A guardian of our culture

(China Daily)

It is the 31st year that Zhang Yufei has worked and lived in Faxing Temple, nestled in Cuiyun Mountain in Zhangzi county, Changzhi, North China's Shanxi province.

The 52-year-old cultural relics guardian and docent knows every sculpture and inscription in the temple, which was listed as a national key cultural relics protection site in 1988.

With a deep history, the temple has rich cultural offerings, including stone pagodas, wooden buildings, colored sculptures, inscriptions and wood carvings. A stone relic pagoda, built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), is located on the central axis of the temple.

"These cultural relics have become a part of my life and I want to introduce the culture, art and stories behind them to a wider public, letting more people appreciate their beauty," Zhang says. He has published several monographs on the temple's relics and shared Shanxi's cultural heritage stories on social media.

Before becoming an expert in the preservation of cultural relics, Zhang held various part-time jobs after graduating from junior middle school.

The turning point was in 1991 when three Buddha statues were destroyed and 12 Buddha heads were stolen in Chongqing Temple in Zhangzi county. The local government recruited two security guards for Chongqing and Faxing temples and Zhang was appointed as one at Chongqing Temple in 1993. He later became docent at Faxing Temple.

"There was no water and electricity in the temple and in winter it was freezing cold," Zhang says as he recalls the early days as a security guard when he lived in the temple.

With no doors, he hung up a rudimentary straw curtain to keep warm. At first, he took on the temple's daily maintenance and with his knowledge about the temple and Buddhism increasing, he became a volunteer docent. Beyond his expectations, visitors have been deeply impressed by his knowledge.

In 1998, he met Shi Yanchun at Faxing Temple. Shi helped restore and reconstruct more than 1,000 cultural artifacts for national key cultural relics units and religious departments in Shanxi.

"That was when I started learning professional knowledge about painted clay sculptures. We talked about the art form at night," Zhang says.

Since then, he began reading related books, including The Path of Beauty and Essentials of Buddhism: Questions and Answers. He has also grasped opportunities to communicate with experts visiting Faxing Temple.

With a camera given as a gift by an expert, Zhang started to record the painted clay statues in the temples in Shanxi and in 2011, his first book introducing the art form was published by Hebei Fine Arts Publishing House. In 2019, he opened a WeChat account, posting more than 100 original articles telling the stories about Shanxi's cultural relics protection.

In the past three decades, Zhang has received more than 500,000 visitors from home and abroad.

"From these statues, we can see the wisdom of the ancient Chinese and the profundity of our culture," Zhang says, adding he hopes that more people can participate in the protection of cultural relics and jointly explore the charm of traditional culture.