During the pandemic, writer Yao Xiao often visited The Met in New York, specifically the painting "Buddha of Medicine."

How an Ancient Chinese Painting Helped Me Understand My Place in America

In a time when she couldn't visit her family in China, writer Yao Xiao visited the Met—and one painting in particular—once a week. What she learned was as much about herself as the history.

During the pandemic, writer Yao Xiao often visited The Met in New York, specifically the painting "Buddha of Medicine."

Illustration by John Lee

Words by Yao Xiao

In 2021, when Covid’s omicron variant raged outside and racial attacks on Asian Americans monopolized the media, I found myself going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but not just to look at art. Though I’d long felt at home in Manhattan, I started avoiding people in fear of the racist remark that might unexpectedly come my way. The museum, then almost empty every day, became a quiet refuge. As an artist, escaping into art was like entering another world, one that I could hold at a distance and study. Over the course of a few months, I developed a ritual of going to the Met once a week. 

In the museum that used to be filled with long lines of people from every corner of the world, it was so empty I could hear the sound of my own footsteps. A museum without visitors was a strange sight—a big house filled with items that appeared out of context without reading their captions, pulling the curtain back on what museums used to be: kunstkammer, or cabinets of curiosities. I could almost feel the loneliness radiating off the objects, many removed from their original locations. I could relate. Feeling homesick after not being able to visit China for a second year due to travel restrictions, I went to the Chinese section, and sat in the first room that greeted its visitors, filled with Buddhist statues from the Sui Dynasty, and an enormous painting occupying an entire wall: the gallery’s star, Buddha of Medicine

A museum without visitors was a strange sight—a big house filled with items that appeared out of context without reading their captions, pulling the curtain back on what museums used to be: kunstkammer, or cabinets of curiosities.

The pleasure of perceiving the Buddha of Medicine was in the slow process by which the details of the mural revealed itself. Painted in a style that called back to the golden era of Buddhist art during Tang dynasty, thick lines coiled around each figure, painstakingly depicting each fold in clothing and beads in accessories, yet preserving a feeling of momentous airiness. Tracing the outlines with my eyes, I could feel the strength in the bodies, the elasticity of skin, and a movement between the elements. The only colors that survived the 704 years since it was painted in 1319 were red and green pigments, mixed from vegetable dye and painted on a ground of plaster and flax, giving the painting a warm and subdued palette that feels calming to the eye in the quiet gallery. In the image, Buddha sits in the very center, attended to by Pusa of the Sun and Pusa of the Moon, further flanked by Wenshu and Puxian pusas, then 12 guardian generals and attendants. The holistic effect is airy and regal. Even though it’s framed on all sides like a Western painting, I could tell it was once a mural. At such a large size, the figures took over the wall, transforming the space, exchanging a moment of silence with its viewers.

"Buddha of Medicine" in The Met.

Yao Xiao

An artist in New York

When I first came to New York as an art student in 2010, I was excited to go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or “the Met” as locals liked to call it—the biggest, most comprehensive art museum in New York. Admitted inside the entrance hall under the giant spray of fresh seasonal flowers, I had only a vague idea of what kinds of things this enormous structure housed, and why it was important that I saw them. As I wandered through the galleries, textured, painted, and glazed objects caught my eye behind glass cases, but I quickly moved on without stopping to contemplate their meaning, eager to consume everything rather than really focus on anything. 

Back then, I went to art museums to pay tribute to the European masters whose names punctuated important chapters in art history. Like many tourists, I rushed through long corridors of East Asian, South Asian, Latin American, and African sections, as if they were just passages to get me to Van Gogh and Matisse, Monet’s famous water lilies and the brightly stippled Seurat paintings—the romantic impressionist paintings from the turn of the century, the kind of art I saw growing up in China that inspired me to become an artist. Before that first pandemic-era visit, I had not paid attention to Buddha of Medicine despite its details and scale, because I took it for granted: I didn’t need to access it in the Chinese gallery when I could visit China. In the time of travel restrictions, all that changed for me. I was grateful that this painting was enormous—at 24 feet by 49 feet, it was large enough to immerse myself in, to forget about the outside world, at least temporarily. 

A gentleman in Paris

C.T. Loo in the 1910s.

Wikimedia Commons

After many weeks of visiting the Met, the initial awe of the scale and details of the mural developed into curiosity about its origin: where did Buddha of Medicine come from, and how did such a large painting end up in New York? The label in the museum said the mural originally decorated the wall of Guangsheng Temple in Shanxi Province, and in the credit line, “Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, in honor of his parents, Isaac and Sophie Sackler, 1965.” I looked for more information by researching Guangsheng Temple. A stele in the temple stated that in the year 1928, a monk named Zhenda coordinated the sale of murals to unnamed visiting guests, for 1600 yin yuan (approximately $736 at the time). 

