On visits to the British Museum in my teens, as interludes between basking in the treasures of nearby oriental bookshops, I would sit for hours before the tranquil sculpture of the arhat (luohan 羅漢) there, thought to date from the Liao dynasty (907–1125). I can’t believe I had such good taste—this and others in the set (dispersed in museums around the world), with their sancai tricolour glazing in the Tang tradition, are highly admired by art scholars.
Basking as I was then in a romantic image of ancient China remote from any real physical locations or human beings, it was to be several decades before the statue’s little caption made any tangible sense to me. The arhat comes from Yixian county south of Beijing, one of the most fertile sites in our fieldwork project on amateur ritual associations on the Hebei plain, whose elders had learned their liturgy with temple monks. It was part of a set* bought by the German sinologist Friedrich Perzynski around 1913, after they were discovered in a cave in the west of the county, probably having been relocated there from a temple (see here—note this lecture). Serially displaced, it has long been uprooted from its religious context, as is the way with artefacts; but the rituals of Yixian persist in local society there, changing subtly over time.
My later encounters with the arhat were sporadic but delightful. In 1992 I took a group of former monks from Shanxi around the museum, and it was also wonderful to assist in the performance of the Zhihua temple before the sculpture in 2014—linking up my fieldwork to my misspent youth.
* Not yet “Buy one, get one free” (BOGOF)