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From grassroots campaigns to diplomatic channels, China's appeals to return its cultural relics shed light on past injustices and present ethical dilemmas

By Wang Yan Updated Mar.1

A gilded replica of the statue of Zhanggong is enshrined in Puzhaotang Hall in Yangcun Village, Fujian Province, Novemvber 30, 2023 (Photo by Wang Yan)

Among the bamboo groves dotted around Yangchun Village sits Puzhaotang Hall, home of a shrine to the revered Buddhist master Zhanggong. Above the shrine, a gilded statue sits cross-legged, its shoulders slightly hunched forward, smiling gently to the hall’s visitors. ���

The statue is a replica. The original, which contained the ancient remains of a mummified monk, was stolen in 1995. It was eventually sold off and is now somewhere in the Netherlands.  

Almost all the 2,060 people in Yangchun Village and over 400 people in neighboring Dongpu Village, Datian County of southeastern China’s Fujian Province, share the same surname: Lin. They all worship the same deity, Zhanggong, a Song Dynasty (960-1270) Buddhist monk surnamed Zhang. Gong is an honorific for “elder master.”  

Lin Yongtuan’s house is just 20 meters from the hall. The 43-year-old said the original Zhanggong statue was of the ancient Buddhist master who passed away peacefully seated in that position while watching his favorite opera, according to local legend. The body was mummified and entombed in the statue, where it was worshipped as a whole-body Buddhist relic.  

“Zhanggong is not only our patron deity but an [honorary] member of the Lin clan, which includes hundreds of families across the community here,” Lin Yongtuan said in Puzhaotang Hall. “This whole-body relic was unique and famous for being complete… including the head, torso and four limbs.  

“Ever since my childhood Zhanggong was with us, and we often prayed to his statue for health, wealth and success,” he said. “His amiable, faint smile has never left my mind.”  

The villagers have moved beyond prayer for the statue’s safe return. Lawsuits were filed both in China and the Netherlands, making this case the first to involve simultaneous litigation for a Chinese cultural relic in two different countries. The rulings, however, stand in stark contrast, highlighting the complexities and challenges of cross-border cultural heritage disputes.  

Master Works 
According to Datian County archives, the first Puzhaotang Hall was built in 1086 during the Northern Song Dynasty.  

Soon after, a young man named Zhang Qisan moved to Yangchun with his mother and worked as a cowherd. He became a Buddhist monk in his 20s, and was given the ordained name Puzhao. He had extensive knowledge of herbal medicine. When a plague swept the area, Zhang saved many lives. According to legend, he trained with a Buddhist master and attained nirvana upon his death at age 37.  

Although there is speculation as to how Zhang died, some say he committed self-mummification, a practice in which monks observe asceticism to the point of death. However, most believe that locals embalmed him and encased his remains inside a gilded statue to serve as a protective deity. Some Buddhists believe that mummification itself is an advanced spiritual state.  

“We have two major festivals to celebrate Zhanggong. Extravagant rituals are held on his birthday and on Lunar New Year,” said Yangchun resident Lin Kaiwang. “Our village also holds minor ceremonies for other occasions such as during the spring plowing time and autumn harvests,” the 53-year-old said.  

Both ancestor and Buddhist master worship are prevalent in Fujian Province. With its high concentration of Buddhists, southern Fujian boasts up to 6,000 temples enshrining over 500 different local deities. The worship of Buddhist masters in the area began in the Northern Song Dynasty, and has since mixed with other forms of ancestor worship.  

Lin Shengzhong, an expert in the local culture of Datian County, said many eminent Buddhist monks of the time would self-immolate when ready to attain nirvana. Their remains, such as bones and teeth, would be encased in a statue for locals to worship as holy Buddhist relics, called sasira in Sanskrit. Only a few whole-body relics survived the tumultuous events of modern China, such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Nearby Yankou Village, for example, lost a similar statue during this decade.  

Gui Shuzhong, a documentarian in Fujian, said that such worship mainly involves local historical figures. “In most cases, family clans enshrined both their ancestral gods and Buddhist masters inside the same ancestral hall,” Gui said. “The same master may be worshipped in many neighboring villages, or even a whole region.”  

Local belief in Zhanggong’s power to perform miracles persists, even among younger generations. Lin Mei, 33, said that praying to Zhanggong can cure illness. Three interviewed teenagers said they were proud to have Zhanggong as their guardian deity, and his annual birthday celebration has become a big event for villagers young and old to gather. “This belief system creates harmony in villagers’ relationships and enhances mutual trust among community members,” one teenage girl said.  

Missing Statue
In the 1970s, locals performed their own miracle by sheltering the Zhanggong statue from the Cultural Revolution, a time when religious sites and objects faced devastating destruction. “I learned from village elders that the statue, though weighing some 60 kilograms, was lifted easily by a single person on the day they secreted it away and hid it,” Lin Kaiwang said.  