In the provenance section of the artwork, the previous owner was Frank Caro Co. of New York who sold it to the Met in 1954, and before that, C.T. Loo & Co., Paris. It appeared that an art dealer named C.T. Loo served as the bridge between a temple in a remote part of China and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Met. Seeing a photo of C.T. Loo, in a black velvet dinner jacket and a discreet smile, long fingers folded neatly together in his lap, I wanted to know more about who he was, and what role he played in the life of this splendid painting. 

C.T. Loo turned out to be a fascinating and contradictory character in the history of Chinese art in the West. Born in Lujiadu to a scholarly family in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, C.T. Loo (short for Loo Ching-Tsai) traveled to Paris at age 20 with the dream of becoming a businessman. Luckily, he met a millionaire named Zhang Jingjiang in 1902, and two of them established the Ton Ying Company in Paris, a business trading Chinese antiques and curios such as tea and silk. In 1908, Loo established his own private business called Laiyuan & Company, and started his life as one the most influential art dealers in Chinese art in the 20th Century.

He saw himself as the liaison between East and West, and did not shy away from the profits that came from this unique position.

Loo’s business flourished. In the early 1900s in France, where knowledge about Chinese art was quite limited, Loo embraced the role he inevitably found himself in: he would acquire pieces in China, catalog them, and explain the value of Chinese art to Western collectors. To fulfill this role, he presented himself as an international businessman with exquisite taste in Eastern art; he talked and acted in Western manners in the West, and acted Chinese in China. He saw himself as the liaison between East and West, and did not shy away from the profits that came from this unique position. In the words of scholar Wang Yiyou, he constantly shifted his own position in the “complex process of identity negotiation.” 

I found all of this intriguing because of the way he played many archetypes of a member of the diaspora that follow us in present-day United States like shadows: liaison, spokesperson, chameleon, representative, salesman, model, traitor, translator, champion. In other words, I saw a piece of myself in him: I have presented, translated, and explained many aspects of Chinese aesthetics and culture in the process of becoming an artist in the United States. 

Loo expanded his business into the United States in the mid-1910s, and found buyers in art institutions including the Freer Gallery of Art, University of Pennsylvania, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been in effect for 30 years, but it did not hamper Loo’s ability to frame Chinese art in a desirable light.

In terms of sheer scale, Buddha of Medicine was one of Loo’s biggest sales. It is so large because it used to be on the surface of a wall, not meant to be transported. In 1303, an earthquake shattered Guangsheng Temple, a Buddhist site in Hongtong, Shanxi. When the temple was rebuilt in 1309 in the aftermath, the Yuan emperor Temür Khan commissioned two murals to be painted by court artists to bring spiritual protection and healing. Hundreds of years passed and unfortunately, the temple’s structure was once more in danger after an earthquake in the 1920s, and expensive repairs were the only way to save it. By then, the Chinese government had been through waves of revolution, and the responsibility to rebuild a small and remote temple fell to the locals. Like the stele in the temple recorded, monk Zhenda sold the murals, which had to be chipped from the wall, broken into 30 pieces and packed in crates for shipping. In the limbo of the unofficial art market, it made sense that an artifact of this scale would eventually end up in the hands of Loo, later sold to the Met in 1954.

Illusion of the object

Buddha of Medicine offered me comfort during the pandemic months. But I found the paradox in my own situation mirroring the art objects: in the face of a global disaster and the moment the whole world seemed to stop, this was how I passed the time—in a big, empty institution, avoiding the present by looking into the past. And the past was all here, in this cabinet of curiosity, from a shard of Persepolis to Assyrian deities to an entire Egyptian temple. Is this state of being—well-preserved, well-documented, well-explained—the end of the story, the happily ever after I sought after? 

I can project a better understanding of myself onto objects because we believe in their innocence, their imagined closeness to eternity. Through objects, businessmen like Loo weaved a dream—in the distant orient, things were always beautiful and timeless.

As immigrants we live between the constant tension between the idea that personal freedom trumps all and the ethical limitation of individual ambitions. It makes me consider the question of cultural translation and displacement even more, because I have also become a liaison of sorts. 

Reading about Loo paints a complicated image surrounding the meaning of finding refuge in art from where I am from, in the new place I now call home. As immigrants we live between the constant tension between the idea that personal freedom trumps all and the ethical limitation of individual ambitions. It makes me consider the question of cultural translation and displacement even more, because I have also become a liaison of sorts. 

Loo soothed his own conscience by saying that he helped the West understand and appreciate Chinese art. In Loo’s photo, I detected a tinge of irony in his smile. He would say that the things he bought and sold never really “belonged” to anyone. An interesting quote that seemed to speak to more than artifacts, but to big existential questions of belonging in the world that he saw, and which he helped build.

