The Big Buddha of Zhangye


Fat Buddha outside Big Buddha Temple

Fat Buddha outside Big Buddha Temple

In Zhangye, we were back on the traditional Silk Road, with no more excursions into Tibetan lands. Zhangye is a midsized town located in the center of the Gansu Corridor, the spit of land running between the Qinlian Mountains and the Gobi desert that formed a passageway from inner China to the Taklamakan Desert. We were now three hundred or so miles northwest of Huazangsi, the Tibetan town where we went on our hike up to Maya Snow Mountain.

Flocks outside Big Buddha Temple

Flocks outside Big Buddha Temple

Zhangye has China’s largest reclining Buddha statue, in the aptly named Big Buddha Temple. We wandered around the temple, examining the hundred foot long Buddha lying inside the main hall. His head laying on a pillow, his eyes barely cracked, suggesting that if he were any more content, he would be asleep.

The Big Buddha

The Big Buddha

The Buddha was built in 1098 by the Tangut Empire. The Tanguts were more Mongolian, though their ethnic background is still not entirely clear. They ruled over the eastern stretch of the Silk Road for almost two hundred years, until they were destroyed by Genghis Khan as he expanded his own Mongolian Empire.



Like I said, the ethnic background of the Tanguts is still up for debate, but we saw some signs of the Silk Road’s transiting of people and ideas in the faces of the statues. The Buddha and some of the statues of Arhats around him show physiological characteristics fairly typical of Chinese people, but other statues showed more Mongolian features, wide eyes, stout brows and very jowly faces. These faces showed no signs of delicacy that we usually find in artistic representations of Chinese faces.

Mongolian Features on the left

Mongolian Features on the left

A clutch of old ladies passed us. Pointing at the Buddha’s face, I ask one of them about Buddha’s Indian heritage. “He wasn’t Indian. I mean, he was born Indian, but once he was enlightened and became a Buddha, he wasn’t Indian. They don’t know what he was once he was enlightened. They don’t even know where he was enlightened,” she insisted.

The power behind the idea of the Silk Road is that all these different peoples, groups who we think of as far away and having little to do with each other, melted together to form a single beast that stretched from China to India to Europe. Each nation that participated contributed, and, by contributing, became part of something much larger.

But this woman was trying to dial that melting pot back a little. To her, Buddha was not Indian (he very much was), but something unknown. As far as I could read her, she wanted to think of Buddha as Chinese, or, at least, retain the possibility to think of him as not Indian, not from some distant land connected to China by the Silk Road. Instead, Buddha, for her, was Chinese, an attempt to read modern Chinese nationalism back onto an older, more cosmopolitan story.

Silk Road Pagoda nearby

Silk Road Pagoda nearby


  1. Hello Lee, I’m a friend of Rui Kunze (formerly Wang) from Germany. She told me about your job/trip. That’s fascinating. I’d also like to go to China in October/November and I have a question about this: You will travel Xinjiang (as I would like to). Besides a complete plan with booked flights and ho(s)tels, the Chinese consulate in Berlin needs an “Invitation Letter for Tourist – For individual visa” for Xinjiang. Did you also need such an “invitation letter” and if yes, where did you get it? Thanks for your help. I wish you a wonderful trip. Regards, Berthold Wespel.

    • Berthold,

      I’d definitely encourage you to come out here. Xinjiang is a great place.

      I did not have to do an Invitation Letter for Tourist, nor did I see anything requiring it.

      What I would recommend is to simply have not tell them that you are coming to Xinjiang. You should fly into Lanzhou, Gansu, or some where like that. Then, go on to or a similar website and make reservations for hotels, none of which are in Xinjiang. Most reservations on can be cancelled with no fee (though double check because some hotels have special rules). Use these reservations for your visa application, then cancel them all and travel wherever you want. There is nothing illegal about changing your mind.

      Let me know if that helps or if you have more quesitons.


  2. I see you’re still seeing commies under every rock, but I think you may want to watch out a bit with how you read this woman’s interpretation, lest you read your own aversion for modern Chinese nationalism into whatever it is she is thinking. She did not outright state “Buddha is Chinese”. Besides, claiming Buddha is “Indian” may be just as much a case of reading nationalism back into history as is claiming he is Chinese, as neither “India” nor “China” existed back in the day (blablabla).

