A Chinese Tibetan Journey: Cheng Huan

A Chinese Tibetan Journey: Cheng Huan

I was born and brought up in what was then British-administered Malaya, and like most Chinese, my family’s beliefs were primarily Buddhist but laced with substantial doses of Daosim and some traces of Confucianism. However, like any family aspiring to a better education for their children, my parents sent me to schools run by British Christian missionaries. So it was that I was educated in what were called ‘Anglo-Chinese’ schools where Christianity was a compulsory subject and attending church services was the norm. However, despite the teachers’ obvious Christianity, some of the more liberal school principals did permit a degree of flexibility in the curriculum. In the Malayan town of Ipoh, for instance, I recall attending lectures on Buddhism at the Anglo-Chinese, and Christian-led, school.

Therefore, I grew up in the company of the scent of joss sticks, the smile of a Dehua guan-yin, the protection of kitchen gods (one among many gods), offerings of food and paper money and the clicketty-clack of fortune-telling sticks. Festivals and family anniversaries were a mixture of Buddhism and ancient folklore, the latter sometimes the dominant aspect of ceremonies. Everyday habits were also tinged with Hindu ones because in those days Malaya was home to many immigrants from the Indian sub-continent (also a British colony).


Stockton House Monks


My life's journey set off on a new path when I went to London to study law, qualifying as a barrister, and then to study international law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Little did I know that my years in England would also lead me towards Tibetan Buddhism but that is exactly what happened. The catalyst for this development in my artistic and aesthetic fortunes was the friendship I developed in England with another foreign student. He came from Sikkim and his name was Tenzing. I had never heard of Sikkim but soon discovered it was a tiny, independent and Buddhist kingdom high up in the Himalayas sandwiched between much larger Bhutan to its east and Nepal on the west. North and south lay the two giants, China and India. Small and vulnerable Sikkim was at a strategic crossroads, which was why in 1975 it was swallowed into India. As for my friend Tenzing I slowly learnt that he was not only a royal prince, he was also the Crown Prince of Sikkim and therefore in line to succeed his father as Chogyal, or King, of Sikkim.

I will cut a long story short but the upshot of my friendship with Tenzing was that I made two life-changing visits to Sikkim. The Buddhism I observed there, very much like that practised in nearby Tibet, was both an eye- and mind-opener. I felt an immediate affinity with it and started to study everything I could lay my hands on about Tibetan Buddhism and its influence in China. As I began to understand the art and its iconography, my attention gradually concentrated on the highly refined metalwork of the Tibetan craftsmen. Gold and silver-inlayed iron and bronze workmanship was the finest I had ever seen. I learnt how it had been Nepalese experts who had taught Tibetans and then how those Tibetans had passed their metalworking skills to other Chinese.


cheng huan 2 


By the time I began my legal career in Hong Kong, I uncovered a few reliable sources for Tibetan art, especially my beloved gilt bronzes. What's more my career became profitable and my Tibetan purchases affordable. There followed many years of rummaging in antique shops the world over. Occasionally I would manage to buy a piece rarely seen, which made me ever more eager to find other missing examples of the Tibetan Buddhist bronze jigsaw. I tried to find varying examples of particular images, all the time hoping to widen and refine my collection. As the years passed it became increasingly more difficult to find fresh images to add to my bronze collection, which eventually totalled over 300 items. Sometimes months would go by without a worthwhile purchase. Then, all of sudden, I would make a significant find. Such was the case with the six bronze Densatil caryatid figures (five of them gilded) I spotted on a dusty shelf in a filthy cramped room. Could they be truly from the famed Densatil monastery I asked myself? Too good to be true I worried. Their refinement, solidity and weight, however, convinced me of their authenticity. There were many moments like that, often in strange places such as a car-boot sale in the UK, a back-alley thrift shop in New England, a narrow lane in Kyoto, and of course a few of Hong Kong's reputable dealers. Other objects could only be located at full prices in dealers such as Spinks in London. Spinks also proved a bountiful source for the thangkas, which gradually became another category of my growing collection. The sale of the thangkas collection must wait for a future date, as must the sale of the gilt bronze images of lamas. Altogether it took about 40 years to accumulate the collection, more often than not, with the support and encouragement of my friend Graham Wild, whose lack of Buddhist belief is fortunately balanced by his uncanny eye for detail.

