Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/December 1913/The Most Remarkable Monument in Western China

1580102Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 December 1913 — The Most Remarkable Monument in Western China1913Roger Sprague




IMAGINE, if you please, a low river bluff—thirty or forty feet high—faced with a masonry of red sandstone and crowned with warlike battlements, beyond which rise the tiled roofs of low-built houses and fantastic outlines of quaint old temples. Such is the picture presented to the traveler who visits the city of Jah-ding in western China. Behind those battlements are huddled the homes and shops and public buildings of a densely packed population, among whom many a quaint and curious custom still obtains, for modern civilization is being introduced but slowly.

Far in the interior of Asia, more than a thousand miles from the sea as the crow flies, that city is located. It stands on the banks of a gently flowing river. The dark red walls overlook the dull gray water, while overhead hangs a dull gray sky, since the province of Four Streams is renowned throughout all China as the land of clouds. Many travelers have visited that city, for the river which washes its walls is one of the principal waterways of western China. In fact, it is one of the headwaters of the Yangtze-kiang, the natural outlet of that country. To be precise, the town is located at the confluence of three streams, one of which comes from the capital of the province, the great city of Chentu. That capital is the goal of many a globe-trotter of adventurous disposition or scientific tendencies—the kind who write books. On leaving it he floats down stream in a native boat for twenty-four hours and ties up at the gates of Jah-ding (spelled Kiating on the maps), to make a visit to Mt. Omei, one day’s journey to the west. That mountain is not only one of the natural wonders of the world, but is also a center of pilgrimage for all the Buddhists of China, as it marks the point where Buddhism first entered the country. Dotted with temples from base to summit, the mountain overtops the surrounding plain by nearly two miles, while on one of its faces a tremendous precipice descends almost unbroken for six thousand feet. It attracts the adventurous globe-trotter with an irresistible magnetism.

But it is not the writer’s purpose to deal with Mt. Omei or any of its features. They have been portrayed in detail by others. The object of this account is to describe a curious relic, not far from Jah-ding, which well might attract the traveler’s attention, but which has received scant notice. Permit me first to outline how travelers, one after another—men of literary and scientific attainments—journeyed in far western China, wrote of its scenery and its monuments, but neglected to visit and describe the most remarkable monument of them all.

In the late 70’s, Colborne Baber, British traveler, drifted down the
The Great Buddha at Yong-hien in Western China. Mentioned but not visited by the Count d’Ollone. See p. 196 of “In Forbidden China.”

river Min and moored his boat at the gates of Jah-ding. Leaving the stream, he ascended Mt. Omei, and the resulting account, which he published in England, provoked the curiosity of the traveling and scientific world, for it was the first to call attention to that strange old mountain, with its clustering monasteries and temples, its noble bronzes, and its glorious natural scenery. But Baber found other wonders besides those of Omei which were worth recording. A few hundred yards from Jah-ding stands the ruin of an immense image of Buddha. Twelve hundred years ago, a niche two hundred feet high was cut in a cliff which stands by the side of the river. The recess extended the full height of the cliff, and in it was carved an immense image. Unprotected from the elements, and neglected by the people, time has done its work; practically all that is left consists of a few vestiges of the face. The entire niche is overgrown with brush; vegetation hangs from the features so as to give it the appearance of possessing eyebrows and mustache. Standing on the opposite bank, it is possible dimly to discern the outlines of a countenance; that is all.

Baber freely admitted that this old image is a ruin and a disappointment. He also admitted having been informed through a Russian traveler that a hill, two days’ travel east of Jah-ding, had been hewn into a representation of the seated form of Buddha “several hundred feet high, which far overtops the roofs of surrounding temples.” Here, it would seem, was something worth the effort to visit and describe, yet he made no attempt to do so.

About ten years later (1887), Virgil Hart, American missionary, followed in Baber's footsteps and duplicated his journey, collecting as he went the material for one of the most vivid, accurate and delightful books of travel that have ever treated of China. The volume which he published challenged attention and provoked admiration. Hart’s flowing phrases were in striking contrast to the baldness and bareness of Baber’s account. The reverend gentleman treated Mt. Omei with especial fulness and enthusiasm. He said:

Mt. Omei is a center of natural and artificial wonders, the like of which may not be found elsewhere upon the globe. I speak advisedly. The world is large, and in regions like Switzerland and Alaska, nature seemingly has been taxed to the uttermost to produce a combination of natural objects of surpassing beauty and grandeur. Here, however, near the borders of Chinese civilization, we find a region of unequaled sublimity—a combination of lofty mountains, of swift rivers and of valleys of wondrous fertility. Then also of the works of man there are many—such as thousands of brine-wells, a great silk culture, a white wax industry, mountains chiseled into the forms of idols, colossal bronze statues, pagodas, and one temple wholly of rich bronze. Great Omei Mountain is scores of miles in circumference, rising 11,000 feet, its highest point enveloped in the everlasting clouds. All these wonders are within a radius of forty miles.
On another page. Hart quoted Baber’s account of the figure sculptured in the river bluff above Jah-ding, and added (p. 176):
The Face of the Great Buddha at Yong-hien. The features had been covered with gilding, which is peeling off, but is best preserved on the upper lip.

