Diary : 3 - 5 November 1996
Excursion to Dazu and Chongqing
The GrottoesWe got up the second day and set off for the most famous group of Dazu’s grottoes ( - the carvings are scattered in more than 40 locations in Dazu county), Baodingshan (Precious Summit Hill). To reach Baodingshan, we had yet another rough ride through the hills of Dazu. Despite an equally muddy journey, this was interesting in some ways. The journey passed through a hilly and yet intensively cultivated region, with rice fields and fish ponds in the crests among the low hills. Even the hills were full of terraced fields. Lush greenery everywhere. (One immediately realised how lacking land is in this country with 1.2 billion people.) And even more farm creatures along this stretch ! No wonder this county is known as Dazu - “Great Sufficiency”. The land must be fertile enough for so much cultivation, and yet most unfortunately, the relative isolation has affected its development...
The first sculptures of Baodingshan were launched by a Sung Dynasty monk named Zhao Zhifeng, who collected donations for the building of sculptures and carvings at a U-shaped depression known as Dafowan (Great Buddha Bay). Unlike the similar if not grander grotto art found at other places in China such as Longmen, Yungang and Dunhuang, the ones at Dazu were carved in a truly folkish style, with none of the gothic and monumental spirit of the rest, but certainly with a lot of human touch. Looking at these carvings, the visitor sometimes feels that he or she has returned to a Chinese village a hundred years ago. One enters the Dafowan from a staircase at one end of the depression, and from there will come across the first of a series of narratives on Buddha’s life, how to be good, how not to commit crimes, the afterlife punishments of evildoers, and more. Here, my host engaged a guide for a minor fee. I would normally not have done so while on my usual backpack holidays. But why not, when the fee was low ( - I can’t remember how much) and that the guide did have a lot to tell, especially when it relates to the various religious themes the carvings were based on - much of which were too abstract to figure out on my own with limited time. The carvings were amazingly realistic, and most have moving tales to tell. For example, shrine 15 tells the tale of filial piety and shrine 16 of how filial Buddha himself was - carrying his father’s coffin - an attempt to explain that Buddha, despite leaving his father and family to pursue enlightenment, did not forget his filial duties. Shrine 20 shows the evil of drinking - drunk men shown rude and misbehaving to wife, brother and other family members, and worst, a man was shown touching his mother’s chest (“raping mother” - title of that sculpture) and another one killing his father. But among these horrifying scenes of shrine 20 was a little sculpture of lady feeding hens - peaceful and calm, as though she was unaware of all that horror and chaos depicted around her. Could this be the work of a bored sculptist, or was it meant to create a calming effect on horrified visitors ?