Plundered Buddhist manuscripts returned to China Artifacts from caves are repatriated from Japan

October 15, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Ninety years after foreign archaeologists began looting one of China's great art treasures, the Mogao Caves, some of its long-lost cultural relics have been returned.

In a ceremony last week attended by about 200 people, a Japanese businessman gave back eight volumes of Buddhist manuscripts that date to at least as early as the seventh century. The benefactor, Aoyama Keiji, 54, said he inherited the documents from his father, a calligrapher, who bought them 10 years ago in a Tokyo bookstore.

Chinese officials say the texts, which cover topics such as politics, literature and religion, are in good condition and of great artistic and historical significance.

"It's a good thing to return the old writings to where they belong," said Liu Hui-Lin, deputy director of the Dunhuang Academy, which oversees the caves in northwest China's Gansu province.

For a country that has lost countless cultural artifacts to foreign museums, collectors and to civil war, the manuscripts' return is a small but significant victory. Little known outside of China, Mogao is a spectacular complex of nearly 500 man-made, cliff-side caves filled with a millenium's worth of brightly colored Buddhist murals and sculptures.

Constructed by pilgrims and merchants beginning in the fourth century, the caves lie in a remote area and provide insight into life along the ancient Silk Road, the trade route that linked East and West. But in the early part of this century, archaeologists stripped the grottoes of thousands of manuscripts as well as statues and frescoes.

Most of those artifacts now sit in foreign museums. China, which remains bitter about the loss of the relics, has asked for their return. Until last week, the plea had gone unheeded.

The manuscripts were among thousands unearthed in hidden caves in Mogao around the turn of the century. It is not clear, though, who took the documents or how they ended up in a Japanese bookstore. The Chinese government plans to use them in a centennial celebration of Mogao's discovery in 1999 or 2000.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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