relics in the nearby city of Guangan, Sichuan province, on Weibo.

Most restorations are believed to have been done by “Buddhist believers who voluntarily pooled small amounts of money they saved from cheap groceries or discounts … they believe they were protecting the relics and had good intentions,” the internet user wrote.

Xu told the South China Morning Post he thought there needed to be a government publicity campaign to tell locals about the principles of restoration and protection, such as “fix old as old.”

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He said as a tour guide, he is often asked about the topic, and he always gives his professional opinion to tourists.

“Relics are called relics because they look old, showing their historical value,” Xu said. “Restoration work may show the faith of a Buddhist believer, but if the restoration covers up the marks of the original relics, then they are turned into idols for worship, not relics any more.”

Anyue township is known for its stone sculptures. The official local government website describes the it as “the City of Lemons and the City of Buddhist Sculptures”.

There are more than 230 sites bearing more than 100,000 sculptures, going back as early as the 900s, in the township.

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Local authorities responded late on Sunday, with a notice on Weibo. They said that the restoration job was done voluntarily and paid for by locals in 1995 and that the government had stopped the work upon finding out, without specifying whether other sculptures had been given similar treatment.

“The township’s Administration of Cultural Heritage strengthened management and protection there after the incident happened … no similar ‘restoration job’ happened again in recent years,” the notice read in part.

A staff member from the Anyue township’s Administration of Cultural Heritage said he was not clear what penalties the villagers resonsible for the “restoration” in the mid-1990s received.

The township’s publicity department did not respond to interview requests on whether the botched restoration would be cleaned up.

According to China’s Criminal Law and Cultural Relics Protection Law, anyone who damages cultural relics faces punishment ranging from a 5,000 yuan (US$730) fine to 10 years in prison.

Similar cultural defacements have taken place in Spain in recent years. In 2012, an amateur art restorer “fixed” the 1930 “ecce homo” fresco of Jesus in the Spanish village of Borja.

The made-over work, which prompted frequent comparisons with a monkey, became a popular tourist attraction – as well as an international laughing stock.

In June, an art teacher in the northern Spanish town of Estella was hired by a church to restore a 16th-century St George sculpture, which critics said ended up looking like a Disney cartoon.

According to The Independent, the town’s mayor said the restoration had been ordered without the consent of local authorities and that it had caused “irreparable loss” of the original piece.