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The battle over a mummified monk

The body in the Buddah

Is the mummified monk who disappeared from a Chinese village 22 years ago the body in the Buddha that turned up unexpectedly in Amsterdam? John Hooper and Ted Plafker investigate

Is the mummified monk who disappeared from a Chinese village 22 years ago the body in the Buddha that turned up unexpectedly in Amsterdam? John Hooper and Ted Plafker investigate

June/July 2017

Around the time that William of Normandy was conquering England, the Buddhist master Zhang Qisan decided it was time to die. Or rather, he felt it was time to begin the next stage of his existence by transforming himself into a living mummy.

Qisan was born in the tiny hill village of Xukeng where even today most of the inhabitants have the surname Zhang. His family had the unusual tradition of giving their children numbers as forenames. “Qisan” means 73 – his grand­father’s age when he was born. When he was a boy, he wandered far and wide before deciding to enter a monastery. The profound knowledge of herbal remedies he acquired there won him fame and affection. He was so pious that he earned the honorific title of “Gong” (Lord) and became known as Zhang Gong. He was – and is – considered a bodhisattva: one capable of attaining nirvana, but who chooses to remain in the physical world out of compassion for humanity.

From around the late third century AD, some masters, including Zhang Gong, succeeded in controlling the manner and timing of their deaths by means of self-mummification. They ordered their disciples to store their bodies after their deaths and told them that when they recovered the body after a year or so, they would find it intact.

These masters then ingested herbs that had poisonous properties to speed their demise; and preservative ones to begin the process of mummification from the inside out. Zhang Gong, with his botanical education, would have been particularly expert at this. The final stage was to adopt the lotus position and enter a deep meditative trance. The faithful believe these masters did not truly die, but entered a state of enlightenment in which they became living Buddhas. 

For his final meditation, Zhang Gong chose a particularly auspicious spot near the village of Yangchun in Fujian province, in the uplands of south-eastern China. There, he moved into his final stage of existence, and was worshipped by villagers – until, 1,000 years later, he disappeared.

Temple without its totem

The temple’s caretaker wafts sticks of incense as he opens the building

In 1997 Carel Kools, a restorer of Asian art and antiquities in Amsterdam, was sent a shabby, life-sized statue of a Buddha in the lotus position. “The statue came to me in a really bad state,” he says. “There was lots of damage from insects.” Attached to the base of the statue were two planks that were also in poor condition. “So we removed the planks he was sitting on and discovered these linen rolls.” 

Kools took out the rolls – one of which is more of a cushion – peered inside the statue and found himself staring at the remains of a human being: “I was looking straight at the underside of his legs.” He rang the collector who had commissioned him, an architect by the name of Oscar van Overeem. “I was abroad,” Van Overeem recalls. “[Kools] said: ‘Oscar, believe it or not, the statue is no statue. It’s a mummy.’ I said: ‘Carel. You should drink better wine. Don’t tease me.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

On July 14th a judge in Amsterdam will embark on the unenviable task of deciding whether these two mummies are one and the same. Lawyers representing the inhabitants of Yangchun contend that the mummy that ended up in Kools’s workshop is one stolen from their village temple two decades earlier and that it contains the remains of Zhang Gong. They are also expected to argue that Van Overeem cannot legally own a corpse. Counsel for the Dutch collector will counter that numerous museums and private collectors own mummies and Van Overeem’s is in any case not the one stolen from Yangchun; that this is a case of mistaken identity, one that has become a nightmare for their client.

At stake in this bizarre affair is possession of an object said to be worth tens of millions of dollars. The dispute over its ownership has already had an impact on relations between China and the Netherlands at the highest level, and has also highlighted an important change in Beijing’s official policy towards the recovery of millions of cultural artefacts that have been removed from China, by sale or by theft, down the centuries.

 As sunset drew near on a cool March evening, the scent of burning firewood hung in the air over Yangchun, mingling with that of family suppers being cooked. Traffic along the village’s main road consisted mostly of waddling ducks, scurrying chickens and small children with backpacks making their way home from school in a township several kilometres away.

The village is set amid high, thickly forested hills. Ever since a motorway reached the area in around 2010, the village has been a two-hour drive from the prosperous coastal city of Quanzhou. Yangchun is only 4km from the motorway exit. According to the local Communist Party secretary, Lin Kaiwang, about 1,800 people live in the village and most, like him, are called Lin.

