March 20-August 8, 2004 
Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.633.0523
Barbara Kram: 202.633.0520
Public only: 202.357.2700
Media Preview: Tuesday, Marh 16, 9 a.m., Freer Gallery of Art
RSVP: 202.633.0519

This spring, Sackler Gallery visitors will have the rare opportunity to visit the exclusive North American presentation of “Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries,” an exhibition that received high critical acclaim in Berlin, Zurich and London and was visited by tens of thousands of people during its 2001–2002 European tour.

This exhibition presents 35 extraordinary 6th-century Chinese Buddhist statues that were accidentally unearthed in 1996 by workers leveling a school sports field in Qingzhou, a small city in Shandong Province on China’s northeast coast. The ranking of these sculptures among the 100 most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century puts them on a par with the First Emperor’s terracotta soldiers. Their discovery has significantly advanced scholarship of Chinese Buddhist art, while at the same time their sublime beauty has renewed popular interest in Buddhist sculpture. Genuine examples, legitimate reproductions, and forgeries can all be found in today’s art market, stimulated by collectors’ search for works in the Qingzhou style.

These limestone statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas project a radiant sense of calm and inner peace. They were apparently ritually interred during the 12th century for reasons that are still unclear. Part of an enormous cache of about 400 objects buried in a two-meter deep, 60 square meter pit on the site of the long-destroyed Longxing (Dragon Rise) Temple, these sculptures were mostly broken-some even repaired before their interment. The burial may have been a respectful way to retire obsolescent images, but could also have related to waves of Buddhist persecution.

Created during a 50-year period straddling the Northern Wei (386–534), Eastern Wei (534–550) and the Northern Qi (550–577) dynasties, the sculptures illustrate dramatic stylistic changes that occurred during that time. The unusual quantity of remaining gilding and vibrant red and green pigments on their surfaces provide a chance for the viewer to experience the impact of brightly decorated sculpture-the norm in ancient China. Many faces are gilded and some retain the remnants of painted mustaches, while the stone mandorlas-or backgrounds of the high relief sculptures-still display vibrant red pigments representing flames of light emanating from the Buddha.

Both the Northern Wei and Northern Qi were non-native dynasties, but each had its own style of rulership. While sculptors from both dynasties followed accepted canons governing the representation of the Buddha, including golden skin and blue-colored hair signifying his special status as the Enlightened One, Northern Wei sculptors created static, sinicized figures wearing traditional Chinese monks’ robes draped in a series of stylized, high-relief U-shaped folds. The Northern Wei sculptors favored triads that feature Buddhas with prominent ushnishas surrounded by two flanking bodhisattvas. These images were intended to be viewed from the front and were generally high relief-carved against mandorlas, and were often decorated at the top by flying deities or heavenly beings. The figures typically stood on lotus flower pedestals surrounded by swirling dragons, many wearing jeweled collars.

Northern Qi sculptors adopted a different style more akin to the Indian Gupta style. Free-standing figures were modeled wearing light, close-fitting monastic garments revealing the body contours of the wearer. Carved in the round, but with less-detail on the rear, these three-dimensional Northern Qi figures had downcast eyes-encouraging a compassionate exchange between the Buddha and the viewer below. Their low ushnishas furthered the impression that these Buddhas were more “human” and approachable. Iron hooks remaining on some sculptures indicate that independent mandorlas were attached to the statues.

Dramatically spotlighted in the Sackler’s darkened galleries, the sculptures will be mounted so as to appear to be floating in space, and installed either at traditional elevated heights—permitting viewers to sense how the Buddha’s downcast gaze comforts and inspires believers—or at lower levels, so as to allow careful scrutiny of their finely detailed carving.

BOOK A 175-page fully-illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition and is available for $45 in the gallery shops or online

Return of the Buddha: “The Qingzhou Discoveries” is sponsored by Altria Group, Inc., the parent company of Kraft Foods, Philip Morris International, and Philip Morris USA. Altria Group has been a major funder of the Smithsonian Institution since 1966. For more than 45 years, Altria Group has been actively engaged in improving, vitalizing and strengthening communities across the globe. For more information about the Altria family of companies programs and partnerships visit

In addition, Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries has been made possible by the China Cultural Property Promotion Association and the Shandong Provincial Cultural Department. The exhibition is generously supported by Altria Group, Inc. and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Additional funding is provided by the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Susan L. Beningson, and H. Christopher Luce and Tina Liu. In-kind support provided by The Watergate Hotel.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at

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