YANGCHUN, China — One day in March, Lin Yongtuan was on his lunch break scrolling through the news on his phone when a story with an interesting photo caught his eye. Researchers in Europe had made a remarkable discovery: the nearly 1,000-year-old mummified body of a monk encased in a statue.
Mr. Lin rushed to this lush mountain village in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian, where he had grown up praying to a similar statue that was believed to hold a monk’s remains. He passed around the photo, which showed a gilded Buddhist figure sitting cross-legged, shoulders slightly hunched forward, the corners of his lips turned slightly upward in a faint smile.
The villagers all agreed: It was the same statue. They called it the Zhanggong Patriarch, and it had been stolen from Yangchun 20 years earlier. Now it seemed to have resurfaced halfway around the world in a museum in Budapest.
“Everyone in the village was so excited,” said Mr. Lin, 46, who works at a financial services firm in a nearby city. “The smile, the eyes, his posture — it was unmistakable.”
In the weeks since then, the 1,800 residents of Yangchun have been on a mission to get their mummy back. They have welcomed journalists to the village, appealed for help on social media and lobbied government officials. A native of Yangchun working as a cook in Budapest was recruited to check out the statue in the Hungarian Natural History Museum, where it was on display as part of a mummy exhibit. Then villagers organized simultaneous prayer readings at their temple and at the museum to celebrate the discovery and draw attention to their cause. Hundreds turned out, and fireworks lit up the night sky at the temple.
The village’s demand has been embraced by the Chinese government, which has stepped up efforts to reclaim looted cultural relics that ended up abroad. On April 16, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced that it had contacted the mummy’s Dutch owner, whom it did not identify, and begun discussions about returning it.
It will be difficult to determine with certainty whether the mummy, which has been removed from the museum exhibit, is truly the missing Zhanggong Patriarch.
“Unlike the big museums, where everything is very well documented, holdings of temples and local small museums have very poor records, if any at all,” said Stefan Gruber, an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan who studies cultural heritage law and art crime in Asia. “The world is a big place, and if an object is not included in an international database, for example, how would you even find this object? Where do you even start looking? Usually once these things are gone, they are gone forever.”
The people of Yangchun hope their case will be an exception. On a recent afternoon, residents milled about and chatted with visitors in the village temple, a massive structure with thick wooden columns supporting a gently sloping, gray-tiled roof. Red vertical banners with handwritten poems appealing for good fortune hung inside, and smoke from burning incense filled the air. An electronic billboard flashing the temple’s name signified the hamlet’s relative prosperity, which villagers attribute to the tea farms that have replaced subsistence agriculture in recent years.
On the main altar stood a crude replica of the Zhanggong Patriarch, dark gray instead of gold, overlooking a table where residents had laid out evidence to support their claim to the statue: several photos of it taken in 1989 and the clothes that had adorned the figure and were left behind by whoever made off with it in 1995. A faded gold crown sat among the rags.
Villagers acknowledged that it was difficult to say that the statue in their photos was an exact match with the one exhibited in Hungary because the Zhanggong Patriarch was rarely displayed in their temple without clothes or a crown. Still, they are convinced they have the right mummy.
“To us, Zhanggong Patriarch is not a cultural relic,” said Lin Wenqing, 39, who returned from selling tea in the southern region of Guangxi when he heard the statue had been found. “We see him as family. He is one of us.”
Before its theft, residents prayed to the Zhanggong Patriarch at every important event in the village, including the harvest. Once a year, they took the statue down from the altar and paraded it through the village, visiting each house. And on the fifth day of the 10th lunar month — believed to be the mummified monk’s birthday — the village celebrated with a festival featuring performances and a bountiful vegetarian feast.
These traditions appear to go back centuries, passed down from generation to generation along with tales of the patriarch as a boy with the surname Zhang who moved to the village with his mother, worked as a cowherd and became a monk.
“They always told us that he lived during the Song dynasty,” said Lin Chengfa, 44, “and that inside the statue was his mummified corpse.”
Mr. Lin, who was part of the police unit that responded in December 1995 when the statue disappeared, recalled that several villagers wept outside the temple that morning. Especially upset were older residents, some of whom had gone to great lengths to protect the statue during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the Communist Party smashed such relics and sought to stamp out ancient traditions as obstacles to socialist progress.
“We dug holes to hide him, and sometimes we would hide him in people’s houses,” Lin Chuanlong, 73, said of the mummy during an interview at his home in a neighboring village. “We were under a lot of pressure during those years. Sometimes we would even move him twice in one night.”
Village records, which trace the histories of families in Yangchun, most of whom share the surname Lin, include references to the Zhanggong Patriarch from as early as the Song dynasty, which ruled China from 960 to 1279.
Mummification was a sign of eminence among monks of the Chan school of Buddhism during that era, and Fujian Province was a center of Chan Buddhism, said James Robson, a Harvard professor who has written about the alleged theft of another Chinese mummy by a Japanese traveler in the early 20th century.
Only a few mummies are likely to have survived the vicissitudes of Chinese politics, he said, and some may still be hidden in statues in museum collections around the world.
When contacted on the networking site LinkedIn last month, the Dutch architect Oscar van Overeem publicly acknowledged for the first time that he owned the mummy in dispute. He has said he purchased the statue in 1996 from a collector in Amsterdam who had acquired it in Hong Kong.
Workers restoring the statue realized something might be inside, and Mr. van Overeem decided to get a CT scan, which revealed the mummy. But he insists that his statue is not the Zhanggong Patriarch.
“I have convinced the Chinese representatives easily with facts and research that the villagers’ claim is unjustified or unlikely,” he wrote via LinkedIn. “However, meanwhile, my mummy has become a political issue — if I like it or not.”
Mr. van Overeem wrote that he had reached a tentative agreement to donate the mummy to “a major Buddhist temple” near Yangchun, which he referred to as a village that “pretends the mummy belongs to them.” An unidentified foundation will offer him some compensation for what he has invested in the statue and in researching its history, he said.
He added that he was letting go of the mummy because he believed it deserved to return to its homeland “to be incorporated in truly Buddhist surroundings” and worshiped “by those who love and appreciate him.”
The mummy’s well-being may be the only issue on which Mr. van Overeem and the villagers of Yangchun agree.
“We want our Zhanggong Patriarch back so we can pray to him and worship him,” said Lin Wenqing, the tea salesman. “Not so that some collector can keep him in a cold basement or in a museum display case.”