    Whatever. I do enjoy your posts though because I do not agree with all your observations. Stay safe out there.

    • I see commies everywhere, because commies are everywhere here. One in twelve folks here are members of the Party.

      I was not certain that I was reading the woman correctly either, but I went for the Chinese national interpretation just because I was astounded she would suggest Gautama was not Indian.

  3. Well,Lord Budda is born in what is modern day Nepal. Then again, modern nation-state of China, India or Nepal didn’t exist back then.

    I also think you have misinterpreted her intention. Because Buddhism has been localized in China, while most people are aware that Buddhism originally came from India, we don’t think of Buddhism or Buddha as foreign or foreigner.

    • Yea, I think you might be right on the misinterpreting of her intentions. Still, it is an interesting, I would argue, nationalistic aspect of Chinese culture, if Buddhism is not thought of as foreign. Today, Xi Jinping seems to be pushing Buddhism as a Chinese faith, yet originally, Buddhism attracted Chinese people because it was foreign, and scholars like Han Yu promoted ridding China of Buddhism because he claimed Buddhism was destroying Chinese values. What does it say about China if something that was once so foreign that they were brutally killed is now so closely identified with Chineseness? I think the fact that Buddhism has been localized and the fact that this woman did not identify Buddha as Indian is extremely interesting.

      • I don’t think “Buddhism attracted Chinese people because it was foreign”.

        Buddhism was introduced to China during Eastern Han period. But except among few fad chasing aristocrats (think today’s Hollywood, or Madonna with Kabbalah), it didn’t make much inroad into the Chinese society.

        The turning point was after the collapse of Jin Empire. North China was overran by nomadic invaders.

        New rulers, who themselves are foreign, actively promoted Buddhism.

        During Later Zhao, official 王度 (Wang Du) famously petitioned the King of Zhao to ban Buddhism:


        His rationale is that the Buddha is a foreign god, and Buddhism a foreign religion therefore not what Chinese people should worship (非諸華所應祠奉). Since its introduction, during time of Han and Wei (one of the Han successor state during Three Kingdoms period), only Western foreigners (in China) worship Buddha.

        And King of Zhao famously responded to him:


        “I came from frontier barbarians, I should follow my own custom. Buddha is a barbarian God, therefore deserving my worship. Whoever wants to worship Buddha whether Barbarian or Chinese, should let them do so.”

        But that exchange took place 1700 years old. Today’s Chinese, unless well versed in history, are not aware of the fact that at some distant past, Buddhism is foreign.

        There is history as it’s being preserved and studied academically by scholars in ivory tower, and then there is popular perception of the history, which the Chinese masses have always consumed through popular medium such as Chinese Operas (nowadays TV and movies).

        Example would be the immensely popular Ming dynasty novel “Romance of Three Kingdoms”. Most Chinese accept this 14th century historical fiction written more than a thousand years after the Three Kingdoms period as authentic history of Three Kingdoms.

        That’s why we have movies like Korean financed “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” featuring Buddhism and Buddhist temple prominently throughout the movie when it would be an anachronism because as pointed out Wang Du, Buddhist temples in Three Kingdoms period is mostly a Central Asian affair.

        Adoption of Buddhism among Hans in China is not different from adoption of Islam in Xinjiang. Product of conquest and proselytism of the distant past, but now integral part of the local culture. In fact, it’s not different from every other human societies. Cultural exchanges and cross-burrowing have always been going.

        But difference to current government? Han Buddhism in all its varieties are de-centralized, therefore do not pose threat to the authority, unlike say Tibetan Yellow Hat Buddhism with its titular figure in Dalai Lama.

        Another thing to consider is the government’s different treatment of Islamic practices in China Proper among Huis vs that in Xinjiang. Hui in China Proper are largely left alone to practise Islam whereas Uyghurs of Xinjiang face much difficulties. Why? It’s the government perception of the threat to its authority posed by each.

