Global Times: Grotto temples and their guardians in the wilderness of China

Global Times: Grotto temples and their guardians in the wilderness of China

Global Times: Grotto temples and their guardians in the wilderness of China

BEIJING, Sept. 25, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — First constructed in China along the Silk Road around the 3rd century, grotto temples – the religious niches or caves carved into mountains or rock – gradually evolved into a key form of Buddhist art in China. However, despite enduring for thousands of years, these grottoes now depend on protection from cultural relic guardians to pass on their millennia-old history and culture. 

The grottoes’ guardians spend years – even decades – living in the ancient caves. Such a life isn’t as ideal an existence as has been romanticized in martial arts films. In reality, it is an often shabby, boring, lonely and sometimes even dangerous life. 

Grotto temple cultural relics include a variety of artifacts, including cave architecture, cliff-side sculptures, niches, and murals. Exacerbated by climate change, extreme weather events and unpredictable climatic conditions pose global challenges to grotto temple preservation.

According to a survey by the National Cultural Heritage Administration in 2021, China has a total of 5,986 grotto temple cultural relics. Southwest China’s Sichuan Province has a total of 2,134 documented grottoes, ranking first in the country. But unlike the well-known and well-protected Leshan Giant Buddha or Dazu Rock Carvings, a significant number of them are scattered across the region, in remote underdeveloped areas. 

Yuan Rongsun, a Chinese photographer, has devoted 18 years to capturing the beauty and history of these relics and sharing the stories of their guardians. The guardians’ dedication goes beyond mere employment and is part of their central identity. They serve as live-in guardians, fully immersed in their duty to protect these ancient works of art and spirituality. 

Yuan has been capturing the seemingly ­mundane yet profoundly sacrificial tasks of guardianship through photography. 

“It is their steadfast dedication that allows the cultural relics in these desolate mountains to survive. Because of them, the treasures hidden in these wilds stand a chance for people to unveil their mysterious veils. I cannot resist the urge to record and share their untold stories,” Yuan said. 

The elders and their dogs

Anyue county in Ziyang, Sichuan, has 179 registered grotto temple cultural relics. Mainly dominated by large-scale Buddhist sculptures from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), grottoes in Anyue stand out for their exquisite craftsmanship and great diversity.

The Anyue grottoes are scattered in various remote locations, making their protection very challenging. In addition to weathering deterioration, theft has always been a top threat to the artifacts found in the Anyue grottoes. 

Although many of the grottoes are equipped with infrared alarms and real-time video monitoring systems, the elderly guards and their dogs remain the primary defense force at the forefront of theft prevention.

There are currently 13 documented sculptural groups at the Mingshan Temple in Anyue. Yuan met Zeng Xiangyu there in 2007. Despite being a septuagenarian, Zeng continues to be a temple guardian. 

Theft attempts ceased after the temple’s guard dog Black Tiger’s arrival. 

Black Tiger patrolled the mountains alongside his master Zeng daily. One night, Zeng was awakened by Black Tiger, and after going outside, he saw a stranger on a motorcycle acting suspiciously, claiming that he was just sightseeing. Yet when the man saw Black Tiger, who appeared to be very determined to protect the relics, he ­immediately rode away, Zeng recalled. 

The dog was initially employed by the local government as well, receiving a monthly food allowance, which wasn’t unfortunately insufficient. Zeng would pay out of pocket to meet the dietary needs of his canine companion. 

After 13 years of dedication, Black Tiger passed away. Zeng was assigned a new young canine coworker, but would still get very emotional when at the memory of Black Tiger.

The road ahead

Along his journey, Yuan has captured over a hundred unsung heroes in photos. He has also published books of their portraits and stories, such as the book Grottoes in Bashu. 

Many have reached out to Yuan after seeing his photography and learning the stories of these unsung heroes. 

While Yuan appreciated the public attention and positive feedback, he pointed out, “I don’t think it would really solve the problem by asking for donations for the guardians. It won’t make much difference in the long term. Further action from the government is what truly matters.”

Challenges faced by the preservation of the cultural relics in these remote areas are multilayered. The low pay and harsh working environments, the insufficient funding from local governments, the lack of highly skilled professionals in the region’s cultural relic protection government departments and agencies, all these issues are intertwined, noted Yuan.

“What gives people hope is that the government has been stepping up efforts in the protection of cultural relics in these remote areas, and has made notable progress,” he said.

The improvement has largely benefited from the national emphasis on and favorable policies toward cultural relic protection. This includes strengthening public education, funds allocation, enhanced restoration and protective measures, and intensified crackdowns on cultural relic crimes. 

All of this is closely tied to China’s overall social advancement and development. In the past, when Yuan came to these deep mountains to take photos, there were no formal roads or phone signals. Infrastructure construction has greatly improved. Now the guardians have been given phones that they can use to report any situation to relevant agencies. 

“The salary and working environment have been significantly increased for the guardians, as well as the food allowance for the furry guardians, which is clearly listed as part of the local government’s budget. Their lives have improved. There’s room for further enhancement, but I’m glad we are heading in the right direction,” Yuan said. 

SOURCE Global Times

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