One would suppose Buddhist ambition to be satisfied with an undertaking of this magnitude, but we are told by a Russian traveler that it is a mere infant beside one a few days’ journey distant. There he found a mountain—a small one, of course—fashioned by the hand of man into the form of Buddha.

Yet it does not appear from Hart’s narrative that he made any attempt to visit and describe so remarkable a wonder.

In 1892, Archibald Little, English merchant, explorer and author, driven out of Chungking by the cholera epidemic, arrived at Jah-ding on his way to Mt. Omei, where he spent several weeks, afterwards embodying his experiences in a book, “Mt. Omei and Beyond.” He made no attempt to locate the Russian traveler’s find, although his wife secured an excellent photograph of the image on the river bank.

In 1906, R. F. Johnston, while collecting material for his work, “From Peking to Mandalay,” arrived at Jah-ding, ascended Mt. Omei, and described its temples and antiquities in the most thorough guidebook style. Yet he seems never to have thought of seeking out the Russian traveler’s great Buddha.

Early in 1908, the Count d’Ollone traveled in the same region. His experiences have appeared in a recent volume, “In Forbidden China,” so called because most of his time was spent among the savage and independent Lolos. On page 188 of that volume, he says:

Kiating possesses one of the most astonishing, though not the most admirable, works of art ever produced by human hands. In a cliff overhanging the confluence of the Yah, the Ta-Tu-Ho and the Min, there is a Buddha, cut out of the solid rock, no less than one hundred and eighty feet in height. It is by far the largest statue in the world. It occupies a recess some sixty feet in width and depth. The god is represented sitting in European fashion. It must be confessed, however, that this great statue is no longer effective. Under the action of the weather, the contours are worn and crumbling; great blocks have fallen away, and the vegetation—mosses, bushes and even trees—has attacked and is disfiguring what remains. Without being able to see how Colborne Baber failed to discover, except in the face, any trace of the sculptor’s hand, we must admit no traces of actual art are now visible. It looks as though the hewers of stone had roughed out of the rock a rudimentary statue, like a snow man, which the artist never completed.

On the next page he goes on to describe the search for rock sculptures which his party conducted in the grottoes surrounding the city, where they had the good fortune to discover a group some miles to the north. On page 193 we find the statement:

Our unexpected discovery, that of rock sculpture of great antiquity and pertaining to a vanished art, filled us with delight, for it revealed a past which was practically unknown. The reader may imagine that we were always on the alert for anything that might put us on the track of fresh discoveries, but I must own that the results were constantly negative.

He then tells how his party was put on several false trails, but finally learned (p. 196) that there was a

very fine Buddha at Yong-hien, some fifty miles to the southeast, Yong-hien was too far from our route, and we had no intention of going in search of its Colossus. No doubt, had we gone, we should have been directed to another.

Detail of Chinese Temple Architecture at one End of a Temple in Yong-hien, the City below the Great Buddha. Notice two chimneys in the foreground, which disprove the statement that “in China proper chimneys are unknown.”

This was the Buddha of whose rumored existence Baber and Hart had already made mention.

Thus I have outlined all that had been printed in English regarding this mysterious marvel. Travelers, of the book-writing sort, had ignored it or passed it by. Not one of them had the initiative to go fifty miles off the beaten track in order to picture and describe the most remarkable monument in that part of the world.

Early in 1910, the writer of this account visited Jah-ding and—although not anxious to pose as one “alert for anything that might put him on the track of fresh discoveries”—decided to do what the writers of books—Baber, Hart, Little, Johnston, d’Ollone—had neglected; to travel two days’ journey to the east in order to definitely locate and describe the rumored marvel.

It was a narrow winding road which led across the hills and through the valleys, zig-zagging hither and yon. The customary method of travel in that region is by sedan chair, but, owing to the fact that the season was the Chinese New Year, it was almost impossible to obtain chair carriers: most of the distance had to be walked. Were I writing a story, it might be made entertaining by an account of wayside scenes and daily incidents of travel. I might describe the farmhouses with their low tiled roofs and their hedges of bamboo, the bridges built of massive masonry; the stone portals spanning the way to commemorate by their scriptions virtuous or useful lives, the tall pagoda rising from its hilltop in the distance to signalize the presence of a city. As this is not a story, let us hasten to the end of the fifty miles, and view the Great Buddha. At the end of two days of travel, we saw before us the colossal image in all its dignity; not nearly so large as rumor had made it out, but a Colossus still. Of course, the story of the whole hill having been hewn into a figure was a fabrication. The figure is on the same plan as the one on the river bank at Jah-ding. The upper half of the hill-side consists of a sandstone cliff, and in this a niche fifty feet broad had been cut, leaving a central core of stone, which was then carved into a figure seated in European style, not cross-legged as Buddha is so often represented. The writer measured the breadth of the opening; using that as a unit of measurement on the photograph, the height of the image is not less than one hundred feet, that of the hill not less than two hundred. As the camera was pointing upward at a small angle, the vertical distances must be greater than the figures given.

