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Buddhist Sculptures from the Song Dynasty at Mingshan Temple in Anyue, Sichuan

Author(s): Henrik H. Sørensen

Source: Artibus Asiae, Vol. 55, No. 3/4 (1995), pp. 281-302
Published by: Artibus Asiae Publishers
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D A uring the past decade Sichuan province in southwestern China has become known as the home
of a vast treasure house of religious sculptures in stone. These carvings, which range in age
from the late Nanbei Chao period to the Qing dynasty, a span covering some fourteen-hundred years,
are scattered over more than one hundred sites throughout the province, with the largest
concentrationsfound in the areato the south and southwestof Chengdu,and to the east in the
countiessituatedmidwaybetweenthe provincialcapitalandChongqing.The studyof the religious
carvings of Sichuan has provided concerned scholars worldwide with a new understanding of Chinese
sculptural art and has done much to promote an appreciation for the significance of regional and
provincialstyles.Especiallythe largenumberof high qualitySongdynastysculpturesandthe wealth
of new iconographicaltypes that haveemerged,havechallengedthe commonlyheld notion of later
ChineseBuddhistartas being inferiorto the sculpturesproducedunderthe Tangdynasty.
Alongside the now well-known religious sculpturesfrom Dazu, those of neighboringAnyue
county stand out for their fine quality, fair state of preservation, longer time-span, and their greater
diversity.I Hitherto the Anyue carvings, which are mainly dominated by large-scale Buddhist
sculptures from the Song dynasty, have been largely ignored because of their location in the
underdeveloped and remote countryside of eastern Sichuan. However, recently a number of articles,
mainly written by local Chinese scholars, have brought forth much new material and information on
the sculptural sites, and it is only a question of time before the Anyue carvings become as famous as
those in Dazu.2
The purpose of the present study is to give a detailed description of the Buddhist stone sculptures
found at Mingshan Temple, one of the important but little known sculptural sites in Anyue county.
In the course of the presentation I shall endeavour to account for the style and iconography seen in
these sculptures, as well as showing how they fit into the local sculptural tradition. I will deal only
with the well-preserved Song dynasty sculptural groups found on the site and shall otherwise ignore
the later images and other replicas of questionable artistic merit that can also be found there.

General information on the sculptures of Anyue county can be found in the local gazetteers, Anyue xianzhi, I836; 1897 (in sixteen
juan), andAnyuexian xuzhi,I897 (in fourJuan).Forsurveysof, and studieson, the Anyuecarvings,see Wangiaoyou,
hiaoyou, "Anyue
shiku caoxiang (The Images in the Stone Caves of Anyue)," Dunhuang yanjiu I989.I, 45-53; Wang Yizhu, Zhongguofojiao yu Anyue
shiku yishu (Chinese Buddhism and the Art of the Anyue Stone Carvings) (Beijing: Zhongguo liiyou chubanshe, 1989 [revised
edition, 991i]); and Yun Anzhi, "Anyue shiku si diao cha jiyao (Essential Record of Investigating the Carvings in the Stone Cave
Temples of Anyue)," Kaoguyu wenwuI986.6, 45-52. See also Henrik H. Sorensen, A Surveyof the ReligiousSculpturesofAnyue, East
Asian InstituteOccasionalPapers3 (1989); and Angela F. Howard, "Tang Buddhist Sculpture of Sichuan: Unknown and Forgotten,"
Bulletin of the Museumof Far EasternAntiquities, 60 (I988), I-I64. In addition, several of the individual sculptural sites have been
the subject of reports, most of which have been published in Sichuanwenwzu.
So far the best general studies on the Dazu carvings are, Dazu shikeyanjiu (hereafter DSY) (Studies on the Dazu Stone Carvings),
compiled and edited by Liu Zhangjiu, Hu Wenhe, and Li Yongqiao (Chengdu: Sichuan sheng shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, I985);
and Li Fanglang, Dazu shikuyishu (The Art of the Dazu Stone Caves) (Chongqing: Chongqing chubanshe, I990).

I. On the Location and History of Mingshan Temple

Mingshan Temple is situated in the remote, eastern-most part of Anyue county, on the summit of
Mount Hutou overlooking the deep valleys of the surrounding countryside. This sanctuary, also
known as "Hutou Temple" after the mountain on which it is situated, is located some sixty
kilometers to the southeast of the county capital near Mindong village in Dingxin district. On the
summit of the mountain, essentially a steep rocky out-crop with a flat top, are the remains of an old
fortified temple, now partly restored.3 The location, as well as the remaining walls, some of which
still stand over three meters high, show that Mingshan Temple was built on the site of an old fortress
that probably dates from the late Tang dynasty (fig. I).4 The sculptures, most of which are
comparatively large, are found in several niches located at irregular intervals along a narrow ledge
running around the summit of the mountain (fig. 2). The concept of Buddhist sculptures carved as
divine protection for a military installation, preferably on the cliffs below the fortress itself, is
manifest in numerous places in Sichuan province. In Dazu and Anyue counties alone the remains of
eight such fortified hills or mountain tops with sculptures can be found, including the famous site of
Mount Bei.5
There are presently thirteen numbered sculptural groups at Mingshan Temple, with a total of
sixty-three large and small images. In addition there are nineteen stele inscriptions, all of which date
from the mid- to late-Qing dynasty. However, with the possible exception of one stele, none of these
is relevant for a study of the sculptures, as they mainly contain poetic and literary compositions
regarding the beauty of the landscape surrounding Mount Hutou. A Qianlong-period stele inscrip-
tion situated near Group No. 8 states that the earliest Buddhist activities on the mountain took place
during the later half of the Tang dynasty in connection with the Chan School.6 However, the Song
inscription I located, on the left wall of the niche containing Group No. 8, has been so severely
damaged by centuries of wind and rain that almost nothing of the text is presently legible (fig. 3).
This unfortunate lack of contemporary records containing information about the history of the
sculptures, ostensibly written by those who commissioned them, forces us to piece together a
plausible historical scenario on the basis of iconographical and stylistic evidence alone. Fortunately
the task is not quite as complicated as I was initially led to believe. On the basis of their distinct style
and iconography, which, as I hope to show below compare very well with other Song carvings in
Anyue and Dazu counties, all the main sculptural groups in the Mingshan Temple would seem to
have been carved during the middle period of the Song dynasty.
With the above information in mind, I consider it fairly certain that the Mingshan Temple was a
fairly important religious center during the Song period. Furthermore, the close affinity with the
sculptural centers in Dazu and Anyue would seem to indicate that this site was part of a larger
regional network of sanctuaries and pilgrim centers which had grown out of the strong Buddhist