Yangchun has the mish-mash of architectural styles that China’s precipitous economic development has produced. Some of the villagers live in grand, well-kept courtyard houses built of grey brick with elegant roofs of high-quality slate tiles. But there are also more modest houses of red brick or wood, and crude three- and five-storey blocks made of bare cement. Some of the houses are clad in garish yellow or pink tiles. One is adorned with Corinthian columns.

Fir trees, which supply highly prized timber for construction, are the commonest vegetation in the area. But the key to Yangchun’s recent – and still relative – prosperity is tea. The bushes in the terraced fields around the village yield three crops a year of a variety known as Tieguanyin, a renowned Oolong tea midway between black and green that is ubiquitous in village homes. The standard tea-making kit includes a kettle, a pot for brewing tea and a bowl into which the cups are dipped in and out of water using purpose-made tongs to rinse and warm them. The tea is served in small cups which are constantly refilled.

The centre of village life – both physical and spiritual – is the Puzhao Temple. During the day, people gather in the square in front of the temple, or on its steps, sitting and chatting. At night, loudspeakers often blare out music for the group dancing that is popular in villages and cities all over China.

The fir-wood pillars and walls of the temple are hung with vertical red scrolls bearing ink-brush calligraphy on Buddhist themes. Strung across the front of the building is the kind of horizontal red banner with yellow characters on which political slogans often appear. On this one, however, the message reads: “Hoping and praying that the Zhang Gong bodhisattva mummy returns soon to its native home!”

The mummy’s survival through centuries of Chinese political turmoil is testament to the villagers’ love for it. It survived even Mao Zedong’s exhortation during the Cultural Revolution to “Smash the Four Olds” – customs, culture, habits and ideas. Mao’s young cadres destroyed artworks all around the country, but Yangchun’s inhabitants took great risks to protect the mummy, moving it from house to house.

A night-watchman at the temple was supposed to keep it safe, but on the crucial night in December 1995 he seems, to no one’s great surprise, to have been asleep. According to Lin Wenyu, a local, the only people who noticed anything odd were some workers at a brick factory near the entrance to the village. They saw a van make its way very slowly over the bumpy road that ran through the village. Since motor vehicles of any kind were still a rarity in rural China, the workers were curious enough to peer into the back of the van as it crawled along. “In the rear seat, they saw a seated figure covered with a blanket,” says Lin. “They assumed it was someone who was seriously ill and who was being taken away for medical treatment.”

The theft was a terrible blow to the community. According to Lin Lemiao, a retired teacher who has lived all of his 72 years in Yangchun, “You can’t imagine how distraught we all were. People were crying bitterly. Everyone was just miserable.”

Two decades later, the loss was still sharp enough that, when the villagers heard tell of a statue in an exhibition in Budapest that seemed to resemble their relic, they swung into action. They enlisted the help of the diaspora: one of the villagers, working as a cook in Hungary, was sent to see if the mummy was that of Zhang Gong. When he reported back that it was, the villagers contacted Liu Yang, a lawyer in Beijing known for his work in recovering Chinese cultural property from abroad. He got hold of HIL, a firm of Dutch lawyers, which is bringing the case against Oscar van Overeem to court.

Local hero
A villager and his daughter cycle past the temple at dusk. A banner exhorting the Buddha’s return is pinned to its front

An ebullient, remarkably youthful-looking 54-year-old, Van Overeem – “Hi. I’m Oscar” – arrived for what he said was his first in-depth interview since the start of the dispute wearing jeans, trainers and a sweatshirt. Round, wire-frame spectacles were perched at the end of his nose and his hair looked as if it had not enjoyed the attentions of a comb in weeks.

The world in which Van Overeem moves is a long way from that of the villagers of Yangchun. An architect-cum-interior designer, he works at the top end of the market. He says he often takes on commissions from other collectors to create private galleries. A specialist in Japanese architecture, he has developed a style he describes as “very detailed, minimalist – and extremely luxurious”.