The space in-between

This summer, I was finally able to visit my family in China after three years of separation. I took a trip to Guangsheng Temple to see the place from which the mural was removed. While on the road, I was surprised to find news stories about Buddha of Medicine dramatized in various articles on the Chinese Internet, even with a documentary episode on CCTV, China’s official television station. When I arrived at the ticketing hall to Guangsheng Temple, a short film featuring the familiar sight of Buddha of Medicine in the Met’s Sackler Gallery played on a huge LED screen. The emotions these articles and documentaries expressed was an outrage at the Western countries for robbing China of its cultural artifacts; the discussion of such artifacts funnels into the ongoing geopolitical tension between the United States and China. 

I came here because of something else. In what way is my homage to the temple different from past attempts to tell the story? To me, Loo did not stand out because he was a skillful thief. His significance to me was the context he helped create that we must now navigate, a context that straddles the capitalist consumption of Asian art and the question of belonging under nationalism. Understanding the origin of this context is important to me now more than ever. Breathing in the mountain air and feeling the morning sun hot on my arms, I felt an answer come to me. I wanted to do this for the painting that gave me so much solace during the pandemic. I wanted to see where it originally stood, to know what kind of place it came from.

Lower Guangsheng Temple

Yao Xiao

The temple was tucked away in the mountainous region outside of Hongtong township, Shanxi province. Besides a tourist group and a few people making personal wishes, the complex was quiet, and swallows clipped back and forth across the cloudless sky. The entire complex consists of two temples, Upper Guangsheng Temple (rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty, on top of the mountain with a 13-tier tower) and Lower Guangsheng Temple (at the foot of the mountain, with a theater and a Taoist temple attached in the same complex). Buddha of Medicine came from Lower Guangsheng Temple. After walking up and down worn stone steps, and through shaded halls, I arrived before the home of Buddha of Medicine: with a gently sloped roof and thick columns, the hall was a modest structure with exposed wooden beams and warm red walls.

The air inside was cool and smelled of pine, and a trio of statues glowed softly, reflecting sunlight from the outside. I made straight for the Buddha statue facing the doorway, let my knees fall to the cushion in front and touched my forehead to the ground. I came here on behalf of the painting, went through my head as I paid my respect. Turning to my left and right, there they were: two grand, blank walls, darkened with age, in the same shape as Buddha of Medicine, like the Chinese character 凸. After three years, starting from a place of fear that grew into a habit of going to the Met every week, a piece of art guided me to come here to perform a ritual and an inquiry, to understand its origin and mine.

Daxiong Baodian of Lower Guangsheng Temple

Yao Xiao

The other blank wall once housed a second mural, Buddha of Blazing Light, opposing Buddha of Medicine. They were a part of the total of four murals sold in 1928. A sign in front of the hall stated that Buddha of Blazing Light is now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. I lingered in the hall, looking up to admire the long beams made of pine and listening to the music chiming inside while a few people came in to pray. A monk noticed me and invited me to sit down with him at a little table. 

He asked me where and when I was born, and jotted down a few numbers. What wish did you make? He asked. 

I came here for the painting, I said.

The painting? He swung around to look behind him, even though he must know there were nothing but pieces of the mural still left. He sighed and shook his head, and said you won’t understand it, before adding that if I came here to ask for children, like many women do, he’s happy to give advice. 

Eastern wall, Daxiong Baodian of Lower Guangsheng Temple

Yao Xiao

In a way he was right—all of this investigation did not lead to an epiphany that resolved all my questions. Even the artistic interpretation has become so removed from its original context, like my experience in New York during the pandemic has become so removed from the everyday business in Guangsheng Temple. The space between the two paintings used to be intimate, private, a kinetic realm where Buddha’s reincarnations saw eye-to-eye, protecting the fragile reality and the humans who believed in their power. Now, like other objects in the Met and their counterparts that spiraled away from their origins, the murals’ relationship to each other and with Guangsheng Temple would always be one of entanglement, with distant memories and present-day longings. 

In an unexpected way, my weekly visit to the Met helped me put my own discomfort with my diaspora identity to words: the story never ended with the label on the wall, and didn’t end with the visit to its origin. The moment something becomes dislodged, it will forever travel between its current state and all of its past impressions, and we have so much more to say than explaining how we got here. 

Published on August 21, 2023

Words by Yao Xiao

Yao Xiao is a writer and artist based in New York City. She is the author of graphic novel Everything Is Beautiful, And I’m Not Afraid, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Her work has been published in The New YorkerLos Angeles TimesCatapult, and Autostraddle. She is working on a book of essays about becoming an artist as a first-generation immigrant from China.

Art by John Lee

John Lee is an artist, illustrator, educator, and displaced southerner in New York City. He puts Tennessee Pride sausage in his mapo tofu and watermelon in his sinigang. Find more of his work at johnleedraws.com.