Conservation and the Study of Buddhist Cave Temples in Sichuan

Sonya Lee, University of Southern California


Historic and archaeological sites across China have lately been bustling with conservation projects of all kinds. The notable increase in activity has yielded a wealth of knowledge about the techniques and materials involved in the creation and continued maintenance of these places and their material contents. While the new information is crucial to the planning and implementation of the treatment to be undertaken, it also prompts reflection on the place of conservation in the study of cultural monuments in China in the twenty-first century. My comments in this roundtable will thus focus on two aspects in which conservation can deepen and at the same time complicate our understanding of the interrelationship between art and the environment. Using various cave temples in Southwest China as examples, I first discuss how today’s scientific research has revealed the considerable knowledge premodern artisans had of the physical properties of the stone with which they worked in creating monumental sculptures as well as the mountain setting and climatic conditions of which these works were a part. Although we know more than what people centuries ago did by comparison, human intervention in the preservation of ancient monuments did not always work, even with the most advanced technologies of the time. This leads to the second aspect to be discussed, which pertains to the need to understand today’s conservation methods and practices within a broader historical and cultural context. I argue that methods and techniques of preservation through time were oftentimes driven by changing values and notions of authenticity, thereby exposing the historically conditioned nature of this form of knowledge production. In this light, any attempt at prolonging the lifespan of a Buddhist statue against the law of nature ought to be considered as much a historical problem and ethical dilemma as a scientific investigation.