“The Missing Buddhas: The mystery of the Chinese Buddhist statues that stunned the Western art world” by Tony Miller

Luóhàn at British Museum (photo David Castor, via Wikimedia Commons) Luóhàn at British Museum (photo David Castor, via Wikimedia Commons)

A discovery in the history of art is a discovery like any other, so wrote in 1913 Friedrich Perzynski, a German art dealer, in Hunt for the Gods, an account of his exploits in China the year before. This was a time of turmoil. A dynasty had just fallen and the capital Beijing was humming with activity, as artefacts from all over the country were resurfacing in the open or in back rooms. Foreign archeologists, dealers and curators, who had been coming in growing numbers, marveled at the remnants of a civilization that only then was starting to be known.

Among the art treasures that left the country, a unique set of glazed terracotta statues represented the peak of sculpture and ceramic achievement. These were images of arhats or Luohans, Buddha’s disciples chosen to protect the law. Ten statues in total (or nine and a half), they are known as the Yizhou or Yixian Luohans, after the place just 96 miles southwest of Beijing where Perzynski went to search for them. They ended up in some of the most important museums in the world, the Met, the British Museum, the Penn, the Guimet… But were they really found in a small inaccessible cave as Perzynski seemed to suggest? Where and when they were made? And why had nothing been known until then?


The Missing Buddhas: The mystery of the Chinese Buddhist statues that stunned the Western art world, Tony Miller (Earnshaw Books, July 2021)
The Missing Buddhas: The mystery of the Chinese Buddhist statues that stunned the Western art world, Tony Miller (Earnshaw Books, July 2021)

The writing on these terracotta Luohans so far has been scarce, fragmentary, or confusing, not measuring up to their importance. In The Missing Buddhas, Tony Miller sets out to unravel the enigmas surrounding these sculptures and the stories they tell, he retraces Perzynski’s footsteps and a century of scholarship on Buddhist art and Chinese ceramics, from those pioneering times until today. This multilayered study of a remarkable chapter in the history of art is masterfully told with the thrill of an adventure—the adventure of knowledge—one which, at its conclusion, delivers a nuanced view of dynastic China, its shifting borders, and its cultural roots.

Miller engages the reader from the start with his own shock of wonder on first encountering the Luohan in the British Museum, “one of those rare examples of great art that communicates across time and space and cultures,” an experience that, by now, millions of museum visitors can relate to, which echoes the reaction when the first sale outside China took place:


The unveiling of the first two Luohans at the Musée Cernuschi in June 1913 was met with a mixture of amazement and uncertainty. Curators and critics, accustomed to seeing only idealized or stylized representations of Buddhist icons, were surprised by images so clearly taken from life. More than that, they looked in awe at the manifestation of spiritual struggle.


The book is illustrated throughout, and the strong magnetism of these images will follow readers as they  reflect upon the meaning of their facial expressions. Yet the virtue of the book lies in the strength of its arguments, so it rewards careful reading. Perzynski’s tale of discovery, central to the story of the terracotta Luohans, is critically examined at last. Inconsistencies in his account as well as correspondence that Miller has unearthed shed light on the question whether he found the Luohans at all.

No photograph of Perzynski is known, yet Miller recovers the man with a fuller picture: Perzinsky was a born storyteller, his description of his collaborators is full of flavor, “a Lamaist priest expelled from his monastery for theft…, and another no less disreputable character whose head also sits uneasily on his shoulders. Both have offered to serve me as spies.” Yet, he was a learned man too: in Germany he was a founding member of the Workers’ Art Association together with Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut; he also understood the cultural sensibilities of the East, the affinity of the Chinese for a painting of a leafless gnarled tree or the endless possibilities of expression of a Noh mask.

Perzynski’s account, which was a sales brochure after all, however, has colored the provenance of the terracotta Luohans to this day. It is surprising to find eminent figures in the field of Chinese art history who had given credence to bizarre propositions, above all that these statues were hidden in a cave. The most recent book on the subject, by Eileen Hsu Hsian-ling, not only takes Perzynski’s account at face value and assumes that these larger-than-life size and most fragile terracotta sculptures were taken through rugged terrain, and then lifted into a small inaccessible cave, but also alleges that this became a place of pilgrimage. But no traces of pilgrims have been found. And against all known evidence and the historical context, Hsu gives a Ming date based on late steles (or commemorative stones) placed in the vicinity of the cave in Yixian. These ideas and theories which are regularly replicated unchecked, are here fortunately debunked, elegantly, point by point, discussing the matter from both sides of the argument.

Progress on the dating and identification of these sculptures has been slow but consistent. Because the sculptures are glazed with sancai (three colors, predominantly brown, green and a creamy off-white), an innovation of the Tang (618-907), early specialists assigned them to that period. Due to the use of the same soft lead glazes during the Ming (1368-1644), the pieces have been sometimes considered as dating from this period, although more than 400 years separate the end of one dynasty from the beginning of the other. Conditions prevailing in 20th-century China compromised the preservation and study of its cultural heritage, but enough archaeological evidence and thermo-luminescence dating tests made by the Penn and the Met together point to the pieces’ origins in the Liao dynasty (907-1125).


