Tag Archives: Religious Sculpture

Inside the Changzhou Clay Art Club

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The Changzhou Clay Art Club is truly a multipurpose space. I have passed by this place for a year or two in the back of Qianbeian in downtown Changzhou. This is a tiny little historic district next to where they are building the Wenhuagong / Downtown Metro Station. It’s on a back street and near a few small cafes and tailor shops. I have had a hard time locating an address or a map location. Not too long ago, I got to see the inside of the this arts and crafts club.

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It has the feel of a sculpture gallery. The owner, actually, is a not only a skilled sculptor himself, but he is also works for Tianning Temple. Some of the religious themes have carried over into his private work on display here. Many of the pieces are available to purchase, so the Clay Art Club also functions at a place where one could get decor to spruce up a living space.

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However, I did state earlier that the place works as a multi-use space.

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It also functions as an arts education center. However, I got to know this place for the first time for a fundamentally different reason.

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There are two rooms available here for hosting events. Two good friends of mine recently held a farewell party here. They were two of long term residents who had lived in Changzhou for many, many years. For personal reasons, they opted to return to Australia. They will be dearly missed.

Return to Headless Buddha Alley

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If you were a Christian, imagine walking into an alley and finding a lot of headless statues of Jesus Christ. Now, nearby, imagine the Virgin Mary without arms. Also imagine also headless angels that are missing one of their two wings. Think of it as a small space filled with crippled iconography.  It would be a little off putting and creepy, right? Surreal? Like walking through a three-dimensional recreation of a Slayer CD cover? I am not even remotely Christian, and I would find myself peering over my shoulder from time to time. But then again, I have too much of an overactive imagination, and I have watched too many horror movies.

Still, something similar happened to be me in Changzhou, once. I was zipping down the road on my ebike in northeastern Wujin — the part closer to Jiangyin, Wuxi. I passed an alley that was filled with headless Buddhas and unfinished statues of louhans and some figures from Taoism. There was even a sitting, laughing Buddha covered with splintered wooden planks. I snapped a few pictures and moved on. I looked at all the businesses in the area, and I took photos of those, too. Turns out, the nearest was a water plant. I never found out who was responsible for the headless Buddhas.

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Upon a recent return visit, I was able to figure out a little more. First, some of the statues were gone, and some new ones had taken their place. And, some of them had remained the same. Like before, some of them unfinished. The poor laughing Buddha was still covered with scrap wood. This meant the place was active. These half finished sculptures were not abandoned derelicts. Somebody was responsible for them.

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I did, however, take a picture of one business I missed upon my earlier visit. Turns out, it was as I originally suspected. These disembodied religious figures actually do belong to a nearby workshop. You would think this would be a major industry given how many temples there are around the region — and that both Dalin and Bailong Temples are nearby. But, as one of my Chinese friends told me, it’s not as lucrative as I suspected. Once you make a religious statue, there is not much else to do. Temples only have a finite amount of space. Plus, regular maintenance may only be paint jobs once the color begins to fade in a few years.

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Dalin Temple’s Hall of Luohans

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As noted elsewhere on this blog, luohan are the Buddhist equivalents of Christian saints. They are people who have attained enlightenment, but they cannot be elevated higher within the cosmological pantheon. These “saints” also figure big in temple decor and Buddhist art in general.

To a casual observer, the exact number of these luohan in scripture can be confusing. Are there 500 of them? 100? 18? 16? There are reasons behind each number. In the Lotus Sutra, for example, Buddha addresses and gives advice to a gathering of 500 luohan or “saints.” Specifically in Chinese Buddhism, there are 16 with actual names with stories behind them, and later, two more were added later. The original 16 appeared to the Chinese monk Guan Xiu, who made paintings of them. 

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For me, it’s always interesting to compare interpretations and visualizations of these holy men you can find in Changzhou. At Tianning Temple, for example there are two halls of golden statues in various poses. Over at Dalin Temple in Wujin’s northeastern arm, there is a whole hall dedicated to them. Here, you see them in vivid color. You have luohan with absurdly long legs. One seems to have an arm so long his hand is holding a star or some sort of celestial disk. Many of them are ride animals that are either real or mythical — Chinese unicorns, dragons, elephants, and tigers, for example.  The attention to detail is so tremendous, you could return here multiple times and see something you missed during each prior visit. Each statue comes with plaque in Chinese explaining who is who, but even if you had ability with the language, dust obscures many of them, leaving an casual onlooker like myself with a sense of mystery as to who they are and what their story is. 

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Tianning’s Stations of Guanyin

IMG_7505[1]When you are a Catholic, “The Stations of the Cross” are immensely important. It’s not the same for other Christians — especially American Protestant Evangelicals.  For Roman Catholics, it’s part of the decor of every church. It’s either the art of in all of the stained glass windows, or it’s a series of paintings and bass relief sculptures. So, you may ask, what are these “Stations?” It’s a series pictures of Jesus Christ being put to death and being nailed to planks of wood.  The more exact term is “crucifixion.”
Every Easter, Catholics recreate this scene as a religious drama and watchable spectacle, but the artistic depictions are there in Church throughout the year. The idea is to visit every moment of Christ’s
death for a moment of prayer. For the sake of clarity, let me emphatically say I am not a Christian. My reasoning is intensely personal, and I will not offend people by getting into it here. The subject is also actually a little touchy between me and my father. You see, I was raised in Catholicism. I then walked away from that faith very early in my adulthood.

Yet, prior religions follow you the rest of your life, even when you don’t want them to. I am not being cynical, either. For as much as I am not a Catholic, Roman Catholicism has still shaped the some of the ways I think. It’s just who I am.  I thought about this a lot, IMG_7473[1]recently, when confronted with some Buddhist imagery in Changzhou‘s Tianning Temple.

It’s part of Hongmei Park in a district the bares its name.  The chief attraction there is the pagoda.  One day, however, I visited the temple to just as a way to kill time. It was Easter Sunday, and I was meeting a close friend for dinner in Wujin. Only, she had a lot of grading to do before becoming available.  Tianning Temple has two ticket prices, and since I wasn’t interested in going into the Pagoda, I opted for the cheaper 20 RMB fare.

In one corner of the temple grounds, there is a garden filled with Guanyin Sculptures. Guanyin is a often considered a goddess of
mercy. She’s a Bodhisattva in Buddhism, and as is the case with the Chinese variety of that faith, she’s shared with other religions. In
Taoism and folk religion, she is considered a mercy goddess. Some have even drawn parallels with the Virgin Mary.

And so that brings me to the Stations of the Cross analogy. As I walked around, I stopped at each of the dozens of Guanyin sculptures. Most of them feature her reclining or sitting. Some have her with dragons, and other with birds with ornate plumage.  Incense sticks burn at each statue. At many of the sculptures, people have left coins or other mementos.  It wasn’t the statues themselves that reminded me of the Stations of the Cross. It were the people who came here to pray. Many stopped at each and every statue to be mindful in thought. So, the stories are drastically different, but the method of worship is very similar.IMG_7477[1]