3 At the time of my visit to the temple in the Summer of I993, the place had been turned into a thriving center of syncretic folk
religion with numerous worshippers crowding the courtyard on full moon and new moon days.
4 So far the best information on the site can be found in Tang Chengcha's brief survey, "Anyue Mingshan si moyai caoxiang (The
Cliff-side Images at Mingshan Temple in Anyue)," Sichuanwenwu(hereafterSW ) 1990.6, 46. My brief note on the site in, A Survey
of the ReligiousSculpturesofAnyue. East Asian InstituteOccasionalPapers3 (1989), I2, is too superficial to be of much value.
5 In Dazu such an
arrangement can be found at Mount Baoding, Mount Shizhuan, and at Mount Shimen; in Anyue at Qianfo
Fortress, Yuanjue Cave, and at Pilu Cave.
6 Cf.
Tang Chengcha, "Anyue Mingshan si moyai caoxiang," 46.

movement that flourished in the central and eastern parts of Sichuan province during the eleventh-
twelfth centuries.7

2. Group No. I: Rocana Buddha and Heavenly Dignitary

Moving clockwise around the crest of the summit of Mount Hutou below the fortified temple
itself, one encounters the group of sculptures designated No. I in a large deep niche measuring 5.o by
8.0 meters. The niche contains a pair of 4.0 meter-high seated images: a crowned Buddha and a deity
clad in imperial robes (fig. 4). Both sculptures are extremely well preserved and are seated next to
each other on a large stone dais.
In the left side of the niche the crowned Buddha is seated in full lotus posture with hands held
against his chest in a local variant of the abhiseka-mudrd(guandingyin), in which the left hand clasps
the right fist.8The round, full face with its tiny mouth shows the deity in a deeply concentrated state
of absorption. Over the tightly curled bee-hive hair the Buddha wears a large, ornate openwork
crown, featuring a small, meditating Buddha in its crest.9 This image is clad in loose-fitting monk's
robes, with the kAsdyaheld in place by the usual clasp at the left shoulder.'oThe lower undergarment
is held in place by a belt tied in a bow below the chest, which is otherwise naked. From the point of
view of Song dynasty iconography this image should be identified as Vairocana/Rocana,the absolute
form of Sakyamuni.nNearly identical images can be found at Pilu Cave (fig. 5), Huayan Cave (fig. 6),
both situated near Shiyang, and at Dafo Temple in the vicinity of Gaosheng Village (fig. 7), all in
Anyue County, and in several locations in Dafo Wan at Mount Baoding, such as in the artificial cave
of Group No. I4, known as "Pilu Daochang (The VairocanaRitual Site)," and in that found at Mount

7 Buddhism was extremely popular in Sichuan during most of the Song dynasty. The movement involved people from all walks of
life, including several prominent government officials. In fact, it would seem that members of the local gentry were the main force
in the spread and popularization of Buddhism in the region. The development of the numerous centers of religious sculptures that
arose between A.D. I000-120 are the physical manifestation of this popularity. Cf. Wu Juefei, "Sichuan de moyai caoxiang
(Discussing the Making of Sichuan's Cliff Carved Images)," SW Shikeyanjiu zhuaji (Special Issue on the Study of Stone Carvings)
(1986), 8-I3; and Zhang Hua, "Songdai Dazu shike jueqi neiyin tantao (An Inquiry into the Causes of the Rise of the Dazu Stone
Carvings during the Song Period)," SW 1991.2, 40-44. See also Wang Jiayou, "Liu Benzun yu mijiao (Liu Benzun and Esoteric
Buddhism)," DSY, I68-74.
8 A number of variations of this otherwise
popular mudrdcan be seen in Song sculptures from Sichuan. For unknown reasons, by the
Song dynasty the vajramustimudrd, usually associated with Tang dynasty Vairocana images, had fallen entirely out of use. Instead,
the abhisekamudrdbecame widely used, as can be seen in the sculptures from Anyue and Dazu.
9 The small Buddha image in the crown has led some scholars to believe that the sculpture
represents the bodhisattva
Avalokitesvara, but such an identification is certainly incorrect. The sculpture clearly is a Buddha, as can be seen by the hair, the
kasaya, as well as by the lack of jewelry, which would have adorned a bodhisattva.
iO This feature identifies the image beyond any doubt as that of a Buddha.
Strictly speaking Rocana Buddha represents the sambhogakaya,or bliss-body in accordance with the trikdya doctrine, which is why
the deity is ornamented like a bodhisattva. However, there is little evidence that the trikdya teachings ever played a significant role
in Chinese Buddhism before the advent of Tibetan Buddhism. Prior to the Song, Vairocana was commonly encountered among
Chinese Buddhist images both in the form of a common Buddha, such as in the large image in Fengxian Temple at Longmen,
Henan, and sometimes as a crowned Buddha, as seen in the niche-cave no. 102oin Guangyuan, Sichuan, and in the Leigutai Caves,
also at Longmen. Some change appears to have taken place during the tenth century, after which time Vairocana/Rocana in the
crowned and ornamented form became dominant to the exclusion of the older form. In any case, Vairocana/Rocana should be seen
as representing more or less the same Buddha. This also holds true for the Buddha Amitabha/Amitayus, who is generally seen as
one and the same, although their respective iconography sometimes differs.
I2 For a description of this image, cf. DSY, 515-I6.

