A blogger surnamed Chen (陳) recently launched a campaign against the repainting of seven clay statues at the Tzu Chi Temple (慈濟宮) in Greater Taichung’s Fengyuan District (豐原), saying he was shocked to see that the renovation left them almost unrecognizable.
Chen, who has been photographing statues of immortals for more than 30 years, wrote an article protesting against the repainting and asked his daughter to start a Facebook page dedicated to the campaign.
Having received an e-mail asking for help from Chen’s daughter, filmmaker Tai Li-jen (戴立忍) also spread the message on his Facebook page.
The clay statues were made during the Japanese colonial period by master artists Chen Chun-cheng (陳駿檉), Lin Chi-feng (林起鳳) and Lin Pang-chuan (林邦銓), who specialized in making statues for temples.
The blogger said that each clay statue should take years to repaint, because the painter has to wait until it fully dries to add extra colors. However, the statues were not treated the way hundred-year-old artworks should be, but were repainted in a “fast and convenient” way, he said.
Tzu Chi Temple initially had 50 clay statues, but only 40 are left after 10 were stolen, he said, and he called on the temple to suspend the project to repaint the rest of the statues.
In a picture of one of the statues taken during the 1970s or 1980s, the facial expression of the statue was vivid and the color of the face looked life-like. However, after the repainting, the facial expression and the muscle lines can no longer be seen.
Responding to the campaign, the temple’s administration said the statues were repainted because they were weathered and that the repainting did not cause any harm to the statues.
Tzu Chi Temple chief executive directer Yeh Hsin-chih (葉信志) said the temple had received many complaints from visitors that the statues had aged and weathered, and did not look as “sacred” as they should, which is why the temple spent NT$110,000 repairing the statues.
Lin Yi-teh (林義德), an artist whose family has been in the business of making and repairing statues in temples for more than 40 years, said he had followed the traditional method and made only minor repairs to the statues where necessary. He rejected Chen’s claim that he had destroyed the original look of the statues.
Chang Yu-chuang (張祐創), director of the Taichung City Government’s Cultural Heritage Administration Center, said the temple had not been designated a historic building and that the statues are not designated historic items either, hence the center could do nothing but ask the temple to maintain the original state of the statues as much as possible, and send experts to give suggestions on repairing the statues.
Chang added that the threshold to list statues as historic items is very high, noting that there are three clay statues being listed as historic items in Greater Tainan which were made in 1723 and 1869.
Local historian and artist Huang Chih-nung (黃志農) said that from an angle of cultural preservation, he would hope that historic buildings and items be repaired to look “how they were,” but devotees of the temple wanted the statues to look “like new.”
He said he hoped the devotees would understand that the traces left by the passage of time do not affect the sacredness of the statues and that only when such a concept becomes accepted would the statues be properly protected and maintained.