It is also fascinating to consider the achievements of the historic Sakyamuni Buddha. Over many centuries his beliefs, along with Buddhist arts, spread across Asia. More recently, Buddhism has enjoyed a renaissance and now has followers on every continent. Indeed, I have read that Buddhism in the 21st century is the world’s fastest growing religion. It is a long way from those early beginnings, when the historic Buddha passed into Parinirvana and the only evidence of his physical remains were reputedly scattered among 84,000 stupas initiated by the great Buddhist King Ashoka.  Those 84,000 stupas were presumably the first indigenous Buddhist art forms. According to the great historian Alfred Foucher (1865-1952) the first actual image of Buddha was carved by an artist who was partly Greek and not wholly Buddhist. That was probably a reference to the artistic influence that Alexander the Great brought to Central Asia and to the Indian subcontinent. It is also probably why I often hear Europeans, when they confront a sculpture of Buddha for the first time, say the styling — and especially the treatment of the clothing — reminds them of ancient Greek art. 


monks at stockton


From the birthplace of Buddha (at Lumbini in present day Nepal) the iconography of Buddhism in its many different forms spread south to India and Sri Lanka. To the north it spread to Tibet and Mongolia. To east it took hold in China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, even appearing in far-away Indonesia at the great temple of Borobudur.

Among my collection of Buddhist artefacts it is the Tibetan and Sino-Tibetan Buddhist bronze figures and the thangkas that I most admire. This was not always the case because when I first started collecting (over forty years ago) the earliest pieces I bought were from Thailand and Burma — for the simple reason that in Malaya, where I was brought up, Tibetan Buddhism was unknown and there were no images or paintings for me to admire. After my visits to Sikkim and my experience of Tibetan Buddhism at first-hand I quickly became attached to its artistic intricacies and religious paraphernalia.

The respected Buddhist scholar, Donald S. Lopez Jr., said of Buddhism - “It is a religion that does not have complicated rituals to perform or dogmas to believe. In fact, it might not be a religion at all. It might be more accurate to call it a philosophy or just a way of life”. This may be a reason why Buddhism’s appeal has grown so much. During the decades I have been collecting, there has been a growing worldwide fascination with all things Tibetan, and, of course, all things Chinese. In the early days most of the interest was from Europe and America but it is heartening that nowadays there is a mounting appreciation of Buddhist art among mainland Chinese collectors. It is also satisfying to think that many of the objects in this sale will no doubt return to China, where I hope they will inspire other collectors and believers as much as they have inspired me. It has often been said that collectors are merely custodians, that they do not own their collections. They merely look after things before passing them on to a future generation where they will be appreciated afresh. I think this is true and hope these fine pieces will find new appreciative homes.

The objects presented here have come both from my collection based at Stockton House in Wiltshire, England and from other parts of the collection based in Hong Kong.

The distinguished history of Stockton House can be traced all the way back to the late 9th century – around the time of the Danish invasion – when the Manor was surrendered by the Ealdorman Wulfhere, after his betrayal of the King. King Edward the Elder granted the land to Athelwulf in 901 and by 947 it was being utilised to clothe the Canons of the Winchester Minster.


Stockton House 2    Stockton House 4


The Grade I listed central house, as it is seen today, was completed in 1605 by John Topp, who subsequently bequeathed Stockton House to his heirs where it remained in the Topp family until 1772. Accurate documentation holds records of each sale and grant of Stockton House for the last eleven centuries, which provide a fascinating insight into the changing British social landscape throughout history.

My fascination with Buddhist art continues unabated and I have recently started new collections based on the Buddhism of Thailand and especially Burma (Myanmar). I hope these objects, which I have admired for many pleasurable years, will bring equal joy and happiness to their new owners. Om Mani Padme Hum!

Cheng Huan S.C. was born in Malaysia. He studied law in London and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He joined the English Bar in 1969. In 1971 he gained a Diploma in International Law from Cambridge University. In 1976 he was called to the Hong Kong Bar and in 1988 was made a Queen’s Counsel. In 1997 he became a Senior Counsel. He is a member of the Peoples’ Consultative Conference for the Province of Fujian (China).

cheng huan