        • I think you are off on that statement about Buddhism not being attractive because it was foreign. As I don’t have library access right now, I’m not prepared to make a full, academic response, but Buddhism flourished under the Tang Dynasty, the height of Chinese greatness, and also a time when China was experimenting with foreign things. I appreciate you citing an example of one discussion of Buddhism as a a foreign thing, but my understanding is that it was largely adapted by the Chinese because it was foreign. It was not something forced on them.

          I am not sure I would suggest that the Uighur adoption of Islam is similar to the Chinese adoption of Buddhism. My understanding is that little is known of the Uighur conversition. Few records were left.

          I do agree with you that the government reacts differently to different religions because it perceives each at different threat levels. That however, does not seem unusual. The more interesting question is why does it perceive these as different.

          • By Tang dynasty ( 618–907 AD), Buddhism is already established. The Later Zhao ( 319-351)was about 300 years before the Tang, Buddhism was just taking root and still foreign. At least in North China at the time, Buddhism was promoted by new rulers from the steppe. It was a case of foreign conquerors actively promoting a foreign religion upon the indigenous subject.

            In fact, Buddhism took root in China about the same time Christianity was adopted in Roman empire. While Christianity is certainly a Middle Eastern derived religion, it’s silly to argue that it’s foreign to Europe. Same goes for Buddhism in China.

          • Again, I’m not an expert on that period nor do I have the resources to fully respond, but I think you are wrong to say “Buddhism is already established” by the Tang Dynasty. Xuanzang did not bring back his wealth of Buddhists text until the early Tang. I am not sure what evidence you have to suggest that the Chinese at the time did not view Buddhism as foreign, particularly when Han Yu, in the late Tang Dynasty, was still criticizing Buddhism as a foreign religion.

            As far as Christianity in Europe, I think Christianity was definitely percieved, by Romans and Europeans, as a foreign religion. They looked on it as a strange religion where people drank blood and ate the body of their god; it was very much exoticized by non-Christian Europeans. It is not silly to suggest that it was perceived as foreign. This just reenforces my point about Buddhism in China.

          • Actually about Islamization of Tarim and what consist of Xinjiang today, a quite a great deal is known.

            Islamization of Tarim certainly started around Kashgar region under the Karakhanids Khanate whose leader Satuk Bughra Khan is reputedly the first Turkic Khan to convert to Islam. His shrine is still worshiped in Artush. Karakhanids Khanate then conquered the Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan. Bring the entire Southern Tarim under Islam. We know this thru Arabic, Persian and Chinese sources.

            The name Uighur at this time, according to Mahmud al-Kashgari, refers specifically to Buddhists of Qocho (Gaochang, what is today’s Turpan). Buddhist Uighur Kingdom persisted till Mongol conquest. Until it was destroyed by the Mongol civil war between Yuan empire and Chagatai Khanate. Mongol rulers themselves eventually embraced Islam. But the Turpan area would remain Buddhist until mid 15th century. Ming envoy in 1414 still reported many Buddhist monks and temple in Turpan.

          • By “Adoption of Buddhism among Hans in China is not different from adoption of Islam in Xinjiang”

            I mean, in both case, it was a initially foreign religion adopted by the elite ruling class and then actively promoted/imposed among their subjects. Especially among Turko-Mongols, usually when a ruler converts, his entire tribe/subject population is ordered to convert to their leader’s new religion.

  4. Again, modern Europeans (or Euro-Americans) would not think of Christianity as foreign religion. Same way that modern Chinese would not think of Buddhism as foreign religion. While obviously at the time of their introduction to Europe and China, they were foreign.

    What I don’t understand is that somehow you make the Chinese atitude to be exceptional when they may in fact be universal human trait.

    • Again, I’m not making them exceptional. I have already said that Christianity was regarded by Europeans as a foreign religion after its arrival, just as Buddhism was regarded as foreign by the Chinese after its arrival. My only observation here in this post is that it is problematic not that the woman thinks of Buddhism as a Chinese religion, but that she is trying to not think of Gautama Buddha as an Indian.

      Equally problematic would be a Christian in France who said Jesus was not a Jew from Israel.

      I am not treating the Chinese as exceptional.

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