Those Wicked Sons of Heaven - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Those Wicked Sons of Heaven
Bill Wilson Studio


In a dimly lit corner of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, amidst an impressive array of Buddhist art bequeathed to the institution by the tobacco heiress Doris Duke, there is one sculpture that stands out above all the rest: a Ming-era dry-lacquer sculpture of the bodhisattva Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, the Barque of Salvation, and the Perceiver of the World’s Lamentations. In the Mahayana tradition, it was Guanyin who composed the beloved Sutra on the Heart of the Transcendent and Victorious Perfection of Wisdom, and it is believed that this selfsame goddess takes hold of those who have perished, folds them into the heart of a lotus, and gently conveys them to the Pure Lands. Thus does Guanyin serve as a “guide for souls,” and as an object of veneration for those in need of compassion and providential care throughout the Buddhist world.

Perched comfortably on her plinth, the Walters Guanyin projects an outward expression of inward confidence and tranquility. Everything about the sculpture is serene and fluid, in keeping with the bodhisattva’s traditional associations with all things lunar, liquid, impermanent, and in flux. Even the technique used in its creation plays with the notion of transience. The unknown fifteenth-century sculptor responsible for this masterpiece began by fashioning a clay figure, which he then coated with strips of cloth soaked in lacquer, a process akin to papier-mâché. The lacquer was left to harden, whereupon the surface was carefully painted and decorated with gold leaf. Finally, after the clay interior was broken up and removed, the innards were smeared with a pigment containing cinnabar, a deadly toxin that here serves a preservative function. In this way perishable linen, tree resin, and dyestuffs were transmuted into the enduring memorial that awaits sharp-eyed visitors to the Walters.

Looking at this representation of Guanyin, with its noble aspect, fine features, and melancholy patina laid down by time and wear, I am reminded of the lines in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Notturno that describe

le note rotte del nero
e vermiglio canto avvenire
la melodia dell’eternità
l’inno profondo, sempre più profondo della doglia infinita

the broken notes of black
and vermilion, song of the future the melody of eternity
the deep and ever deeper hymn
of infinite sorrow

Guanyin, attuned as she is to the sounds of the world’s lamentations, would no doubt recognize this refrain, though her own compositions are thought to be rather sweeter. The Precious Scroll of Fragrant Mountain tells of Guanyin’s visit to Naraka, the hell-realm of the dead, where she played joyous music and conjured fields of flowers into bloom. It was said that her mere presence in hell transformed it into a veritable paradise, and for the sympathetic viewer of the Walters Bodhisattva Guanyin, Accession No. 25.256, this seems altogether plausible.

Seated Guanyin, Baltimore Walters Art Museum

Walters Bodhisattva Guanyin, Accession No. 25.256, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

Though undoubtedly an artistic triumph, there remains something amiss about this sculpture, at least in its present context. Guanyin really should not be atop so stark a plinth, shoved into the corner of an unadorned and cramped gallery, staring down at a patch of nylon carpeting. In situ, she would have been seated on a rocky throne representing the shores of the island of Mount Putuo, with her gaze directed towards a moonlit pool, as candles flickered in her eyes and wisps of incense smoke danced about her figure. Here she is left unattended by her usual companions, the acolytes Longnü, Shancai, and the Filial Parrot. Her traditional willow branch and her jar brimming with pure water are likewise nowhere to be found. No longer does she serve as a focus of reverence, or as a vigilant guardian of a temple complex and of the Buddhist faith as a whole. Instead she is the trophy of a billionaire heiress, living on merely as an object of curiosity and aesthetic interest. But at least she is fundamentally safe and sound, in the caring hands of the museum’s conservators. The same cannot be said of a great many of the other statues of the Goddess of Mercy, which remained in China, where cultural cleansing and militant atheism have taken a terrific toll on the tangible and intangible manifestations of Buddhism and other faiths besides.


One of the best-known representations of Guanyin can be found near the old Qing mountain resort of Jehol. There, inside the Puning Si, the “Temple of Universal Peace,” is an imposing version of the bodhisattva in the guise of “the one with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.” Weighing in at more than a hundred tons and rising to a height of seventy-three feet, it is considered the tallest wooden statue in the world, and has little in common stylistically with the diaphanous Guanyin on display in Baltimore. Visitors are drawn to the Puning Si by the thousands to visit this staggering work of art, which positively exudes majesty, warmth, and repose, but there is a much darker side to this locale, one seldom dwelt upon by tourists. The temple, as it happens, was built in 1755 to commemorate the Qianlong Emperor’s victory over the nomadic empire of the Zunghars. Puning Si’s Guanyin therefore functions as monumental Manchu propaganda, with Qianlong likening himself to the Goddess of Mercy, the all-seeing and far-reaching source of universal tranquility, as demonstrated by his successful conquest of Xinjiang.

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One can get a much better sense of historical perspective by crossing the Wulie River and hiking up the hill to the Anyuan Miao, the “Temple of Pacifying Distant Lands,” a destination rather less popular with tourists than the Puning Si. Intrepid visitants will find, as Anne Chayet has described it, a “complex system of enclosures” with “walls consisting of wood panels richly decorated with paintings, and a classical tianjing [well of heaven] coffered ceiling.” Anyuan Miao is admittedly a somewhat dilapidated place, at least in comparison with the rest of the Eight Outer Temples of Jehol, but a couple of details warrant our attention. The first is the looming presence inside the temple of a large statue of Vajrabhairava, the lord of death, embracing his consort. It is an image quite at odds with that of Guanyin back at Puning Si, and intentionally so. When luxuriating in the empire’s repose, Qianlong could be as sweet as Guanyin, but when pacifying distant tribes he could be as wrathful as death itself. The second detail worthy of our consideration is the fact that the structure itself is not based on an original design; rather, it is an ersatz replica of the great temple of the Zunghars that once graced the city of Kulja, in what is now called Xinjiang.