“As religion and many other cultural traditions gradually revived starting in the mid-1980s, we reestablished Puzhaotang Hall and set up the Zhanggong shrine,” he added.  

Meanwhile, particularly during the 1990s, cultural relics in China were under threat from smugglers, tomb raiders and thieves. The situation worsened as the market for Chinese artifacts boomed both at home and abroad.  

Among the sites plundered was Puzhaotang Hall. On December 14, 1995, people entered to find the Zhanggong statue missing from the shrine, its faded decorative crown and cloak left behind. 

Thousands of villagers took part in an extensive search. “In 1995, there were no means of transportation, no one in our village owned a car. We learned that a gang of thieves came in a van during the night to steal valuable cultural relics, including some Buddha statues from some neighboring mountain villages around 1995,” Lin Kaiwang told NewsChina. “You know, southern Fujian is very close to Hong Kong, so it is easy for those robbers to fence stolen artifacts there before they’re smuggled to overseas markets,” he said.  

Yangchun residents reported the theft to Datian County police, but never gave up their own search efforts. The trail eventually went cold – until March 6, 2015.  

Lin Yongtuan said he had just finished lunch and was scrolling the news on his phone when a report caught his attention: Researchers in Europe had discovered the 1,000-year-old mummified body of a monk encased in a statue. An X-ray revealed the mummified skeleton inside the statue, which was on display in Hungary at the Mummy World Exhibition in Budapest’s Natural History Museum.  

Lin Yongtuan was speechless: the included photo showed the lost Zhanggong statue that had been missing from their village for 20 years.  

He quickly shared the news with other villagers. After some research, they identified the statue’s owner – Dutch art dealer Oscar van Overeem.  

Chinese media soon picked up the story, and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage became involved. Reporters requested interviews with the museum in Budapest and photographed the exhibited statue. Amid the brewing controversy, van Overeem withdrew the statue from the exhibition and canceled scheduled showings in other parts of Europe.  

The stolen statue of Zhanggong from Yangchun Village was found on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest, Hungary, in 2015

A scanned copy of an old photo taken by a resident of Yangchun Village in 1989 (Photo: Courtesy of Yangchun Village Committee)

Lawsuits in Two Cities 
Despite van Overeem initially denying that his was the statue in question, evidence quickly piled up: Archival materials, old photos and documents pointed to the Zhanggong statue.  

Through both official and private channels, people from Yangchun and Dongpu began to negotiate with van Overeem for the statue’s return. According to one Yangchun resident involved in the recovery efforts, van Overeem asked for US$20 million, but he wanted the statue to go to Nanputuo, a larger and well-known Buddhist temple in the metropolis of Xiamen, around 200 kilometers south of Yangchun. “We couldn’t afford that much money. More importantly, he bought the statue in Hong Kong for 40,000 Dutch guilders (around US$20,000) in 1996, which was illegal,” added the villager, who requested anonymity.  

When negotiations failed, villagers turned to the courts. With the help of a pro bono legal team, Yangchun and Dongpu village committees filed a joint lawsuit against van Overeem in Sanming, Fujian in 2015 and in Amsterdam the following year.  

“Since many of the issues involved in this case have no precedent, such as legal application, relationship and facts, as well as technical issues of evidence review, we’ve had to research and verify our findings while filing lawsuits simultaneously in two countries,” Xu Huajie, a lawyer with Beijing Jingshi Law Firm who acted as lead counsel in the case, said in a September 2023 interview with NewsChina.  

“In the Amsterdam lawsuit, we argued that Dutch law states ‘a person is not allowed to have the corpse of an identifiable person in their possession,’ and in China we argued on the grounds of property rights,” Xu said.  

Six villagers, including Lin Yongtuan and Lin Kaiwang, traveled to Amsterdam in late October 2018 to attend the second hearing. Van Overeem told the court that he bought the statue in 1996, but could not provide documentation as to its source. He claimed to have since traded the statue with another collector in 2015, and refused to reveal their identity.  

Dutch lawyer Jan Holthuis, who represented the villagers in Amsterdam, argued that “such an agreement is contrary to good morals, and is an affront to decency and public order, therefore is void,” the Xinhua News Agency reported.  

However, an Amsterdam district court ultimately dismissed the lawsuit in 2018, finding the two Chinese village committees “not legal entities and therefore ineligible to file a claim.”  

Things went more favorably in China. After two hearings, Sanming Intermediate People’s Court ruled in 2020 that the village committees retained ownership and demanded the statue’s return.  
In its decision, the court cited two international conventions on the illegal trade of cultural relics: the UNESCO 1970 Convention, to which China and the Netherlands are signatories, and the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995, which the Netherlands has yet to ratify.  

