1,000 Years of Art at the Edge of the Gobi Desert
The first inkling that we were getting close came toward the end of our flight from Beijing into northwestern China when snow-blanketed mountains suddenly appeared above the beige miasma of the desert floor. Morning sunlight sparkled off the grand Kunlun range that borders the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau and the southern rim of the Gobi Desert, a welcoming note on our journey to a distant world of Buddhist art painted and carved in grottoes centuries ago.
We were a group of seven — an American gallerist in Beijing, a Thai publisher of art books, a Singaporean businessman, among others — connected by our interests in Chinese art and history.
Our intrepid leader, Mimi Gardner Gates, a specialist in Chinese art and the former director of the Seattle Art Museum, raises funds to support the preservation of what we had come to see: the Dunhuang caves where delicate, brightly hued wall paintings and carvings depict religious and social life from the fourth to the 14th centuries during the height of Buddhist culture in China.
我们无畏的引领者是米米·加德纳·盖茨(Mimi Gardner Gates)。她是一位中国艺术专家，曾任西雅图美术馆(Seattle Art Museum)馆长，为我们前来参观的这座石窟募集保护资金。在敦煌的石窟中，技法精湛、色彩明亮的壁画和石刻，描绘了4世纪至14世纪中国佛教文化巅峰时期的宗教和社会生活。
The city of Dunhuang, a hodgepodge of cheap stores and a mediocre night market, was once a thriving oasis on the Silk Road, beckoning caravans of pilgrims and merchants from Central Asia and India with their Buddhist beliefs, and fabulous jewels and gold. As we arrived at the modern airport, it was hard not to think about more recent intruders: European and American scholars who visited the caves in the early 20th century, fell in love with what they found, and snatched priceless sculptures, manuscripts and frescoes for museums in London, Paris and Cambridge, Mass.
Theirs had been arduous treks compared with ours. The Harvard art historian and archaeologist Langdon Warner endured more than three months on an ox-drawn cart as he headed back to Beijing from Dunhuang in 1924 with a three-and-a-half-foot bodhisattva wrapped in his underwear for his patrons in Cambridge. In contrast, our journey was a comfortable three-hour flight from Beijing on Air China.
And while some of these early scholars — it is tempting to call them scoundrels — spent months in Dunhuang, recovering from their journeys, dodging diphtheria and other diseases, we spent four days in a pleasant hotel on the edge of the dunes. Over breakfasts of dumplings and Chinese porridge on the roof deck, we watched the sun rise and the sky change from flamingo pink to lapis blue. At sunset, we drank local wine pressed from new vineyards coaxed out of the sandy soil.
And, of course, our gear was far less elaborate than that of our predecessors. In a display near the caves that is devoted to the travesties of the Western scholars, a photo of Warner depicts him in knee-high boots, his hat at a rakish angle and a shovel in his right hand, ready to dig for antiquities. We, on the other hand, wore running shoes for the easy trek along the outdoor passageways that connect the caves, and carried little more than cellphones and cameras. (No photos, however, are allowed in the caves, to keep visitors moving swiftly since the carbon dioxide in our breath damages the wall art, and camera flashes don’t help either.)
As we learned from Ms. Gates, those earlier Western scholars were dazzled for good reason. She never let us forget that we were seeing original art in situ, about which there was no question of authenticity.
When Warner and others like him arrived, they found 1,000 years of art that told the story of China’s imperial dynasties and their long relationship with Buddhism, which seeped into China from India in the first century. In A.D. 366, according to legend, a monk named Yuezun arrived in Dunhuang, and had a vision of a thousand Buddhas. He was so overwhelmed he chiseled a cave for meditation in a vast sandstone cliff about 15 miles from the city center at a place now known as the Mogao Caves. Master artists and their apprentices began painting images of Buddha and his life story in murals that stretched across cave walls, and, in some cases, onto the ceilings.
The monk sparked a trend; over the years, about 1,000 caves were carved out of the mile-long escarpment as shrines or living quarters for monks, or the equivalent of private art museums where rich families could show off their wealth. By 1400, the exuberant show of art and religion faded as maritime routes supplanted the Silk Road.
When the caves were abandoned, the sweeping desert sands took over, ruining some, damaging others, but preserving many. Today, 735 caves remain, and nearly 500 are decorated.
These days, streams of Chinese tourists arrive in great numbers — 14,000 on one day this summer. The biggest challenge for the Dunhuang Academy, the institution that manages the site, is crowd control, as we learned at the new visitors’ center, a building designed by the Chinese architect Cui Kai to blend into the desert dunes.
With a theater that gives a 360-degree digital representation of one of the caves, the center is an important tool in the battle to keep the Dunhuang caves intact. Since the center opened last year, tourists who are not on a private tour like ours are required to go there first, and watch the digital show, a substitute for lengthy tours that are no longer allowed for most visitors.
Most of these tourists are limited to the hustle of a 75-minute visit that covers eight caves. We, however, had almost unfettered access thanks to Ms. Gates, who has visited the caves for 20 years and whose Dunhuang Foundation has raised significant funds for their maintenance.
On our first morning, a shuttle bus dropped us in a grove of aromatic pines, and soon we were at the foot of the rock face that inspired the monk, Yuezun, nearly 1,700 years ago.
Looking up, we could see a honeycomb of dark holes where the caves pierced the rock. Much of the rock is now buttressed with concrete, a utilitarian reinforcement devised in the 1960s when China was short of cash and architects.