The deity on the right, clad in the wide-sleeved and flowing robes of a heavenly dignitary, sits
with both feet touching the ground. He has a youthful expression on his face and he wears an
imperial hat of the traditional shape, i.e., featuring a high crown surmounted by a flat, rectangular
top. Both hands, held before his chest under a piece of stylized cloth, may originally have clasped a
now-lost tablet. In his brief report, Tang Chengcha identifies this image as the Daoist divinity
"Dongyue Dadi" (The Great Emperorof the EasternMarchmount),i.e., the Lordof Mount Tai,I3but
without providing any evidence for his identification.'4In any case, it is quite obvious that this image
is not a Buddhist divinity. There is an image of The Lordof Mount Tai at Shucheng Cliff in Zhongao
in Dazu,I5 which bears some resemblance to the one we have here, but otherwise a close icono-
graphical affinity between these two images can not be established. Hence I am more inclined to look
elsewhere for a comparableexample. It so happens that a nearly identical image can be found in the
cave housing Group No. 2 at Mount Miaogao, Dazu. Here we see a central VairocanaBuddha flanked
by an image of Laojun, the deified Laozi, on the right, and King Wenxuan, the semi-legendary
progenitor of the Zhou dynasty (ca. I050-256 B.C.),I6 on the left.17Although not identical, I consider
these two sculptures to be much closer in terms of iconography than a comparison between the Lord
Tai at Shucheng Cliff and the deity at Mingshan Temple. Unfortunately, the material at hand does
not allow for a definite identification, but it is clear that no matter whom the sculpture in question
was intended to represent, it was seen as a deity or heavenly dignitary on the same religious level as
Rocana Buddha. Hence the group under discussion would seem to reflect the Three Teachings, or
Sanjiao ideology, in which the doctrines of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism are harmonized.
This tradition had gained great popularity in China by the Northern Song dynasty and it is only
naturalthat it should also find its expression in the religious art of that time.I8
Regardless of the actual identity of the deity, this group presents yet another interesting example
of a Sichuanese stone carved shrine dedicated to the joint worship of Buddhist and a Confucian sage
(or Daoist god). Earliershrines and cult sites where worship of all three religions took place are found
in a number of other locations in Anyue,19and Song dynasty sculptural sites for Buddho-Daoist and
Confucianworship are located in Dazu county, especially in Mount Shimen, at Mount Shizhuan, and
at Mount Miaogao.20

13 Mount Tai, one of the five holy mountains in China, figures prominently in Daoist lore as the
gateway to the netherworld. Hence
the Lord of Mount Tai plays a highly prominent role in the Daoist pantheon. For a short description, see Huang Haide and Li
Gang, Daojiao cidian (A Dictionary of Daoism) (Chengdu: Sichuan Daxue chubanshe, 1991), 90-91. An early Tang manuscript of an
apocryphal scripture from Dunhuang also places the deity in a Buddhist context. Cf. Stein 1924 described in Lionel Giles,
DescriptiveCataloguzeof the ChineseManuscriptsfrom Tunhuangin the British Museum(London: British Museum, 1957), I97a.
I4 See Tang Chengcha, "Anyue Mingshan si moyai caoxiang," 46.
Is For a description of this image, cf. DSY, 56I-62. See also Dazu Rock Carvings of China ed. by Dazu Rock Carvings Museum in
Chongqing (Hong Kong: Wanli Book Co. and Chongqing Press, 199I), I74.
6 King Wenxuan is traditionally considered the epitome of a Confucian "Sage Ruler", hence he figures in this Sanjiao group as the

representative of Confucianism.
17 See DSY, 554-55. For a good illustration of the entire group, cf. Dazu RockCarvingsof China, I85-86.
8 For further information on the
Sanjiao belief during the Song, cf. Yamada Takashi, "Hoku So no sanchi ni tsuite (Concerning the
Three Teachings Thought of Zhenzong of the Northern Song)," Nihon bunka kenkyuso kenkyuhokoku28 (1991), I69-9I. See also
Morten Schliitter, "China's Three Teachings and the Thought of Emperor Xiaozong (r. II62-89)," East Asian Institute Occasional
Papers6 (I990), I51-60.
19 At Yuanjue Cave, Xuanmiao Temple, and at Pilu Cave.
20 Cf. DSY,
526-32, 540-50, 554-59.

3. Group No. 2: Seated Images of Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta

Proceeding further along the ledge encircling the summit of the mountain one reaches the
carvings constituting Group No. 2. The seated images of the bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (to the
right of the spectator), and Mahasthamaprapta (on the left), the companions of Amitabha, the
Buddha of the Western Pure Land, are placed in a large, slightly irregularly carved niche. Both
bodhisattvas, measuring ca. 4. meters high, are sitting in the lotus posture on individual, plinth-
like, unadornedthrones (fig. 8).
Avalokitesvara turns slightly towards the other bodhisattva and holds a printed sfitra in his hands.
A standing image of Amitabha is visible in the fine, intricately carved crown on the deity's head. The
plump, distinctly masculine face is calm and peaceful, exuding an air of benevolence and
detachment. The small mouth is delicately formed with fine, curving lines, while the large ears have
fat lobes that flatten at the ends: a characteristic that can be observed on most of the sculptures at
Mingshan (fig. 9). Avalokitesvara is clad in loose robes which cover the entire body with the
exception of the bared chest. The small crossed legs are out of proportion.
Mahasthamaprapta, who is depicted with a somewhat feminine expression on his face, holds a
small bowl in his lap. Like Avalokitesvara he wears a large and extremely detailed crown, mainly
consisting of openwork floral scrolls. In the center of the crown is a seven-storied pagoda with a small
image of a Buddha in front (fig. IO). Both bodhisattvas wear identical necklaces in the form of
stylized clouds. Iconographic features similar to those found on the attributes held by these two
bodhisattvas, including the symbols in their crowns, occur in the monumental sculptures in the two
Groups No. 52I and No. i8,22in Dafo Wan at Mount Baoding.
The flat, or angular, style of carving (lidao) so typical of Song dynasty Sichuanese sculptures is
particularly prominent with this group. This stylistic feature, characterized by distinct and sharp
cuts dividing the levels of carving, is most clearly visible where the naked chests meet the hem of the
robes (figs. 9-IO). The upper parts of both sculptures were carved with great detail, but for some
reason little attention was paid to the portions below the waists, including the thrones, which appear
strangely primitive. The disproportion and poor execution of the lower parts of both bodhisattvas,
including their seats, may indicate that they were carved at a later date. In fact, it is not unlikely that
the original carvings were left unfinished and completed much later. In any case, there is a marked
difference in the quality of the upper and lower portions of both images.

