Build Your Own Buddha

The East Wind said: “I have just come from China, where I danced round the porcelain tower till all the bells jingled again. In the streets an official flogging was taking place, and bamboo canes were being broken on the shoulders of men of every high position, from the first to the ninth grade. They cried, ‘Many thanks, my fatherly benefactor;’ but I am sure the words did not come from their hearts, so I rang the bells till they sounded, ‘ding, ding-dong.’” – Hans Christian Andersen, The Garden of Paradise (1838).

The Porcelain Tower is famous, you see. The Chinese keep on telling me how famous it is, although to be frank, I had never heard of it until I got to Nanjing. It was featured in a Dutch traveller’s account of China in the 17th century, and ended up becoming the centrepiece of many blue-and-white china plates, a cute little pagoda that itself was supposedly made of porcelain.

In fact, the Porcelain Tower was simply decorated with glazed bricks – sumptuous in golds and greens and yellow, lit at night with dozens of lanterns, and impressively tall. Its construction was begun in the era of the dastardly Ming emperor Yongle, and completed under the supervision of his long-time lieutenant, the faithful eunuch admiral Zheng He. It was vandalised by the Taiping rebels in the 19th century, who smashed up the Buddhist statuary and demolished the staircase to prevent their enemies using it as a reconnaissance platform, and was eventually completely destroyed. In 2010, the billionaire owner of the Wanda corporation paid to have it rebuilt, and a posher than posh museum stands on the site, including a statue of Hans Christian Andersen, tableaux from Buddhist history, and lavish exhibits of Buddhist largesse.

The restored tower itself is a glass affair of no real merit, but it sits above a vault that contains the Ashoka Reliquary, which was found in the foundations. Well, to be fair a stone vault was found in the ruins, containing an iron casket, which contained a gold reliquary, which contained a silver box, which contained an iron box, and so on, and so on, like a bunch of Buddhist matrushka dolls, until in the centre of it all was a piece of Buddha’s skull, donated by the Indian king Ashoka as one of hundreds of relics sent by him throughout the known world to prove how cool he was.

There are lots of things to shoot in the museum below, including other Ashoka Reliquaries from other parts of China, so many in fact that I declare it is a veritable Build Your Own Buddha game, and that a religiously minded app developer could turn every iPhone-using Buddhist in China into a Pokémon freak, racing around pilgrimage sites trying to reassemble Shakyamuni from all the bits of him that are apparently stashed away in temples all over the place.

Qi Haining is the man who found the piece of Buddha’s skull. He is cagey at first, having been burned before by Chinese television, who set him up as some sort of Indiana Jones figure.

“That was all nonsense,” he complains. “We always knew that there was a relic somewhere down there. We just didn’t bother to look until they told us they were going to put up a shopping centre. So that’s when we dug it up.”

But he is being economic with the truth. Nobody was really expecting to unearth something of quite the magnitude of Buddha’s skull fragment. The first time they knew what they had was when they read the provenance carved on the outer casket.

He likes the thought of us letting him tell the true story, and once again, is one of those interviewees who lights up when he realises I am not some nodding donkey. I can pinpoint the moment when he realises I’m not new to this.

“This is a find,” he says, “of a magnitude equivalent to the Famen Temple.”

“Well, the Famen Temple’s only got a finger bone!” I point out, and his eyes light up.

“YES! That’s right! You’ve seen it? In their underground palace? Just a little finger, right. And no magic crystals. We’ve got magic crystals, what about that, Famen Temple!”

Truth be told, the “magic” sarira crystals found in the remains of cremated Buddhist saints look awfully like gallstones, but far be I from one to interfere.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E06 (2019).

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