Warming to his subject, he produces a few of his designs: cool grey interiors intended to encourage visitors to focus on his clients’ possessions. Sculptures and other pricey artefacts are displayed to maximum advantage in softly – yet intensely – lit niches. Later, Van Overeem pulls out the plans of what he says is a penthouse he designed for a Gulf potentate. It looks about the size of a soccer pitch.

“ …And this is his bedroom…and this is his bathroom…and, right next to it, the pool because he likes to swim just after he gets up. That bit’s for the sharks. So you see, he can…”

“Sharks?”

“Yes. The sheikh likes to swim alongside sharks. There’s a transparent barrier between the two halves of the pool, of course.”

Architecture is Van Overeem’s second career. He originally worked in graphic design and claims to have been among the first in the field to employ digital technology. By his mid-20s, he had earned enough to start collecting. His Chinese collection focuses on works produced before the end of the Tang dynasty at the start of the tenth century.

Metal head 

The steel rod holding the mummy’s neck and skull in place is visible in this X-ray

Van Overeem’s principal agent was a dealer and collector he names as Benny Rustenburg, now retired and living in the Philippines: “a hippy type”, but “a very good businessman”. Rustenburg had a storage facility in Amsterdam, and it was there, in late 1995, Van Overeem says, that he first saw the seated Buddha that was going to change his life. He says that Rustenburg had bought it in Hong Kong at the end of 1994 or the beginning of 1995, and that it had been shipped to Amsterdam in mid-1995 – several months before Zhang Gong’s mummy disappeared from Yangchun.

Van Overeem was initially not interested in buying the statue. It was gold. “And I don’t like golden statues,” he says in a voice infused with distaste. It was damaged and adorned with dragon motifs that seemed to date it to the Ming dynasty, which was founded almost five centuries after the latest period in which Van Overeem had until then shown an interest. “I said, ‘It’s not my cup of tea.’”

To keep stock moving, retailers will sometimes bundle objects they know their customers want with others they want less – or not at all. According to Van Overeem, that is what Rustenburg – “the smartass”, as he ruefully calls the dealer – did with the sitting Buddha. He added it to “a few beautiful terracotta objects” that he knew his young client would love to own.

Van Overeem says he sent the statue, as he believed it to be, to his restorer, Carel Kools, who did not get around to tackling it until early 1997. After discovering that it was in fact a mummy, Kools suggested it be X-rayed. He had a second job at the time working in a hospital and could arrange for access to the radiography department out of normal hours.

“So what I did was, during the night – this is a movie, eh? – I put the mummy in my car, in the front seat, put a cloth over him and put a seat belt on him,” says Van Overeem. “We drove to the hospital. There, he was put in a wheelchair and we pushed him, covered up, to the X-ray department. We felt like Indiana Jones.”

The X-rays showed there was a more or less complete skeleton inside (it was later discovered that the internal organs had all been removed, along with some finger bones which Van Overeem thinks were taken as relics). Kools then took a sample from the linen cushion and had it carbon-tested. The results dated the cushion to the 13th century – 300 years before the decorations on the casing of the mummy.

“Then we tested the mummy itself – and then we were really confused,” says Van Overeem. The body was at least 100 years older than the cushion. It was from the Song dynasty. But, as an expert at the Met in New York subsequently explained, it was not uncommon for mummies to have things added to them in later centuries. In this case, a cushion had been thoughtfully placed under the master’s behind and the casing had been gilded and redecorated. But the casing itself and the body inside were about 1,000 years old. It was the stuff of collectors’ dreams.

“A Ming statue can [fetch] nowadays, let’s say, between €20,000 ($22,000) and €100,000,” says Van Overeem. “But a Song-dynasty statue? Even in those days, millions.” The least appreciated item in a job lot had turned out to be worth a fortune: his gaudy Ming statue was actually “the rarest of the rarest”.

For 18 years, the dream remained intact. Van Overeem says he turned away an offer of $20m. But, after he lent the mummy to the exhibition in Budapest, his association with it became increasingly problematic.

Faced with the villagers’ claim that the mummy had been stolen, the exhibition organisers asked him to withdraw it. Overnight, Van Overeem went from being a respected collector to an alleged recipient of stolen goods (though, as he points out, if he had suspected the mummy was stolen, he would hardly have allowed it to be exhibited for all the world to see). Suddenly, he was “that rich bastard in Holland” who was depriving the poor inhabitants of Yangchun of their beloved holy man and, he says, his architectural practice suffered as a result.

