Return of mummified statue urged before “birthday”

A Buddha statue is displayed at the Natural History Museum in Budapest March 4, 2015.
Zhiwen Hu
Reference: Zhiwen Hu. Return of mummified statue urged before “birthday”. Oct. 24, 2015.

According to China Daily, as the birthday of Patriarch Zhanggong (the Buddhist monk whose mummified statue was stolen from China) approaches, Li Zhen, an overseas liaison officer, hoped for the statue’s earliest return to China at a manifestation held in Amsterdam on Oct 19., 2015.

Zhanggong was born during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) in present day Yangchun village in Fujian province.

His traditional birthday is on the fifth day of the 10th month, according to the lunar calendar, which this year falls on Nov 16.

As a monk Zhanggong cultivated his moral character and did good for the benefit of others. When he died at the age of 37, villagers mummified his body in a statue and worshipped him in Puzhao Temple which bore his name according to religious belief, customs and traditions. Even after the mummified statue was stolen in Dec 1995, villagers continued to pay deep reverence to the monk through a camphorwood replica.

The statue resurfaced after two decades at an exhibition at the Hungarian National History Museum. It was discovered later that a Dutch collector, Oscar van Overeem, had purchased it in Amsterdam in 1996.

Officials and the public have made efforts through communication and negotiations with Overeem about the return of the statue.

State Administration of Cultural Heritage, a government body that has been negotiating for the statue’s return, has and will continue to maintain an active, amicable and cooperative attitude towards the collector and would accept reasonable suggestions proposed by him.

“We are grateful for the care, maintenance and research done on the statue by the collector for almost 20 years,” said Li.

In previous reports, the collector has expressed a willingness to return the statue but to a designated location of his choice and hints at seeking reimbursement from China.

“We understand and accept the fact that Mr van Overreem’s purchasing of the statue happened unknowingly. I think China should compensate him for his costs and research,” Li said.

As for the location of the statue after its return, Li thinks Puzhao Temple is the only choice available.

“I think Mr van Overeem is in no position to choose and appoint another place to arrange for Patriarch Zhanggong. Nobody has the right to change the folk customs, traditions, and history.

However, we sincerely hope that the Dutch collector, in line with human morality, religious belief and modern civilization, can realize that the statue is a Chinese cultural relic that contains the remains of a Chinese ancestor. It was stolen and smuggled, but all transactions cannot change that fact that it belongs to its original, only and permanent owner and keeper – Puzhao Temple in Yangchun Village and the worshippers.”


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Yangchun Village, China, April 9, 2015

Dear Drents Museum & the Statue Collector,

We are the villagers of Yangchun Village, Datian County, Fujian Province, China. We are writing this letter with our best regards.

After the efforts that our private liaisons have spent in investigating the statue, collecting evidences and verifying Chinese historical documents and the historical materials of the Lin family, we are convinced that the statue owned by the Dutch collector and displayed at Drents museum is the mummified Buddha of Patriarch Zhanggong, which was stolen in 1995 from Puzhao Temple, Yangchun Village, Wushan Township, Datian County, Fujian Province, China. Today, after two decades of search, we finally found the whereabouts of the statue. We hereby make a solemn request that the collector to return the Buddha to Puzhao Temple.

After the statue was stolen, we’ve searched everywhere to look for the Buddha in vain. In 1997, we introduced a camphorwood-made Zushi statue and enshrined it in the temple as the embodiment of Patriarch Zhanggong. As a holy statue which has been worshiped by us for more than a thousand years, Patriarch Zhanggong carries the memories of generation after generation and our hopes and belief. For almost a thousand years, we would hold a three-day grand ceremony (usually in early December by solar calendar) between October 4 and 6 by the lunar calendar as our way to commemorate the Buddha’s birth. Such a tradition has never discontinued. We still carry on the ceremony as ever even during the two decades of the absence of the Buddha.

Despite the change of dynasties and the war, catastrophe, turmoil and natural disasters all through history, the statue of Patriarch Zhanggong was always preciously enshrined and protected by the Lin family. We never expected that the Buddha would be stolen from Puzhao Temple in 1995.

We are grateful for the care and maintenance from the collector, as well as the Dutch and Hungarian museums. However, speaking in a legal, or logical or moral way, we have the right to retrieve the statue of Patriarch Zhanggong and place the Buddha back to the original and permanent home – Puzhao Temple, Yangchun Village. Moreover, the statue is a relic passed on from our ancestors. It would only be reasonable to let the Buddha return to where it belongs.

The statue of Patriarch Zhanggong has been an integral part of our lives for almost millennium. We believe that our statue should not be displayed in any museum, including Chinese ones.It absolutely makes no sense for a holy statue that was worshiped to be “traded into” a personal collection after a crime of theft. We look forward to the day, with all our hearts, when Patriarch Zhanggong could be enshrined again in Puzhao Temple so that we and our descendants could be respected and protected for the rest of our lives. To us, the Buddha is holy.