It was the great Zunghar warlord Galdan Tsering who founded the Kulja Temple, an architectural marvel wherein, according to the Qing official Fuheng’s Imperially Commissioned Illustrated Geography of the Western Regions,

the rooms were of white felt, the walls were of wood; later tiles of gold covered the beams and rafters…. They were so tall that they caressed the skies, gold streamers dazzled the sun, the beams and rafters were immense and the Buddhas were solemn and imposing. Monks were assembled to live in [the temple]… in the evening they beat the drums and in the morning they sounded the conch shells and the chanting of the Buddhist prayers was exquisite.

The military governor Song Yun later observed that “at new year and midsummer the worshippers gathered from far and near, often they brought precious jewels to donate and bestowed gold and silver to adorn the temples” of Zungharia. The city of Kulja, named after a Mongol word for mountain goat (guldja), thereby earned its alternate appellation, Ili-balik, or “resplendent city.” That resplendence came to a definitive end in 1756, when Qing forces again swept into the Ili valley and set the Kulja Temple ablaze. The age-blackened rafters collapsed, the white felt burned away, the gold tiles melted, and the wooden statues of bodhisattvas inside were reduced to ash.

The Kulja Temple was far from the only casualty of Qianlong’s remorseless “war of annihilation” (yongjue genchu) and “extermination” (jiao) against the Zunghars. The human toll was grievous. Wei Yuan, in his account of the Qing invasion, Shengwuji, estimated that of the six hundred thousand Zunghars alive in 1755, “40 percent died of smallpox, 20 percent fled to the Russians or Kazakhs, and 30 percent were killed by the Great Army. [The remaining] women and children were given as [servants] to others.” It was recorded that “for several thousand li there was not one single Zungharian tent,” and that “all remote mountains and water margins, wherever one could hunt or fish a living thing, were scoured out, leaving no traces,” so that “there was not a trace of a living thing, whether grass, bird, or animal.” A “righteous extermination” (zhengjiao) had established Chinese suzerainty over a land that was renamed Xinjiang, the “new dominion.” It hardly seems coincidental that one Chinese term recurs time and again throughout the Qing archival material pertaining to the western conquests: ping, which may mean to “make peace” (heping), but may also signify flattening out or creating a plain (pingyuan). This was a social, political, and cultural demolition job on an imperial scale, in which, as the Qianlong Emperor insisted, “all must be entirely swept away [qiongjiu saochu].”

China (Bill Wilson Studio)

Bill Wilson Studio

What was left of the Zunghars after their extermination at the hands of the Manchu remains as illusory as a steppe mirage. In Qing records we find mention of “nearly 100,000 men drawing bows, and herds filling the valleys,” herds large enough to accommodate regular dispatches of ten thousand head of horse and camel destined for China, either in tribute or in exchange for luxury goods like tea, silk, rhubarb, and earthenware. In Russian accounts like that of the explorer Ivan Unkovsky, we encounter a very different and less purely nomadic view of the Zunghar realm, where “farmers were widespread,” where “special attention was paid to dividing the land into fields,” and where “wheat, barley, millet, pumpkins, melons, grapes, apricots, and apples” were bountiful. The region was rich in iron, copper, silver, aluminum, and sulphur, and the Zunghars were able to produce a ready supply of firearms, both hand-held and camel-mounted. In this they were aided by the Swede Johan Gustaf Renat, a prisoner of the Russians who in turn fell into the nomads’ hands, and who spent the years from 1716 to 1733 teaching his captors the art of cannon-casting and the printing press. All this we know from the scattered accounts of outsiders, but lost today are the lyric and epic poems of the Zunghars, the maxims and proverbs, the legal “mountain writings” carved in red on craggy eminences for all to see and heed. Lost are the uruds tasked with forging weapons and utensils, the kötöchinars who erected yurts for the khan, and the altachins charged with the production of golden sculptures of the Buddha. And lost is the Kulja Temple, a victim of the Qianlong Emperor’s campaign of physical and cultural genocide against Zungharia.

Such modern terms are not wholly out of place here. In 1984, the eminent Chinese historian of the Qing, Dai Yi, admitted that the “Zunghar people suffered a severe disaster. We must expose and criticize the Qing government for adopting such cruel methods,” regardless of whether or not they were adopted in the supposed interests of the “progress of history.” Western historians have been willing to go much further. The Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity included the extirpation of the Zunghars in its list of historical ethnocides, Peter Perdue dubbed the conquest a “final solution,” and Charles Bawden has similarly referred to the “genocide” in which the Qing “indulged.” Mark Levene, for his part, has called the Qing campaign “arguably the eighteenth century genocide par excellence,” but further noted that the “Dzungar extermination might deserve to be treated as seminal,” but “because it has no place — or indeed value — within a Western frame of reference, even arguably a genocide-focused one, its marginalization, or more accurately mental obliteration down a giant memory hole, is likely to be perpetuated into the foreseeable future.”

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Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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