4. Group No. 3: The MafijuSri Sanctuary

Group No. 3 consists of a large standing image of the bodhisattva Manjusri, s.o meters high, and
eight minor images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas sculpted in relief on the cliff wall to the right and
left of the main carving (fig. II). Manjusrl has a benign expression and wears an elaborate, fine carved
"Five Buddha Crown"(fig. I2).23 His body is draped in a long wide robe, open at the front to expose
21 For a description, see DSY, 470. This Dazu triad has long been mistaken for "Huayan sansheng xiang," i.e., images of the "Three
Holy Ones of the Avatamsaka Sutra," however, in my opinion the triad represents Amitabha flanked by Avalokitesvara and
Mahasthamapraptain accordance with the Guan wu liangshoufo jing (Amitayus Dhyana Sutra). T. 365.
Cf. DSY, 480-83.
23 For a good color photograph of this group, cf. Zhongguomeishuquanji, diaosubian, Sichuan shiku diaosu (Complete Collection of
Chinese Art, Sculptural section; Stone Cave Sculptures of Sichuan [hereafter ZMQ]) (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, I988),
vol. 12, pi. 129.

his naked chest, which is decorated with an inter-connected triple necklace. Underneath the outer
robe can be glimpsed a dhotiheld in place by a belt. The deity holds what appearsto be a book in his
left hand, which is extended at an angle from the body, while the right hand, placed against the
abdomen, is slightly damaged. The lines and curves used in the treatment of the robe are realistically
rendered, providing for the high degree of plasticity evident in the image. On the cliff wall behind
and above the bodhisattva is an inscription in large stylized charactersreading:Xian shilifashen (The
Manifestation of the Dharmakayaof Mafnjusri)".Iconographically this form of Manjusri is very rare
and no other examples are known from the area.
On the cliff on both sides of Manijusriare eight images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas rendered in
low relief and in various sizes, set inside shallow round niches.24The largest niche is 2.0 meters in
diameter. Each of these reliefs has been given a distinct number but, for obvious reasons, I have
chosen to treat them as part of Group No. 3. Most of the carvings to the right of Manjusri have been
eroded considerablyby the elements, while some of the smaller carvings to the left of the bodhisattva
were destroyed during construction ofrom maro thee summit of the mountain (fig. I3).
However, the three remaining carvings on the left side are nearly all intact. The largest and top-most
image, a meditating Buddha with his hands in the dhydna-mudra, appears to be a representation of
Amitabha (fig. I4). The deity is shown as a full-bodied, slightly stocky individual, features that are
accentuated by the soft, almost sensual mode of carving. The Buddha is seated on a large lotus seat
consisting of a double row of petals, part of which are covered in a realistic manner by the lower
portion of his robes. As is commonly seen in other Song dynasty sculptures of the Buddha, the usn-sa
is indicated by a small, flat bump. Otherwise the hair is rendered in the traditional bee-hive mode.
Below Amitabha, a bare-chested monk holding a bowl in his raised left hand is seated in a smaller
circular niche (fig. I4). The monk's long hair, an iconographical feature commonly seen in
contemporary representations of monks from Dazu, has parallels in images on the walls in the hall at
Xiaofo Wan,25 or from the large ruined pagoda at Mount Baoding (fig. 15).26
Another Buddha in a circular niche of the same size appears below the monk. The Buddha's full
lotus posture, with the left hand resting in the lap and the other hand (now damaged) in what
probably was the bhumisparsa-mudra, identify him as Sakyamuni (fig. 16). As was the case with the
larger image of Amitabha, Sakyamuni is slightly chubby with a pleasant facial expression, and the
usnsa and the hair are treated in the same manner. The upper part of Sakyamuni's body is rendered in
deep relief, while his legs and the long robe covering them are indicated by delicate - almost
symmetrical - flowing lines executed in low relief. The eroded images on the right side of ManFijusri
are more or less symmetrical with those on the left and also include a larger Buddha image at the top.
To the best of my knowledge, the unusual iconographical arrangement of Group No. 3 has no
equal elsewhere in China. The unorthodox idea of having a bodhisattva as the main icon and Buddhas
as secondary images in a sculptural group not only breaks with the standard norm whereby a Buddha
is the main object of worship, but also provides testimony of the high regard Manjusri Bodhisattva

24 This iconographical feature is frequently encountered among the Dazu carvings, with the best examples provided by those on the
walls of Shaofo Wan, and on the upper levels of the ruined pagoda to the north of Dafo Wan, both at Mount Baoding. For a
description of these carvings, cf. DSY, 500-05. For photographs of these images, see Dazu shiku (The Dazu Stone Caves), ed. by
Dazu wenwu baoguan (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1984), pls. 111-13;and ZMQ, pls. I76-80.
15 For photographs of these images, see ZMQ, pls. 178-80.
26 Cf. ibid., pls. I76-77. For long-haired monk sculptures, see also my article, "A Study of the 'Ox-herding Theme' as Sculptures at
Mt. Baoding in Dazu County, Sichuan,"ArtibusAsiae 51,3/4 (1991), 207-33, esp. fig. 19.

commanded at the time the image was carved. For this reason we should see this sanctuary as yet
another example of local Buddhist belief during the Song dynasty.

5. Group No. 5: Rocana Buddha

At the edge of the cliff facing west one encounters another large standing image of the crowned
Buddha, Rocana or Vairocana, rising to a height of 6.3 meters (fig. I7). Part of the cliff above this
imposing sculpture has collapsed, causing minor damage to the upper part of the area of carving
above the Buddha's head. The face is round and has rathersoft features, and the large ears have thick,
pendulous lobes. The expression on the Buddha's face, with its introverted eyes and small, finely
curved mouth, indicates that he is in a state of deep absorption.The deity's crown consists of a wreath
of stylized flowers and openwork scrolls, in the crest of which sits a small image in meditation (fig.
I7). Issuing from this image are two wisps of "light" that may originally have connected with a
Buddha image above to indicate the benzunstatus of the being below.27 Clearly visible beneath the
ornate crown is the bee-hive style hair. The Buddha is clad in a long, toga-like outer robe which
hangs over his shoulders, while his chest is naked above a dhoti which reaches to his feet. The
naturalistic rendering of the linear folds in the garments provides the image with a comparatively
plastic appearance. Both hands are held in front of the chest to form the abhiseka-muzdra,an
iconographical detail also seen in the Rocana Buddha image of Group No. I. The only other visible
ornaments worn by the Buddha in addition to his crown are two braceletsaroundhis wrists.
The fact that the Buddha is standing makes it a very rare, if not unique, image among Chinese
Buddhist sculptures. Standing images of Vairocanaas the "Cosmic Buddha" are known from earlier
periods,2 including the giant, fifth-century Buddha image in Cave*No. I8 in Yungang,29 no other
standing sculpture has been identified after the late Nanbei Chao period. In addition to the fact that
Rocana is shown standing, this sculpture has another highly interesting iconographicalfeature. Close
examination revealsthe small figure in the crest of the crown to be an image of Liu Benzun (855-942),
the esoteric lay-master and Buddhist cultural hero of medieval Sichuan, ratherthan a Buddha.3?This
iconographical trait is unique to the Song dynasty sculptures of central Sichuan.31Perhaps the best
example of this can be found in the large bust of RocanaBuddha in Group No. 27 at Mount Baoding,
where a fairly well preserved image of Liu Benzun is seated in the crest of the Buddha's crown
(fig. I8).32

