3D Printing Technology Used to Create Replicas of Historic Buddhist Statues in China

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I re-watched one of my favorite movies this weekend, Hitch, about a New York City dating consultant played by Will Smith. While on an early morning date to Ellis Island with the woman he’s interested in, Hitch tells her, “You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,” right before he shows her where her great-great-grandfather signed his name when he entered America.

While the line didn’t work out so well for Hitch, it got me thinking about how one of the many advantages of 3D printing technology is its ability to fabricate recreations of our heritage and keep history alive. South Korea made its culture available online in 3D printable form, and Syria has used the technology to restore its heritage after brutal attacks by ISIS members destroyed several important pieces and buildings. A UK organization uses 3D printing technology to protect heritage at risk, and a few 3D printed reproductions of Buddhist statues from a 1,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site in China are currently on display in the coastal city of Qingdao.

Original statue. [Image: Vincent Ko Hon Chiu, for UNESCO]

The three Buddhist statue replicas are being displayed at the Yungang Grottoes art gallery, which opened to the public this weekend.

“It’s amazing to see the Buddha figures of Yungang,” said gallery visitor Cai Meijiao. “I plan to visit the grottoes next year.”

In 2001, the real Yungang Grottoes, located in the city of Datong in the country’s northern Shanxi Province, were included by UNESCO in its World Cultural Heritage list of historical sites. The Grottoes contain 252 caves and niches, and 51,000 carved statues, and are considered to be a classical Chinese masterpiece. According to China News, the site gives visitors a chance to see “the skill of ancient artists,” as well as “the indispensable cultural memory of Chinese civilization.”

Yungang Grottoes [Image: Ian Whitfield, for UNESCO]

The Qingdao Publishing Group invested one billion yuan in a joint two-year project, together with Zhejiang University and the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute, to create full-size, 3D printed replicas of three of the historic Buddhist statues. The middle replica is 10 meters tall, and the two 3D printed statues flanking it are 6 meters.

“It’s hard to believe that they are reproduced,” said Zhang Zhuo, head of the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute. “They look so real.”

A full-size replica of Buddhist statues from the Yungang Grottoes in North China’s Shanxi province. [Image via chinanews.com]

China News reports that the project has gone through two stages, starting with planning, data acquisition and processing, and moving on to structure design, large-scale 3D printing, construction and assembly of the replicas, sandblasting, and light source design and installation. Researchers first built 3D models of the three statues, before reproducing them with 3D printing technology.

“The color was first painted automatically by machines,” said Diao Changyu, assistant to the dean of the Cultural Heritage Institute at Zhejiang University. “Then artists from Yungang added color in detail.”

We have seen 3D printed Buddhist statues before, though none quite on this scale. There has been prior controversy in China regarding the 3D scanning and 3D printing of the country’s historic cultural artifacts, but as these 3D printed replicas are on display to the public in their country of origin, it doesn’t appear that any issues will arise. In addition, Zhang told China Daily that two other caves from the Yungang Grottoes are being reproduced with 3D printing technology.

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