Dutch police came to interview him, apparently at the request of their Chinese counterparts. And while abroad on business he received a call from the Dutch foreign ministry asking him to come to The Hague the moment he landed back in Holland.

“I thought I might be arrested at the airport,” says Van Overeem.

He wasn’t, but was asked to explain the affair to an annoyed Dutch government. The prime minister, it turned out, had been on a visit to Beijing and had been embarrassingly wrong-footed when his opposite number started quizzing him about the return of a mummy of which he knew nothing. The mummy had become a smaller, slightly gruesome, Chinese version of the Elgin marbles: an emblem of the despoliation of Chinese culture by rapacious foreigners.

Lie back and think of China
The Buddha enters the MRI scanner at a hospital in Amsterdam

According to the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage, there are around 10m Chinese objects in foreign museums and collections. Some were produced specifically for export; some were valuable cultural objects that were sold; some were looted.

The most notorious episode was the sacking by the British and French in 1860 of Beijing’s magnificent Old Summer Palace. According to the Chinese, 23,000 items plundered during that orgy of destruction and pillage at the end of the second opium war are in the British Museum. Not that the Chinese themselves are free of responsibility. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, officials helped themselves to treasures from the Imperial Palace that were then sold abroad. The Cultural Revolution was a disaster – even more for Tibet’s heritage than for China’s. “The Red Guards were heavily involved in programmatic looting and export,” says Sam Hardy, an expert on the illegal trade in art and antiquities at Univer­sity College London. “China trafficked so much cultural property from Tibet that it flooded the markets of Hong Kong and Tokyo.” The clearance of areas for major infrastructure projects like the Three Gorges Dam also saw the wholesale looting of cultural artefacts.

But China’s opening to the world has gone hand-in-hand with what Hardy calls “huge interest in the recovery of looted antiquities, which is tied up with identity, pride and power.”

For several years, it was fashionable for rich individuals to acquire Chinese objects from abroad so that they could enhance their standing by donating them to museums. One of the most intriguing questions concerns responsibility for a string of apparent “thefts to order” of items seized from the Old Summer Palace. Beginning in 2010, museums in Sweden, Norway, Britain and France were targeted. Hardy says that the robberies may have been commissioned by private collectors who either intended to keep the artefacts for themselves or to donate them to the state at some point in the future – but he does not rule out the possibility that they are part of a “state operation”.

The Chinese government has certainly expressed a growing interest in the country’s cultural heritage. In 2014 President Xi Jinping signalled a radical change in the Communist Party’s view of China’s past when he welcomed traditional culture as a “foundation for China to compete in the world”. Since then, the authorities, in particular the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), have become increasingly involved in the recovery of historical artefacts.

That the government raised the case of the mummy during a state visit shows how concerned it is about this case. Who is financing it is not clear. Liu Yang says he is working pro bono: “I haven’t taken any money from the people in Yangchun…They are peasants of very modest means – mountain villagers. Maybe, if we succeed in getting [the mummy] back, they’ll think about giving me something. But it’s not important.” Jan Holthuis of hil, the Dutch lawyers’ firm, will not say who is paying them.

The government has also changed its line on accepting cultural objects as gifts. According to Liu, the authorities “no longer encourage rich Chinese to buy things back and donate them, because they’re afraid it creates a market, and as the prices go up it will be harder and harder to find buyers like that. It’s not seen as a good way to handle things” – as Van Overeem was to discover.

The villagers are unanimous in their certainty that the mummy is theirs.

“When I was small and went to worship Zhang Gong, that base was at eye-level for me and the photos look exactly the same,” says Lin Wenyu.

“Just from the pictures we saw from the exhibition in Hungary, we knew instantly,” says Lin Lemiao, the retired teacher. “There can be no doubt that [the mummy] is ours.”

Lin Qizhou, a local official, says: “It is simply laughable to think that this is not our mummy. All the people here have been visiting the temple for their entire lives, and we all just know. It is not even open to debate.” It will, however, be open to debate in the Dutch court, which will be looking for hard evidence.

Van Overeem’s biggest handicap is that he has no receipt from Benny Rustenburg to back his version of how he acquired the mummy. “Everybody says, like, ‘Can you give me proof?’ From 20 years ago?” he protests. “Come on! I always paid the man cash or I paid him [by bank transfer] to Hong Kong.”