Although the Chinese government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Administration of Cultural Heritage and the police are all involved in this matter and seeking for the statue, we are more inclined to an agreement through private, friendly negotiation for the fastest return of Patriarch Zhanggong. This is the easiest and the best way, which we believe to be more conducive for us and the collector, and we are also open to a reasonable and constructive discussion with your museum and the collector on the return of the statue.

Our Buddhism belief and Patriarch (Zushi) culture have been well inherited and protected so far. Patriarch Zhanggong is the embodiment of the Buddha. His return directly reflects the tolerance and kindness valued by Buddhism, and it is exactly the value of universality in a civilized society. It is also a way to pay respects to history, belief, religion, civilization and human right, instead of allowing such rights to be deprived by others.

If we can reach a private agreement, the collector and representatives of the Dutch and Hungarian museums will be invited as the most distinguished guests to attend the ceremony which will be held to welcome Patriarch Zhanggong back. You’ll be the friends and benefactors whom we will forever keep in our minds. What you’ve done will be recorded into our history.

Considering that we’re unable to make direct contact with the collector, we would like to request the Drents Museum to act as the intermediary between us and the collector, and to arrange for a designated personnel to discuss with us about the return of the statue.

Your reply would be greatly appreciated.


Villagers of Yangchun Village

Datian County, Fujian Province, China

(Current letter is translated into English and forwarded by Mr. Li Zhen in Budapest, Hungary, oversea private coordinator and liaison responsible for the retrieval of Patriarch Zhanggong Statue on behalf of Yangchun Village. Contact, Tel: +36 30 9216879, Email:, or

Experts Believe that 100,000 looters are currently active in China, with more than 400,000 ancient graves robbed in the last 20 years alone.

—Lauren Hilgers, “Tomb Raider Chronicles,” June 10, 2013

Red List of Chinese Cultural Objects at Risk

This Red List has been designed as a tool to assist museums, dealers in art and antiquities, collectors, and customs and law enforcement officials in the Identification of objects that may have been looted and illicitly exported from China. To facilitate identification, the Red List illustrates a number of categories of objects that are at risk of being illicitly traded on the international antiquities market.

Objects of the types illustrated hereafter are protected by Chinese legislation that specifically prohibits their unauthorized export and sale. Therefore, ICOM appeals to museums, auction houses, dealers in art and antiquities, and collectors not to purchase such objects without first having checked thoroughly their origin and provenance documentation.

Because of the great diversity of Chinese objects, styles and periods, the Red List of Chinese Cultural Objects at Risk is not exhaustive, and any antiquity originating from China should be subjected to detailed scrutiny and precautionary measures.

Download the Red List of Chinese Cultural Objects at Risk in English: Red List of Chinese Cultural Objects at Risk

Best Practices in Dutch

Dutch implementation of Heritage Conventions in law and cultural policies

Legal protection has come to cover the prevention of illicit trade in cultural property, the protection against loss or decay of cultural heritage, the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, the protection and promotion of conditions to ensure the diversity of future cultural heritage as well as the protection of access to cultural heritage in Dutch.

This means that the protection of cultural heritage today has become an important subject-matter in a network of policy fields, which makes it necessary to understand the most important objectives of these legal instruments, to discuss how they interrelate and how they may support each other.

A research project therefore is to provide an account of the major developments in the legal protection of cultural heritage in public international law since the 1960s.

  • This account is intended to present a general outline of the network of relations between the major interests that are involved in these developments, not only in the protection of cultural heritage itself, but also in the protection of the rights to access, enjoy and share the benefits of cultural heritage.
  • The research project will be guided by three sub- questions concerning the protection of the interests of the national state in relation to the international community, the protection of the rights of individual right holders, and the protection of the position of communities in relation to their cultural heritage.
  • It aims to provide a comprehensive assessment of the major tendencies in the legal protection of cultural heritage. The final aim is to contribute a comprehensive framework for the Dutch implementation of the major Heritage Conventions in law and cultural policies.

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Download: Lucretia Philippine Christine Belder. (Ed.) 2013. The legal protection of cultural heritage in international law and its implementation in Dutch Law. pp. 1-372.  2014-ebook-Belder


About Sunney 116 Articles
I am currently a Professor of Zhejiang Gongshang University, Hangzhou, China.

1 Comment

  1. “The significance of retrieving the mummified Buddha Zhanggong goes far beyond the implication of retrieving a lost relic, as it is more than just a piece of cultural artifact for the Chinese nation,” said a spokesman of the Federation of Chinese Social Organizations in Hungary.

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