The reader will observe by glancing at the picture that a series of five tiled roofs, descending like a flight of steps, have been built before the image to protect it from the weather, so that only the face can be seen from without. But by going within, the location of the feet can be determined; they are on a level with the space between the two lowest roofs. A white-fronted structure may be seen below and to the right; it is a temple, and another temple crowns the height. As the writer and his men came in sight of the Great Buddha, we paused and rested from our journey at a point near one of the gates to the walled city which lies in the valley below. As our eyes turned to the great face, which has been gilded until it shines like metal, as the immense size and

A Wonderful Pagoda, with Tiled Roofs, in Western China.

perfect preservation of the idol made their impression, the thought that came to my mind was, “How far more marvelous is this than many of the world’s boasted wonders.” I thought of the Colossi at Thebes and the Sphinx. What are they? Scarred, mined and defaced by the hand of man and the effects of time, they are scarcely recognizable as images. They are little better than lumps of battered rock. But far in the west of China sits this old Buddha, remote from the tracks of travel, unnoticed and almost unknown; yet greater in size than the Egyptian Colossi, his proportions preserved in all their pristine freshness, temples above and below him, and priests in attendance to keep the incense burning at his feet. There he sits, grimly gazing out over the tiled roofs of the city which lies before him.

A Stone Portal Spanning a Road in Far-western China. This specimen was erected in 1906.

While exploring the temple, I asked one of the priests the age of the image. His answer came, “Gee chien nien. Some thousands of years.” I give it for what it is worth.

Another thought which that monument inspired was in reference to a passage in one of Conan Doyle’s delightful stories, which describes a party of tourists viewing one of the ancient temples of Upper Egypt. The author makes one of the characters say:

If one could come wandering here alone—stumble upon it by chance, as it were—and find oneself in absolute solitude in the dim light of the temple, with these grotesque figures all around, it would be perfectly overwhelming. A man would be prostrated with wonder and awe. But when Belmont is puffing his bulldog pipe, and Stuart is wheezing, and Miss Sadie Adams is laughing—and that jay of a dragoman speaking his piece.

My thought was that, if such are Conan Doyle’s preferences, he would enjoy a visit to the place before which I stood. The visitor would ascend to a broad stone platform that lies before the white front of the temple. He would enter a dimly lighted interior, where priests are tapping the drum and raising their rude chants before grotesque carven images of the types so common in China. Turning, the visitor would ascend to a platform built before the feet of the Colossus, below which he could stand and gaze with head thrown back at the giant bulk above him. There would be no danger of his being disturbed by the idle chatter and empty laughter of gaping tourists, for I have already intimated how scarce travelers are in that portion of the world. It would be as though time had rolled back twenty centuries and he stood in one of the temples of ancient Egypt.

To get a nearer view of the face of the Buddha, it would be necessary to circle the hill and ascend one of two trails which lead around the front of the cliff. Along these trails, life-size figures have been carved in the face of the sandstone. They are in a very ruinous condition and are only remarkable because of their belonging to the ancient Greek type of sculpture, so different from the modern Chinese type. They resemble the rock sculptures photographed and described by the Count d’Ollone (p. 196). Above the end of either trail a tablet containing a long Chinese inscription has been carved in the solid rock. No doubt these inscriptions contain much interesting information concerning the great Buddha, but the writer's limited knowledge of the language prevented him from deciphering them.

As we come to the end of this account it would be entirely reasonable for the reader to inquire why the missionaries—of whom there are many in western China—have not written any account of this image, if it is “the most remarkable monument in that part of the world.” The missionary attitude toward such objects may be explained most easily by reference to a trifling incident in my own experience. On my arrival in western China, I met an American cleric who had been stationed in a very out-of-the-way corner of that country. Eagerly I asked him to tell me some of his experiences. What sort of a life had he and his family led? “Oh, Mr. Sprague,” he said, “it was just like life anywhere else.” From his point of view the answer was correct. For him, life did not extend one inch beyond the end of his nose. His interest in the external universe was nil. So it is, as a rule, with the missionary. Absorbed in his books, his family and his congregation, the world around him escapes his notice.