27 Benzun means "original worthy", a common appellation of Vairocana Buddha, but in Sino-Japanese esoteric Buddhism it also
indicates the true forms of certain bodhisattvas, divinities, and spirit-protectors. In other words, the "higher" truth behind
physical appearances of certain beings. Cf. Omura Chokaku et al., Mikkyo daijiten (Taibei: Xinwen Feng reprint, 1979), 2o86b.
During the Song dynasty this concept was firmly integrated in Chinese Buddhism and we see it everywhere in the sculptural
groups in Sichuan dating from that time.
28 For a study of "Cosmic Buddha" images, see Angela F. Howard, The Imageryof the CosmologicalBuddha. Studies in South Asian
Culture13(Leiden: E. J. Brill, I986).
29 Ibid, pl 59.
30 For a highly useful study of this important figure in Sichuanese Buddhist
history, see Wang Jiayou, "Liu Benzun yu mizong (Liu
Benzun and Esoteric Buddhism)," DSY, 168-74. See also his stele inscription, Song li Tang Liu Benzun chuan bei (The Stele
Inscription with the History of Liu Benzun Set Up during the Song),Jinshi yuan (Garden of Metal and Stone), ch. 5. The text has
been edited, punctuated and reset in simplified charactersin DSY, 294-98.
31 Among the Rocana carvings in Anyue we find an image of Liu Benzun in the crown of the Buddhas in
Huayan Cave, in Pilu Cave,
and at Dafo Cliff.
32 For a
description of this monumental carving, cf. DSY, 495-96.

6. Group No. 8: Standing Images ofAvalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta

The largest niche at Mingshan Temple, designed Group No. 8, measures 6.3 by 6.9 meters and is
3.3 meters deep.33The main sculptures are a pair of standing bodhisattvas, each measuring ca. 6.2
meters high. Iconographically they bear considerable resemblance to the standing Maitreya of Group
No. 3. Due to exposure to natural elements, both images in Group No. 8 have sustained some
weathering, which is especially pronounced in the layeredstone stripes on their faces.
The bodhisattva on the left can readily be identified as Avalokitesvarabecause of the small image
of Amitabha Buddha in his crown (fig. I9). The bodhisattva's face has a dignified, almost stern
expression, which is further underscored by the massive head set on a short neck and the large,
ornately decorated crown (fig. I9). The outer, frock-like robe which covers both shoulders hangs
heavily over image, while the voluminous dhotithat reachesto the ground conveys a
body of thethe
further sense of heaviness. The garment folds are rather stylized and stiff, lacking the degree of
plasticity seen in the Rocana image of Group No. 5. A multi-sectioned necklace or jeweled garland
adornsthe deity's naked chest. In his right hand Avalokitesvaraholds afuzi, or fly whisk, while in the
left hand there is what appears to be a neat stack of lotus leaves, an iconographical feature not usually
associated with this bodhisattva.
The other bodhisattva standing to
likelystandingthe rightrepresents
right, Mahasthamaprapta, a prominent
likely represents Mah,
figure in Pure Land lore and, iconographically, usually seen as Avalokitesvara's counterpart (fig. 20).
Like Avalokitesvara, Mahasthamaprapta wears a high, ornate crown with a vase or incense burner
in the crest and with trailing bands hanging down on both sides of the head. The fleshy face with
its fairly prominent nose and tiny mouth has a withdrawn expression (fig. 20). The long and
voluminous outer robe draped over the left shoulder is rendered in the same manner as on the
Avalokitesvara image, leaving the chest bare and the abdomen protruding slightly. In his right hand,
which is raised under the robe, the deity holds an unidentified object. The bodhisattva places his
bared right arm against his side and, with the right hand, he holds the hem of his robe.
Mahasthamaprapta also wears garland ornaments in the form of a net of inter-connected rows of
pearls. Nearly identical chest ornaments, as well as the protruding abdomen, can also be seen on the
Manjusri sculpture in Group No. 3.
As was noted with the seated images of Group No. 2, it is somewhat strange to see these two
bodhisattvas as a pair without the presence of Amitabha Buddha. In fact, this sculptural arrangement
does not appear elsewhere in Anyue or in Dazu. The iconography of the paired bodhisattvas is
only partly in accordance with traditional norms. The Buddha image in Avalokitesvara's crown and
the fly whisk are well established attributes, even though the lotus leaves (if that is what they are) are
uncommon. The attributes of Mahasthamaprapta, on the other hand, appear somewhat unortho-
dox.34 On the basis of these features, we must conclude that the Avalokitesvara/Mahasthamaprapta
group has no scriptural source, but that its appearance was a product of local imagination at that
time. Stylistically the pair of sculptures is otherwise in full agreement with the other carvings at
the site.
33 Previously part of the rock-wall above the two sculptures fell down, exposing the images to the elements. However, recently a roof
was constructed to cover them.
34 The closest comparable image is the sculpture of Mahasthamapraptain Group No. 18 in Dafo Wan at Mount Baoding; that deity
wears an almost identical crown and holds a book in the raised left hand. However, the Dafo Wan image is part of a sculptural
group that otherwise conforms to the established iconography pertaining to the "Three Holy Ones from the Pure Land". For a
description, cf. DSY, 480-83.

Fig. I. The summit of MountHutou with the fortifiedMingshanTemple.


10 meters mJT
.' .'!
i .

... . .. . . .7...:
.- . .. .

Fig. 2. Locationof the sculpturalnicheson MountHutou. Fig. 3. EffacedSong dynastyinscriptionon the left wall of Group
No. 8. MingshanTemple.

