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University College London – Institute of Archaeology

© Courtesy of the SDDP team

Shanxi Digital Documentation Project

£831,300; 2018-2021

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Shanxi Province in north-west China is home to some of the country’s richest architectural heritage. The wooden and earthen temples, which represent two millennia of cultural development, are scattered in remote villages across the province – an area of 156,000 km2 and larger than England and Wales combined. Many of these buildings contain wall paintings illustrating stories from Chinese folk beliefs, Buddhism and Taoism. The buildings and their paintings are endangered due to neglect, encroachment and looting, and most are unrecorded.

The Shanxi Digital Documentation of Endangered Temple Wall Paintings Project (SDDP) is a four-year project to record these historic temples and wall paintings using high-resolution multi-spectral imagery technology. It will create an open access digital archive of the paintings and associated architecture in a Chinese and English database.

The SDDP is a partnership between Zhejiang University, Shanxi Institute of Architecture Conservation and the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. The Shanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage (SBCH) and an international advisory board guide the survey and research.

The project started in May 2018 with a pilot study in Guandi Temple of Baode County. It then selected Xinzhou City as the first of the eleven prefectures within the province for detailed survey. The team mapped 89 temples, as shown on the map, based on their vulnerability and historical significance.

The project contributes to understanding how Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese folk religion have influenced each other. Stories drawn from these traditions reflect the syncretic qualities of regional religious practice. Popular topics include Guanyin/Xi Wangmu as the Fertility Goddess, the Dragon King as the Water and Weather God, and the worship of ancestors.

A wall painting from Guandi Temple in Shangshahe Village in Daixian County. This presents the story of Guan Yu, a local hero who was born in Shanxi and is recognized as a guardian deity in Chinese folk religion and Taoism, and a bodhisattva in Buddhism. As a protector of the land, Guan Yu represents loyalty, bravery and prestige.

An aerial view of the Yang Family Ancestral Hall, a shrine dedicated to the ancestors of the generals of the Yang family in Lutijian village, Dai county. It is a provincial protected historic building complex. According to the steles in the Hall, it was built in 1329 and repaired several times from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty.

This painting along with the one on the other side of the entrance are thought to be portraits of two of the seven brothers of the Yang family. It is a restored version of a style of painting typical of the region.

The project’s photogrammetric recording not only captures high resolution images of the paintings, but also digital surface models of the walls on which they are found. These models help to assess the condition of the wall painting, displaying features like cracks, holes and peeling layers of paint, which are often invisible to the naked eye.

For example, this is the main mural in the Temple of King Wuling of Zhao in Daixian County. The bare wall surface model (top) shows irregularities that allow professionals to better assess its condition, while the textured model (bottom) overlays that surface with extremely high-resolution colour imagery.

The SDDP will create high-resolution 3D data for virtual reality models of temples, allowing it to engage with different audiences from schoolchildren to conservation professionals.

In addition to creating a permanent and freely accessible public record of the temples in Shanxi province, the project is helping to train local expert teams. This will improve the continuing recording and management of endangered heritage within China, push the boundaries of research practice, and enhance digital recording technologies and methodologies for future research and conservation.

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© All images courtesy of the SDDP team