Buddhism has had a chequered history in China. Miller has visited the Longmen Grottoes in Henan, climbed the Fogong timber pagoda in Shanxi, and trekked around the temples in Beijing’s Western Hills (which are interestingly relevant to this story): some of the remaining glories of Chinese Buddhism. But he has also stood on a temple hill in Chaozhou, eastern Guangdong, commemorating the Tang scholar-poet Han Yu, whose diatribes against Buddhism are engraved in stone. The impact of Buddhism on Chinese material culture is unquestionable: it lent a unifying mantle to a vast and diverse territory. Its influence on ritual, philosophy, clothing, tea-drinking, the chair, even the bridges built under Buddhist patronage, are some examples. Yet it also suffered violent iconoclastic persecutions, for being foreign among other reasons, the most devastating unleashed by Tang emperor Wuzong (reigned 840-846), “angered by what he regarded as the monasteries’ evasion of taxes”: it caused the destruction of thousands of temples and monasteries, the destruction of statuary reached catastrophic proportions, and tens of thousands of monks were secularized. For historian Jacques Gernet, this was a blow from which Buddhism would never recover, it lost intellectual vigor and its place in society, it fell into steady decline during the Song, and by the Ming dynasty it was in retreat; an 18th-century stele in Yizhou laments, “the sounds of Buddhist chanting under the moonlit pine trees were no longer heard.”

Yet, Buddhism would nevertheless flourish under the semi-nomad Khitan, who invaded and ruled northeastern China as the Liao dynasty (907-1125). Kenneth Ch’en wrote in Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey that the Liao paid nominal respect to Confucianism, but noting its inherent antagonism to alien peoples, they felt more emotionally attached to Buddhism, a Buddhism with Chinese roots. Temples and monasteries began to spring up, built by the imperial family, the nobility, and the common people, while the number in the monastic community was high. It was during the reign of Daozong (reigned 1055-1101) that the printing of the Liao version of the Chinese Tripitaka was completed, regarded as more accurate and complete than the Song edition, and when the impressive Fogong pagoda was built. The Liao coveted the trappings of Chinese civilization: they took with them Chinese artisans that would create distinctive works of art. In ceramics, the Liao would have at their service the most advanced technology and the finest workmanship of the time.


The Missing Buddhas will delight art lovers on issues of style, artistic influences, and their transmission. Witnessing the first steps in the study of these statutes, Miller follows RL Hobson of the British Museum and Bosch Reitz, the first curator of Far Eastern Art at the Met as they made the first appraisals, both were “curious and meticulous” in Miller’s words. Among the most striking insights in a book packed with information, Miller notes that as early as 1913, Hobson had hinted at the roots of the cult and the “connection between the vividly life-like Luohans and Japanese statuary”:


The Luohans were the missing link, he believed, between the Tang statuary and the Japanese chinzo, the portraits of distinguished Zen monks and such a transmission of art via a religious route closely parallels the emergence of the cult of the Luohan following the persecution of Buddhism in 841-845 and the coincident development of Zen Buddhism.


These roots of the cult are now acknowledged, yet originally the first images of Chinese arhats or Luohans to make an impact were those drawn by the painter-monk Guanxiu (832-912), his contorted and highly original forms transmitted mainly on paper. In another fascinating take, Miller draws comparisons between those descriptions of arhats and the terracotta Luohans:


The artists who sculpted the terracotta Luohans may or not have been aware of Guanxiu’s iconic grotesqueries but, if they were, they chose to ignore them. They concentrated instead on the twin task of creating a true-to-life impression of living Luohans, while capturing the inner struggle of the meditative process, the toll taken by asceticism on the physical being and the serenity of its spiritual outcome.


Tracing the stylistic developments under the Liao to its final conclusions, Miller discusses some scholars’ suggestions of a departure from highly stylized Tang in the early Northern Song (960-1126). For Miller, however, this development was already visible, with added twist, under the Liao, whose “statuary has a vivacity that distinguishes from these and lifts it above them, suggesting that under their new masters, the artists were given greater license than before.”


Any book on this topic will inevitably raise questions on heritage preservation. Miller remembers scholar Fu Zhenlun, who lamented the dispersal of Chinese antiquities, and the architectural historian Liang Sicheng, who strived to preserve the last remains of Chinese-built heritage. But these were isolated voices. Readers approaching the subject would be mistaken to think the obliteration of China’s heritage was the result of foreign plunder; not in most cases, not in this case of the terracotta Luohans. Simon Leys’s essay, The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past, comes to mind. Echoing visitors’ surprise at the absence of physical remains, he wonders at the paradox where apparent veneration for the values of the past is compatible with the destruction and neglect of the visible material heritage. Similar commentary was elicited by FW Mote in a dedicated study, A Millennium of Chinese Urban History: Form, Time and Space Concepts in Soochow. He explained out that experience, in sharp contrast with Europe or even the remains of Angkor Wat, by noting a difference in attitude. In China, the past is recorded in the written word, and this is accorded the highest regard: “The past was a past of words not of stones.”

Miller ends with a coda asking for the return of artifacts to the grottoes. This is a complex matter. Except when there is clear evidence of the artifacts having been looted, it may be better to leave things as they are. For once, those museums have largely fulfilled their role to preserve, exhibit and interpret works of art, making accessible this universal heritage to a wider audience. More essentially, history belongs to the past, and the past is a foreign country. The Missing Buddhas has rescued these magnificent statues from the dangerous cliff where they have been pushed. Miller’s work is itself a work of restoration, a labor of love, erudite but also approachable; it demystifies ancient art, while the sense of wonder, mystery and discovery remain.

Juan José Morales is the co-author of Painter and Patron: The Maritime Silk Road in the Códice Casanatense (Abbreviated Books, 2020) and The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815 (Penguin, 2017).