*All photographsby the author.

Fig. 4. Rocana Buddha and Heavenly Dignitary, possibly King Wenxuan. Group No. i, Mingshan Temple.

Fig. 5. Mainimageof RocanaBuddhain Fig. 6. Mainimageof Vairocana/Rocana in Fig. 7. RocanaBuddhaat DafoTemple,

GroupNo. 6 at Pilu Cave,Anyue. Huayan CaveAnyue. Note the small image Anyue.
of LiuBenzunin the crown.
Fig. 8. Seated pair of bodhisattvas: Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta, in Group No. 2. Mingshan Temple.

Fig. io. Detail of Mahasthamaprapta,Group No. 2. Mingshan Fig. 9. Detail of Avalokitesvara, Group No. 2. Mingshan Temple.
Fig. II. Standing Mafijusri Bodhisattva, Group No. 3. Mingshan Fig. I2. Detail of Mafijusri, Group No. 3. Mingshan Temple.

Fig. I3. Mafijusriand the left part of Group No. 3. Mingshan Temple. Fig. 14. Detail of Group No. 3 showing Amitabha Buddha and
long-haired monk/arhat. Mingshan Temple.
Fig. 15. Relief image of long-haired monk/arhat in the ruined Fig. I6. Detail of Group No. 3 showing Sakyamuni Buddha in bas-
pagoda at Mount Baoding, Dazu. relief. Mingshan Temple.

Fig. I7. Detail of Rocana. Group No. 5, Mingshan Temple. Fig. I8. Detail of Group No. 27 in Dafo Wan at Mount Baoding
showing Liu Benzun in the crown of Rocana Buddha, Dazu.
Fig. I9. Standingimageof Avalokitesvara.
GroupNo. 8, Mingshan Fig. 20. Standingimageof Mahasthamapripta.
GroupNo. 8,
Temple. MingshanTemple.
Fig. 21. The Nine Spirit Kings. Left side of Group No. 12, Mingshan Temple.

Fig. 22. The Nine Spirit Kings. Right side of Group No. I2, Mingshan Temple.
Fig. 23.The Nine SpiritKings. GroupNo. 2 in DafoWan at MountBaoding,Dazu.

Fig. 24. Detailof GroupNo. 2 in DafoWan at MountBaoding,Dazu. Fig. 25.The DragonKing. GroupNo. 13,MingshanTemple.
A large Song dynasty inscription on the left side of the niche unfortunately is so weathered that it is
almost entirely illegible (fig. 3). There are severalother Buddhist images in this niche, but they are all
of inferiorquality and date from more recent times.

7. Group No. I2: The Nine Spirit Kings

The last group of carvings at Mount Mingshan features the images of nine spirit-protectors
executed in high relief. The group is located on a ledge of the cliff several meters higher than the
other carvings on the site, directly below the temple walls on the summit (fig. I). The average image
is 1.8 meters high, while the niche itself measures 2.3 by 9.6 meters and is 0.8 meters deep. All the
carvings here have been subjected to erosion by the elements, which has taken its toll on the lower
parts of all the images in the group. These semi-human spirit-protectors are clad in military outfits,
consisting of large frocks over various types of armour,and manifest martial demeanor. Most of them
brandishsome kind of weapon or stand in threatening poses (figs. 21-22).
Going from left to right we first encounter a protector with a widely gaping mouth and large
sunken eyes, who holds some sort of cudgel in his raised left hand. His large, bulky abdomen is
distended. Next to him is a bearded warrior wearing a high hat and brandishing a large plantain fan
in his raised right hand. Following him on the right stands a scowling protector with a strangely
sunken face and the same large eyes as seen in the first image. On his head is a hexagonal helmet
surmounted by a small tuft. He stands in a slightly twisted pose, holding his right arm across his
abdomen, while the left hand supports a large, curved sword that rests against his shoulder. Next to
him stands a spirit-protector who turns toward the right. He wears a peculiar, high curving cap and
holds a twisting snake in his raised left hand, while the right is clenched against his side. On his left
stands a spirit with a sword. His face is damaged but the image is otherwise in fair condition. He
wears a helmet and a flowing scarf is draped over his shoulders. Further to the right is a protector
with a lance. The image has the face of a monkey and a large, broad collar, but is otherwise too
damaged to properly discern more details. The next image, a spirit-king with a wrathful expression
on his noseless face, is fairly well preserved. He wears a round helmet with side flaps and raises his
right arm above his head while grasping a severed head (almost indistinct) in his left hand. The next
spirit on the right wears a helmet in the form of a stylized animal head. Holding in his mouth the
sword used to slit open his chest, he pulls open his chest cavity with both hands to reveal a Buddha
head, indicating the spirit's true identity as a benevolent protector.35The final guardian spirit stands
with his right arm raised in a threatening gesture. Like the other spirits he has a grotesque head with
a toad-like face and protruding eyes. In addition, large fangs can be seen in his half-opened mouth. In
contrast to the other images of the group, his garments and coat of mail are renderedin great detail.
As a whole the group is well carved with great emphasis on movement and the immediate expression
of power.
Although the identity of thetheimages
main in his sculptural group is unclear, we find among the
carvings at Mount Baoding in Dazu an almost identical set of nine images. They constitute Group
No. 2 in Dafo Wan, which are clearly conceived as an ensemble of protectors controlling the Twelve
Spirits of the Zodiac (fig. 23). Although none of the images of the zodiacal spirits remains in the
35 This iconographical feature is fairly common in East Asian Buddhism, where it is most often found in connection with the arhats.
A fine late Ming example can be seen in the main hall ofMampukuji in Uji, Japan.

