Exhibition highlights ancient Buddhist carvings of Hangzhou

Wu Huixin
Known for its Buddhist grottoes and temples, the hills of Hangzhou are dotted with ancient art and calligraphy. Now, a new exhibition is displaying some of these Buddhist relics.
Wu Huixin

The hills of Hangzhou dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (AD 907-979) are known as the "Southeast Buddhist Country" because of its numerous Buddhist grottoes and temples thronged with devout believers.

Throughout the dynasties, a myriad of inscriptions and Buddha sculptures have been engraved on the mountainsides by monks and scholars, forming the cultural heritage sites of the "West Lake Cliff Inscriptions" (西湖摩崖题刻).

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), scholars invented a rubbing method to reproduce inscriptions on stone surfaces. This method turns three-dimensional inscriptions into two-dimensional marks on paper. Thanks to this skill, the West Lake Cliff Inscriptions could be shown at exhibitions through the modern era.

Exhibition highlights ancient Buddhist carvings of Hangzhou
Ti Gong

In Hangzhou, Feilai Peak contains the most pagodas and Buddhist grottoes.

An ongoing exhibition at the West Lake Gallery is displaying 208 pieces of paper rubbings made in the Qing Dynasty and Republic of China (1912-1949), providing a rare opportunity to learn about the mountainside inscriptions in Hangzhou.

West Lake Cliff Inscriptions have tremendous historic importance as both evidence of the presence of certain people, such as famous calligraphers or events, as well as the Chinese script's regional, temporal, or personal variations.

Stone inscriptions are less prone to destruction. Additionally, they are an art form meriting study and part of a highly specialized art, which requires both skills in calligraphy and stone carving.

In the Tang Dynasty, the inscriptions were mainly centered on Tianzhu Temple and Dingshan Fengshui Grotto. During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, makers started to carve Buddha sculptures in Feilai Peak, Nanping Hill and Yanxia Ridge.

Ancient scholars have left more than 1,000 spots of stone inscriptions on the hills around the West Lake, which remain as treasures for present-day China.

The exhibition is categorized into five sections according to different hills. The highlights include Feilai Peak and Nanshan Hill.

Feilai Peak literally means "the peak that flew hither" in Chinese. It's made of craggy limestone that, according to legend, was flown from India to Hangzhou overnight to demonstrate the power of Buddhism.

The peak is home to Lingyin Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. In Hangzhou, Feilai Peak contains the most pagodas and Buddhist grottoes. While many of these caves have collapsed over the years, there remains a cluster of caves lining the mountain's southeastern face. Each cavern is filled with peculiar stone formations, and each has a tale behind its discovery and naming.

Exhibition highlights ancient Buddhist carvings of Hangzhou
Ti Gong

Paper rubbing of a mountainside inscription carved in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period

Now, attractions around the West Lake are open free to visitors through March 31. The management committee of the West Lake Scenic Area has announced that all scenic spots are open free to visitors as authorities move to revitalize the tourism industry. Feilai Peak has become one of the most popular attractions on booking platforms amongst visitors.

Today, over 300 stone inscriptions remain at Feilai Peak. Some of them were hidden in forests for years and have been discovered in recent years.

Last year, local researchers combed through the Buddhism grottoes and discovered Buddhism carvings inside Yanxia Cave, a natural limestone cave. The inscriptions in the cave belong to the Nanshan Hill section of the exhibition.

Yanxia literally means "smoke and sunset glow" for the dim, hazy light that shines through its stalactites. The cave is filled with life-like stone luohan (Buddhist arhat) carvings made during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, shown in poses ranging from sitting in meditation to petting lions.

In Chinese Buddhism, luohan is a person who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and achieved spiritual enlightenment. The 18 luohan were depicted as the original followers of Buddha.

The peak of Buddhist art arrived in the Wu Kingdom during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. As many of the emperors were devout believers, they dug caves, reproduced scriptures and erected religious buildings across the kingdom, which is now Zhejiang Province.

Many of today's most well-known Buddhist relic sites in Hangzhou, including Liuhe Pagoda, Yanxia Cave, and Lingyin and Jingci temples, were built during that period.

Exhibition highlights ancient Buddhist carvings of Hangzhou
Ti Gong

Paper rubbing of an inscription left by Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo on the cliffside of Damai Hill

Exhibition info:

Date: Through March 12 (closed on Mondays), 9am-5pm
Admission: Free
Venue: West Lake Gallery
Address: 25 Gushan Rd


Special Reports