“As both those conventions are devoted to prohibiting the illicit trafficking of cultural property and facilitating the return of cultural property to their original nations, the court concluded that it should interpret the lex rex sitae [law from where the property was first situated],” wrote Huo Zhengxin, law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in an online article published in late 2020 by China Justice Observer under the by Academy of Comprehensive Rule of Law at China University of Political Science and Law.  

The court also referenced China’s Property Law, under which acquisition in good faith does not apply to stolen cultural property.  

Van Overeem appealed to the Fujian Provincial High People’s court, which upheld the ruling in July 2022. Villagers celebrated the decision with fireworks and sacrifices to the replica statue in Puzhaotang Hall.  

Lin Yongtuan offers incense and prays in front of the replica Zhanggong statue, November 30, 2023 (Photo by Wang Yan)

Yangchun resident Lin Guoqing cleans inside and outside Puzhaotang Hall, November 30, 2023, a duty he performs every day (Photo by Wang Yan)

Thousands of believers from nearby and abroad gather at Puzhaotang Hall to celebrate and make offerings during the annual ceremony to mark the birthday of the monk Zhanggong, November 17, 2023 (Photo by Su Jinduan)

Creating Precedence 
Efforts to repatriate the statue drew global attention. Dozens of domestic and foreign media outlets descended on the remote mountain village to cover the story. “Major media outlets came to our village to report on our Zhanggong statue, including China Central Television, Xinhua, the BBC and The New York Times, which made the statue even more famous,” Lin Kaiwang said.  

“Through parallel litigation in both the Netherlands and China, the case demonstrates that repatriating cultural relics from overseas should fall under the laws of its original location at the time of theft, which can solidly defend the interests of the original owners,” lawyer Xu noted.  

China has struggled with the loss of its cultural relics for centuries. Since the First Opium War (1839-1842), an estimated more than 10 million cultural objects have been plundered from China and ended up in Europe, the US, Japan and Southeast Asian nations.  

In recent decades, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, China has battled smuggling via Hong Kong to other parts of the world. The illegal trade of Chinese artifacts has been effectively hindered since the 2000s thanks to enforced international conventions.  

According to Professor Wang Yunxia, director of the Institute of Cultural Heritage Law at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, previous retrievals of Chinese cultural relics have come through bilateral negotiations, commercial repurchase and diplomatic channels. Litigation is rarer, and common practice is to file lawsuits in the countries where the relics reside.  

The Zhanggong statue case, brought forward by Chinese plaintiffs to repatriate stolen cultural property, is the first of its kind heard by Chinese courts. “This landmark ruling sets a precedent for courts to apply the plaintiff's own local laws [when handling similar issues],” Professor Wang commented. “Moreover, it clarifies that the purchase of stolen cultural relics does not fall under good faith acquisition. This decision provides robust legal support for future endeavors to recover lost overseas cultural relics through civil litigations,” Wang said.  

However, as Professor Wang acknowledged, despite the Fujian provincial court ordering van Overeem to return the statue, the judgment cannot be enforced as the statue is located outside China. The Netherlands only became a party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention in 2009, which does not have retroactive legal implications. Furthermore, the Netherlands has not ratified the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention to this day. Additionally, neither country has signed a bilateral treaty specifically addressing the return of cultural relics. In essence, the Netherlands holds direct legal authority over the current possessor of the statue.  

Interviewed legal experts agreed that the Chinese court judgments not only provide leverage for the villagers in future negotiations, but also confirm the statue’s stolen status, making it difficult for it to change hands again. “Instead of keeping the stolen relic, which is banned from sale, it’s better for the current holder to return it to the villagers,” Wang said.  

Worldwide Attention 
As international media reported on the case, tens of thousands of people from near and far visited Yangchun Village. Puzhaotang Hall was renovated in 2018, and the replica statue has been gilded and adorned.  

Despite the original statue’s absence, the villagers keep to their regular worship and the annual festival celebrating Zhanggong’s birthday on the fifth day of the 10th lunar month.  

Each year, households contribute hundreds to tens of thousands of yuan toward the celebration. During the Lunar New Year, the statue is carried in a village procession. At the most recent birthday ceremony held in November 2023, thousands of people, including overseas Chinese from Malaysia, gathered at Puzhaotang Hall for vegetarian feasts and extravagant prayer ceremonies. Adding to the revelries, singers of Gaojia opera, the traditional folk art that Zhanggong favored, were invited to perform in front of Puzhaotang Hall.  

“I always come and pray to the Zhanggong statue for my family’s prosperity and happiness,” Lin Yongtuan said. Like most of his fellow villagers, he remains optimistic about the statue’s return. “Zhanggong has blessed and protected us for generations, and he will continue to protect the future generations of our Lin clan.”