group at Mingshan Temple because of extreme weathering, a cursory comparison between the two
groups of sculptures reveals that they match each other, image for image, indicating that they were
based on the same composition. Iconographically and stylistically they also are closely related; so
closely, in fact, that it is possible to argue that they are the work of the same, or related, group of
artisans working from the same iconographic model. Note also that the same warrior-like images
above the Nine Protector-kings, of which faint traces remain in Group No. 12, are intact in the
Baoding group (fig. 24).
Groups of nine spirit-protectors are relatively rare in the Buddhist pantheon and, to my
knowledge, no other comparable groups as sculptures can be found elsewhere in China, or, for that
matter, in East Asia. This makes an identification of this particular group of protectors very difficult.
Among the scriptural sources my search only yielded two possible groups, neither of which, however,
provides much detail. One group of nine spirits can be found in the Guanding baijie shenwang hushen
zhou jing (Abhiseka of a Hundred Contracted Spirit Kings Protecting the Body Dharani Stitra),36 an
esoteric Buddhist scripture of uncertain origin. It consists of several lists of names of protecting
spirits, among which we find one such group of nine spirit-kings.37 However, the chief problem with
this group is that there is virtually no evidence that the scripture in which the group is found ever
played any significant role in Chinese Buddhism. Hence it is rather unlikely that this group of spirit-
kings should have been singled out for a sculptural group. The second group of nine protectors comes
from the Gandavyuha chapter of the long version of the Avatanmsaka szutra.38Here we find a list of
fourteen spirits and nine non-human kings, all protectors of the dharma.39 The nine spirit-kings are
as follows:

I. GreatDragonKing
2. YaksaKing
3. GandharvaKing
4. KumbhandaKing
5. GarudaKing
6. AsuraKing
7. MahoragaKing
8. GreatHeavenlyKing
9. BrahmaKing
36 Included as the fourth chapter in the composite Guanding qiwan erqian shenwanghu biqiu zhoujing (Sutra of the Abhiseka of the
Seventy-two Thousand Spirit Kings who Protect Monks Dharani), T. 1331.It is said to have been translated by a certain Srimitra
duringthe EasternJin dynasty(317-22),but it is most certainlya laterapocryphalcomposition.
37 The text passagein questionreads:
The Buddha addressed the god Indra saying: "There are one hundred spirit kings who now dwell on the peak of Mt. Meru.
With my majestic spiritual power I will summon them here. When in front of me I will order the spirit kings to protect you all.
Theyshouldnot be commandedharshly,[but in order]to bind them [to oneself]clearlycall theirpersonalnames.Then all these
spiritkings will constantlystayon yourleft andright in orderto protectyou."The god Indrasaid:"Whataretheir names?"The
Buddhaanswered:"[Thefirstis called]Yilimenti, and his personalnameis VirtueWithout Obstruction.[Thesecondis called]
Niwuchuzhe, and his personal name is Rejecting Oneself Greatly. [The third is called] Boluonatou, and his personal name is
Sporting in Calm and Peace. [The fourth is called] Wuhezhelou, and his personal name is Returning to the True Transformation.
[The fifth is called] Saduoboluo, and his personal name is Seeking to Abandon Peril. [The sixth is called] Ximahetou, and his
personalnameis Radiantand Bright Illumination.[Theseventhis called]Tianluomouju,and his personalnameis Proclaiming
the Wordsof the Doctrine. [Theeighth is called]Aluohouju,and his personalnameis ReachingEnlightenment.[Theninth is
called]Naluonayi,andhis personalnameis Accordingwith Others.
These nine spirit kings with their majestic spiritual powers will protect you and do away with evil and annihilate all vexations.
Excessivedemonsandspiritswill not be ableto function."T. I33I,ch. 4, 5o5a.
38 T.
39 Ibid., ch. 6I, 330C.

Although we are admittedly on uncertain ground, it is possible that the nine spirit-kings
mentioned in the sutra are identical with the Mingshan group.40 In any case, the Avatamsakasutrais
known to have held a central position in SichuaneseBuddhism during the Song dynasty, as is amply
attested in the many sculptural groups "illustrating"scenes from this scripture.4xHence it is perhaps
not so unlikely that a group of spirit-protectors mentioned there should be sculpted in stone as well.
If this suggestion is correct, it indicates that during the Song dynasty a "new"group of spirits was
suddenly elevated to primary status as major protectors; so important, in fact, that they were
included among the sculptures of two local Buddhist sites in central Sichuan.42 Of course the
typological connection between this group of nine spirit-kings and the traditional Tianlong Babuz
(Eight-fold Group of Gods and Dragons), as protectors of the Buddha's assembly, is ratherobvious.43
The latter group of protectors is a common feature in numerous Tang dynasty sculptural groups
found throughout Sichuan province, therefore it is not so surprising to find a later substitute of this
group in the form of the Nine Spirit Kings as seen at Mingshan Temple.
As the Baoding sculptures in Group No. 2 are known to date from the late twelfth century to ca.
A.D. 1220, we may infer that the sculptures of the Nine Protector-kings at Mingshan were carved
around that time or, perhaps, slightly earlier.

8. Group N. 13:The Dragon King

Directly next to the group of the Nine Spirit Kings is a similar demonic-looking standing figure
carved in slightly larger scale and depicting what can only be a dragon king. He is also clad in
military uniform, beneath which can be seen a coat of mail. Although the face has been damaged,
what remains, such as the horns and whiskers, clearly indicates that the carving was meant to
represent a dragon (fig. 25). He stands in a dynamic pose with the right arm at an angle against his
side and the left arm extended, the lower portion having broken off. On his head he wears a high
cylindrical hat from which issues a wisp of stylized cloud carved in relief. A small, partially effaced
meditating Buddha seated on the cloud indicates that the dragon king is really an immanation of an
enlightened being. This concept, commonly referred to as the benzun,is a fairly familiar icono-
graphical concept in Song dynasty carvings from Sichuan and numerous examples are known from
Dazu alone, including Groups Nos. 20, 21, and 22 in Baoding, and the Daoist sculptures of
the San Huang, Group No. I0, at Mount Shimen.44Although the relationship between the carving
of the Dragon King and the Nine Spirit Kings is not clear, it is rather obvious that they play the
same role as guardians of the sanctuary. There are a number of canonical scriptures in the Chinese
Buddhist Tripitaka pertaining to the role of dragons as protectors, including the important

40 As thereis no iconographicaldescriptionof the protector-kingsin the sutra,it is not feasibleto attemptan identificationof each
41 In Dazu alonetherearemorethan twenty sculpturalgroupsmadeduringthe Song dynasty,includingNo. 14 in Dafo Wan, the
group at Mount Rengong,No. I at Mount Longhu,the group at FozuCliff, the group at SankuaiStele, all at MountBaoding,
Nos. Io5, Io6 at Mount Bei, etc., which are devoted to scenes from the Avatamnsaka
sutra or related scriptures.
42 Here it is importantto note that suchgroupsof nine spirit-protectorshavenot beendocumentedoutsideSichuanprovince.This
may indicate that the Nine Spirit Kings are unique to Buddhism of this region.
43 The beings included in this group are: I. deva, 2. naga, 3. yaksa, 4. gandharva,5. asura, 6. garuda, 7. kinnara, 8. mahoraga.
44 Cf. DSY, 547-49.

