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Friday, August 09, 2019, 12:41
Reveling in global legacy of the silk road
By Alexis Hooi and Wang Linyan in Dunhuang, Gansu
Friday, August 09, 2019, 12:41 By Alexis Hooi and Wang Linyan in Dunhuang, Gansu

Conservation of Buddhist artworks at the Mogao Caves is encouraging similar efforts at home and abroad

Tourists visit one of the Mogao Caves' 492 Buddhist grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province. (SUN ZHIJUN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Editor's note: As the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary on Oct 1, China Daily is featuring a series of stories on the role regions have played in the country's development and where they are today.

When asked in front of foreign visitors what it takes to sustain the love for his job after three decades, mural restorer Yang Tao said it is all about having "peace of mind".

"You need to be in a state of tranquility, to guide a stable hand to mend the lines and reconnect the dots," said Yang, 52, who works at the Mogao Caves near the major Silk Road hub of Dunhuang, Gansu province.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some of the best examples in the world of Buddhist murals, sculptures and writings located in nearly 500 grottoes. They cover a large expanse of Chinese history, including the golden age of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Yang's approach to repairing and preserving the iconic works of art for future generations reflects the serious conservation efforts undertaken in Dunhuang in recent decades.

Zhao Shengliang, director of the Dunhuang Academy of China, said the achievements helped to continue the site's historic role bridging relations between the East and West.

"In the past 70 years, our direction and role to protect, research and promote the grottoes have not changed. We are carrying forward that tradition and culture," Zhao said.

As a pioneer in cultural relics conservation, management and research, the academy boasts state-of-the-art preservation and restoration technology, such as environmental monitoring devices and digital imaging equipment.

The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) mural from Cave 61 depicts ecliptical signs, with some resembling Western descriptions of zodiac constellations, such as Scorpius and Gemini. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Sharing skills

It is now sharing its expertise with heritage sites at home and abroad, ranging from projects in the neighboring Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region's ancient trading settlements to Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple complex, the director said.

The latest collaborations are also very much in line with the Belt and Road Initiative for global infrastructure and development, Zhao said.

"The ancient Silk Road saw immense cultural exchanges between East and West. In all those centuries, deep, expansive exchanges occurred amid sound development," he said.

"We now want to help share our experience with others, to show that China's cultural development is also the world's cultural development."

The academy has in recent years stepped up its collaboration with other countries to share the "Dunhuang experience", ranging from exhibitions in North America, Europe and Asia, to research exchanges and forums with scholars worldwide. The province also opened the 4th Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo and 9th Dunhuang Tour Silk Road International Tourism Festival late last month, drawing nearly 1,000 guests from more than 30 countries and regions for mutual learning and cooperation.

Zhang Xiantang, vice-director of the Dunhuang Academy and a specialist in Buddhist history, said Silk Road research extending to India and Central Asia continues to highlight the historical value of Dunhuang as a cultural hub.

"My three decades of research show that these are not just invaluable repositories of Buddhist art, the artifacts also illuminate the historical and cultural interactions among the world's civilizations. They were created amid some of the most open periods in Chinese history," Zhang said.

Building on the conservation support it received from the United States, France and other countries starting in the 1980s, the academy has since extended its research work to other developing areas, Zhang said. Zhang himself led a multidisciplinary research trip to the Bamiyan Buddhist statues site in Afghanistan last year. The Taliban turned the statues into rubble in 2001 and the international community has been discussing how to restore them ever since.

"Our researchers have gone to India, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We are going out and opening more doors to cultural interaction, sharing our knowledge that traces back to Dunhuang's place on the Silk Road," he said.

Reaching far

Zhang Yuanlin, chief librarian and director of the center for research on the Silk Road and Dunhuang at the academy, said the Mogao Caves are fascinating examples of the cultural, religious and social interaction that China hosted in ancient times through its role as a trading hub.

The cave artifacts depict artistic elements beyond India, and Central and Western Asia, to encompass influences from as far away as Greece and Rome, he said.

One cave mural of a horse-riding solar deity resembles the Apollo of Greek mythology, the Mithra sun god of Persian Zoroastrianism and the Surya sun god of the Vedic religion, according to Zhang Yuanlin.

Another cave contained images of 12 ecliptical signs, with some resembling Western descriptions of zodiac constellations such as Scorpius, Gemini, Cancer and Pisces, he said.

Similarly, Nestorian crosses and Manichean scriptures were found in the Dunhuang cave library and caves in the northern part of Mogao. Until the late 13th century, when Venetian merchant Marco Polo passed by the area, these religions were still in existence, according to his research.

"Through these artifacts, Dunhuang reflected a cultural and artistic pluralism. In many ways, that embodies the interaction and globalization today in line with the Belt and Road Initiative," Zhang Yuanlin said.

Yu Zongren, the deputy director of the academy's conservation research department, said that Dunhuang's historic global role makes it even more crucial to maintain and build on the conservation of its relics for future generations.

"We've developed from the initial, urgent need to protect the artifacts in the early years, to the scientific approach of conservation since our work with foreign institutions of the recent decades," Yu said.

"That covers the people-to-people exchanges, training and research that have helped us get to the level we're at now."

His department includes more than 40 full-time employees specializing in fields ranging from archeology and chemistry to civil engineering and meteorology. They also use advanced technology and equipment such as scanning electron microscopes and ion chromatography trackers to study artifacts and cave site conditions.

The country's support for the academy's research along with international collaboration efforts, put it in a firm position to promote and develop Dunhuang's cultural heritage for the world, Yu said.

"Domestically, our cultural heritage is huge, so that in itself puts a heavy responsibility on us," he said.

For the academy's director, Zhao Shengliang, one of the main challenges now is nurturing and sustaining interest for heritage among the younger generation.

"Certainly, you see genuine passion among the young people for Dunhuang when they visit it," Zhao said.

Some of them even express interest in working at the academy, set in a serene, tranquil compound on the edge of the shifting sands of the Gobi Desert, he said.

"Once you get to see Dunhuang art and really understand it, you will like it. We need to encourage and tap that interest, to attract talent to take our development to the next stage."

Ma Jingna contributed to this story.

Contact the writers at alexishooi@chinadaily.com.cn

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