The sentinels of Shuanglin

By YANG FEIYUE in Beijing and SUN RUISHENG in Taiyuan | China Daily | Updated: 2022-07-28 08:09
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Home to more than 2,000 incredibly rare and sublimely carved Buddhist painted statues, the fascinating Shuanglin Temple in the ancient town of Pingyao, Shanxi province, made it to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1997. Behind the coveted glory, however, lies the arduous efforts of curators and preservationists who went beyond their call of duty to protect the over 1,400-year-old edifice from crumbling.

Some six kilometers to the southwest of Pingyao's central area, the temple is a picture of serenity, its quiet grandeur a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the town.

Rebuilt largely under the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the most mesmerizing section of the temple is its Eastern Art Gallery of Painted Sculptures. While a majority of temples worldwide narrate stories through paintings, the artisans of Shuanglin used 3-meter-tall statues to weave engaging tales that have stood the test of time.

Experts say the statues stand out by the sheer virtue of their "rarely seen large numbers, extensive content and highly artistic expressions". No surprise that these were labeled "major cultural relics" under provincial protection in Shanxi in 1965.

Chen Lin, an inheritor of the Pingyao art of painted sculpting that was named a provincial cultural heritage in 2013, says Shuanglin's walls feature techniques of bas-relief (barely protruding motifs), high relief (halfway protruding motifs) and circular engravings (inside a circle). The themes are generally religious in nature or relate to the daily life against the backdrop of buildings, mountains, clouds, rivers and forests.

Visitors often wonder why the sculptures "lack luster". Chen says it is because they are meant to retain their time-honored appearance.

"The painted statues have not undergone any large-scale repairs over the years. They are in good shape under preservation efforts. We take care of daily maintenance, which is mostly dusting," says Chen.

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