Nor, crucially, can Van Overeem expect corroboration from the dealer. “He’s not willing to say anything.” A Benny Rustenburg living in the Philippines has a profile on LinkedIn in which he describes himself as retired from “Benny Art”; but neither online inquiries nor shoe-leather in Manila succeeded in raising him.

The villagers are also short of hard evidence. Local officials say old photos of the mummy from before the theft are “no longer here”; Yangchun’s genealogical records, which are said to prove the link with Zhang Gong, are “in storage”, though presumably they can be extracted if they are helpful to the case.

Where has he Gong? 

Children play in front of the temple in Yangchun

The strongest evidence in the villagers’ favour is the round, flat cushion found underneath the mummy, of which they have photographs. On the rim there is writing in ancient Chinese characters. Some are illegible, but the key passages read as follows: “Since patriarch Zhang Gong Liuquan [a term denoting the entire body] from the Puzhao Temple manifested himself, years passed by which were not recorded. Since [missing characters] this hall…hardly any people visited, no incense rose and disasters occurred. The leaders of the village, Lin Zhangxin and Lin Shixing, touched the hearts of the villagers to raise money…to remodel and redecorate the valuable statue of the patriarch.”

Puzhao – “universal illumination” – is a popular name for Buddhist temples in China, so is little help in identifying the statue’s origins; but two things link the cushion to Yangchun. First, the village leaders who organised the whip-round to refurbish the mummy were both called Lin; second, and more convincing (since Lin is one of the most common surnames in China), Zhang Gong is referred to by name. For James Robson, a Harvard professor and expert on Chinese Buddhism, this represents “a pretty tight connection”, though Van Overeem argues that monasteries often “sneakily attributed the identity of a renowned Buddhist master to a different preserved corpse” to enhance their standing and their revenues.

The sophisticated iconography on the casing, which includes elements from the Tantric tradition of Buddhism and “a secret character rendered in an unusual variant of the sacred Siddham script from India” makes a case, he says, for the mummy being from an important monastery rather than an obscure upland village. This might seem like special pleading but for two pieces of evidence in Van Overeem’s favour.

Back in early 2015, the villagers told reporters, both Chinese and foreign, that Zhang Gong’s mummy had two distinguishing characteristics. The first was a hole between the thumb and index finger of the Buddha’s left hand, said to have been made in the 1950s by an official who was sceptical of the villagers’ claim that the statue contained a mummy and wanted to feel inside. A news agency report quoted and named a man who said he had filled in the hole in the 1980s. The mummy’s other unique feature was a wobbly neck: the villagers took it out of the temple on special occasions to process around Yangchun and on one occasion it had hit a staircase. Van Overeem says, however, that a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan in January found no evidence of a repaired hole in either hand while the X-rays had already shown that the corpse inside his statue was fitted with a steel rod running from the forehead over the back of the head and down the spine. “If there is one thing stable about this mummy, then it’s his neck,” he says.

Whose is the mummy?
The Buddha – and whoever is inside it – is now in unknown hands

While holding to his view that “my mummy is not their mummy,” Van Overeem says he has always sought a compromise. After he was summoned to the foreign ministry, Dutch officials arranged for him to meet Chinese diplomats in the Netherlands who in turn involved the SACH. Van Overeem says he worked for months on a solution, even travelling to China to meet a rich benefactor who was ready to buy the mummy in order to gift it to the state. But a SACH official scotched the deal, telling Van Overeem flatly the Chinese authorities did not accept donations. “I was furious,” he says.

In November 2015, Van Overeem announced that talks had broken down and that he would look seriously at offers he had received for the mummy. He then came into contact with a “big collector specialising in Buddhist sculptures: very powerful, very rich”, who proposed that, instead of selling the mummy, Van Overeem should swap it for sculptures in his collection. “Within one hour, we were done.” The new owner of the mummy, he says, intends to remain anonymous and keep the mummy’s location secret, so “I cannot deliver that statue, no matter what.”

Quite how the judge – and the Chinese authorities – will react to that remains to be seen. But as James Robson says, the affair “seems to have a life that keeps going…like the mummy itself.”

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