Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) murals on the walls of Yunjie Temple in Chaoyang, Liaoning Province, northeastern China, have been overpainted by the incompetents hired to do conservation work. The original murals were damaged, with chunks missing and faded colors, and the temple walls they adorned were in need of maintenance because they were constructed out of a cob-like combination of straw and earth. The contractors shored up the walls and just painted over everything, replacing the delicate and elegant original Buddhist scenes with brightly colored cartoons of Taoist myths.
The temple is best known for its very rare square pagoda with 13 levels of eaves built during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) that towers over the modest Qing structures built at its base 270 years ago, but the frescoes adorning the walls of the Qing buildings while much more recent and not well-known are historical and beautiful in their own right. They were before the budget construction crew got their hands on them, at any rate.
Chaoyang is steeped in history. There are records of the city going back to the Han Dynasty in the 3rd century B.C., and its first temple, Longxiang, built in the 4th century A.D., marks the birth of Buddhism in northeastern China. The area is also famous for producing exceptional dinosaur fossils. You’d think, given all this, that historical sites in Chaoyang would be closely regulated, but of course regulations mean nothing if they’re not enforced by the authorities.
This debacle wouldn’t even be known today if it weren’t for Chinese blogger Wujiaofeng. He had visited the temple in 2011 to see the pagoda and was surprised to find handsome Qing frescoes he hadn’t known were there. When he returned a few weeks ago, he found the Qing buildings completely unrecognizable, marred by a hideous new paint job. He posted a blog entry about the devastation. The story went viral on Chinese internet sites and the subsequent outrage spurred an investigation by the municipal government.
According to Li Haifeng, deputy secretary-general of the government of Chaoyang, in May of this year the abbot of the temple applied to the Phoenix Mountain Scenic Area Management Office for a permit to restore the crumbling walls. The Office then applied to city’s cultural heritage authority which informed the scenic area people that because the temple was a listed historical monument, any restoration work had to be in compliance with national heritage law and thus required approval from the cultural heritage department of Liaoning Province which stipulated all interventions follow the proper conservation project management approach. Under this protocol, the restoration would only be done by experts qualified by the National Heritage Board to assess condition, design and execute the conservation project.
That last step never happened. The Phoenix Mountain Scenic Area Management Office never sought the approval of provincial heritage officials. Instead, the abbot just moved forward with the project, hiring a local company that was not qualified in ancient mural restoration. From the look of the final results, that company shouldn’t even be qualified in fence painting. Even if they had left the murals alone, that gloppy red paint coating the once-lovely wooden beams destroying their natural blackened patina would be crime enough.
In the wake of this disaster, the municipal government has fired two officials — the one in charge of temple affairs and the head of Chaoyang’s cultural heritage monitoring team — and given the Communist Party chief of the Phoenix Mountain Scenic Area Management Office a warning. The investigation is ongoing so more heads might roll before it’s over. To ensure the temple suffers no further mutilation, inspectors and police have been dispatched to the site. Cultural heritage experts from the regional government claim the murals can be restored to their original look, but it’s not clear to me what exactly that means. Are the originals even still underneath all that mess? Or do they mean the new ones can be removed and replaced with copies of the originals?
Anyway, a lot of the articles link this botched restoration to the Great Jesus Monkey of 2012, but I think that does Cecilia Giménez a disservice and gives way too much credit to the Chinese contractors. The original over which Monkey Jesus was painted was basically a throwaway copy of a copy of a copy done in two hours by a local artist. It bears little relation to the devotional Buddhist frescoes of Yunjie Temple.