Sdgaranagarajapariprccha, a canonical sutra which exists in three different versions.45 Dragons in the
role as protectors of the dharma also occur prominently in the Avatamsaka suitra.46Stylistically the
carving of the Dragon King resembles Group No. 22 featuring the ten vidyarajas (mingwang) in Dafo
Wan at Mount Baoding. The carvings of these wrathful, many-armed and many-headed protectors
convey the same dynamic plasticity and movement seen in the image of the Dragon King.47

As we have seen, the sculptures at Mingshan Temple represent an interesting, although not
unique, set of Buddhist images from the point of view of typology. Hence we find as many as
two sculptures of Vairocana/Rocana
Buddha. Likewise the bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and
Mahasthamaprapta occur twice as a pair, and dominate the carvings on the site because of their size.
However, when it comes to the question of the iconography of the Mingshan sculptures, it is clear
that we are dealing with a highly localized form. This is also evident when looking at the rather
uniform style in which the sculptures were carved.
What do the sculptures tell us about Chinese Buddhism at that time? First, we find here a
selection of the most popular Buddhas and bodhisattvas worshipped during the Song dynasty.
Second, it can be inferred that a hybrid type of Buddhism stimulated the carvings at Mingshan
Temple. In fact, Chinese Buddhism of the eleventh-twelfth centuries was a mixture of several types
of beliefs and practices, ranging from devotional Jingtu Buddhism, the speculative and cosmological
tableaux of Huayan, the meditative dynamics of Chan, and the esoteric, ritualized imagery of mijiao,
or esoteric Buddhism. Not all of these traditions, however, are represented in the carvings here.
Jingtu Buddhism is partially portrayed in Groups Nos. 2 and 8, mijiao (and possibly Huayan)
influence may be seen in Groups Nos. I, 5, and 12, and Huayan in Group No. 3, while Buddho-
Confucianism (-Daoism) is represented by Group No. I. By contrast, Groups Nos. 12 and 13 are
distinctly related to esoteric Buddhism. The relative importance of this latter tradition is not
surprising. In fact, mijiao influence generally permeates all Song dynasty sculptural sites in the
region, something which can be most clearly seen at Mount Bei and at Mount Baoding in Dazu.
The iconographical and typological similarities of the Mingshan carvings with the slightly later
Song dynasty sculptures from Dazu reveal that there was a relatively consistent iconographical
vocabulary in this region of Sichuan at that time. In other words, the artisans who created these
Buddhist monuments must have been widely familiar with current stylistic features and probably
copied freely from each others' work. Consequently, the iconography of the Mingshan Temple
carvings may be said to representthe mainstreamof late Northern Song Buddhist sculptures as found
in central Sichuan province. Yet there are among the sculptures here a number of distinct icono-
graphical features, which, so far, have not been encountered elsewhere in the region. Group No. I is,
in fact, unique. The concept of carving Vairocana/Rocana Buddha together with a semi-mythical
Confucian sage (or highly ranked Daoist god, should the image in question turn out to be the Lord of
Mount Tai) as one group, is not known elsewhere in the area, although, of course, we find a related
45 An old four-chapter version from A.D. 285 (T. 598), a Tang version in one chapter (T. 599), and an early Song version also in one
chapter (T. 60oi).
46 T.
II79, ch. I, 4b.
47 Cf. DSY, 492-93. For photographs of this group, see Dazu Rock Carvings of China, ed. by Dazu Rock Carvings Museum in
Chongqing (Hong Kong: Wanli Book Co. and Chongqing Press, 1991), I46-49.

sanjiao group, also unique, featuring Sakyamuni, Laojun, and King Wen, among the carvings of
Mount Miaogao in the extreme western part of Dazu county. The full-sized, standing Rocana
Buddha sculpture (No. 5) has no direct counterpartelsewhere in China either; all other Song dynasty
images of this Buddha are, without exception, seated. As has been shown, the only partially
comparable image in Sichuan is the giant bust of Rocana in Dafo Wan at Mount Baoding (No. 27).
However, complete iconographical correspondence exists between the Nine Spirit Kings
constituting Groups Nos. 2 and 12 at Baoding. But it should be noted that the group as such has not
been found elsewhere in China and clearly represents a local iconographical tradition. The paired
images of Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta are, of course, common as the attendants of
Amitabha Buddha in connection with representations of the Western Pure Land, but to have the two
bodhisattvas alone, and from this late period, is rare. Not only do they occur at Mingshan Temple as a
standing group (No. 8), but also as a seated pair (Group No. 2). Lastly, the iconography of the
sculpture of Manjusri (Group No. 3) is also unique. In addition to the fact that the deity is repre-
sented as the main icon in the group with a number of Buddhas as secondary images, his unusual pose
makes this sculpture a remarkable example of the creative spirit of a local tradition. Summing up, we
can say that while the typology represented by the carvings at Mingshan Temple is rather repre-
sentative of Song dynasty Buddhist imagery, especially when seen in relation to Sichuan, when
examined in regard to Buddhist traditions throughout China, however, that iconography is highly
original and distinctly localized.
Because of their great stylistic and iconographical similarities with the sculptures at Mount
Baoding in Dazu, as well as the Song dynasty carvings elsewhere in Anyue, we can safely date the
majority of the images at Mingshan Temple to the twelfth century, probably around the end of the
Northern Song and the beginning of the Southern Song dynasty (ca. A.D. 1120-50). The high quality
of the carvings, which is even superior to that seen in Dafo Wan at Mount Baoding, leads me to
believe that the Mingshan sculptures were made before Zhao Zhifeng initiated his grandiose project
in Dazu in A.D. II79. Stylistically, the sculptures at Mingshan Temple are closest to the stone images
found at Pilu Cave, Kongqiu, and at Huayan Cave, all sites located within a radius of ten kilometers
of each other. Taken together with the stylistic and iconographical similarities, the close geograph-
ical locations of the sculptures provide good reason to assume that they were carved at more or less
the same time and by the same group, or related groups, of artisans.


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