The most splendid cave art was produced during the height of the early Tang dynasty from roughly 618 to 718, a period when the statues and mural paintings were the most sumptuous. In one tableau, which is rendered in greens, browns and beige, a wide-girthed, beautifully dressed Chinese emperor listens closely to a debate on Buddhist doctrine The artists, who usually painted with rabbit hairbrushes, achieved their rich colors by grinding and mixing mineral and organic pigments — red ocher, cinnabar, lapis lazuli — much as painters do today, according to Susan Whitfield, the director of the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library.
最灿烂的石窟艺术出现在唐初，大约在公元618年到718年之间，这期间创造的雕像和壁画最为瑰丽。在一个场景中，画师使用绿色、棕色和米色，描绘一位胖胖的、衣着精致的中国皇帝在认真倾听佛法辩论。大英图书馆(British Library)的国际敦煌项目(International Dunhuang Project)主任苏珊·惠特菲尔德(Susan Whitfield)说，这些画师通常使用兔豪毛笔，通过研磨和混合矿物，他们获得了层次丰富的色彩和有机颜料——赭红、朱砂、青金石——这与如今画家的做法相差不大。
After the Tang, there was a 70-year interlude of Tibetan rule, followed by a long line of local clans who commissioned life-size portraits of themselves. The Cao family, for example, loved their women, and had them painted on the cave walls with rouged cheeks, layers of splendid necklaces and voluminous gowns. Some of the caves used as chapels featured floor-to-ceiling paintings in lapis blue and earth reds that depict the life of the Buddha.
In several caves, scenes show daily village life: figures bathing, wheat being winnowed and preparations for a wedding ceremony. Some caves are as large as a small ballroom with high coffered ceilings covered with fields of patterns that give the illusion of draped fabric in a desert tent. Others feature deep niches with life-size sculptures of Buddha and his disciples. Much of the painting is devoted to Buddha, but it was also easy to imagine from the mortal figures in the murals that during its heyday Dunhuang was alive with traders dealing in silk, furs, ceramics, gold and ivory.
The size of some of the sculptures is startling. A 75-foot-tall Buddha stands bolt upright, carved from the rock face and covered in plaster, protected from the elements by the facade of the Nine-Story Temple. In a nearby cave, a 50-foot-long Buddha statue from the Tang dynasty lies on its side, tranquil in death, surrounded by paintings of anguished disciples.
On our second day — after being greeted by Ms. Gates’s breakfast mantra, “Let’s go to more caves” — we drove two hours in a minibus on a paved road to Yulin, a rock face that is also punctuated with caves. The desert and the distant snow-encrusted mountains along the route were a reminder of the terrain along the old Silk Road.
“This is one of the highlights,” said Ms. Gates as we clambered with a young Chinese guide, Wang Yan, to Cave No. 3 at Yulin, a space measuring about 20 by 20 feet. Here the 10th-century artists painted with ink and brush in rich blues and greens the color of malachite. Landscapes with graceful waterfalls and willowy trees surrounded scores of Buddha’s followers dressed in robes, their hair tightly knotted on top of their heads.
One follower, Samantabhadra, her face a portrait of calm, sailed through the landscape on the back of an elephant whose feet were planted on lotus leaves. It was such fine line painting. Who were the artists?, we asked. The artists were almost always anonymous, and many were just paid with food, Ms. Gates said.
At Yulin, we ate a delicious farm-cooked lunch at a no-name rustic restaurant set beside the Yulin River, a fast flowing, narrow stream. The menu came from the fields: elm tree seeds coated in flour and steamed; stir-fried green beans; steamed pumpkin slices; and soup with freshly made noodles and veal.
Back at the Mogao Caves, another local guide, Liu Qin, an art historian at the Dunhuang Academy, was eager to show us the spot where Warner ripped out the statue. In Cave No. 328, Mr. Liu showed us a Buddha set on a low platform surrounded by a half-dozen attendants. On the far left at an easy-to-reach height, one attendant is missing, a gap that destroys the symmetry of the tableau. A slightly raised gray plaster disc marks the place where Warner and his men removed the bodhisattva.
Mr. Liu was also anxious to take us to the place where Aurel Stein, a British historian, and Paul Pelliot, a French scholar, took thousands of books and manuscripts. Inside the entrance to Cave No. 17, Mr. Liu pointed to a small, nearly empty room where Stein found 7,000 manuscripts, including one of the world’s oldest printed books, the Diamond Sutra, produced in 868. It is now at the British Library. Stein paid a local monk £130 for his booty. A little later, Pelliot took another substantial haul of scrolls for the Musée Guimet in Paris, and paid even less.
刘勤还热切地带我们参观了英国历史学家奥莱尔·斯坦因(Aurel Stein)和法国学者保罗·伯希和(Paul Pelliot)带走的数千份书籍及手稿所在的地方。在17号石窟入口处，刘勤指向一个很小而且几乎空荡荡的屋子，斯坦因在那里发现了7000份原稿，其中包括世界上历史最悠久的印刷书籍——公元868年印制的《金刚经》。《金刚经》现藏于大英图书馆(British Library)。斯坦因向一名当地僧侣支付了130英镑就带走了他所掠夺的物品。不久之后，伯希和以更低的价格带走了另一批书卷，送到巴黎的吉美艺术博物馆(Musée Guimet)。
In recent years, the Chinese authorities have said the treasures from Dunhuang now stashed abroad should be returned. That battle may be waged in the future. For the moment, the new director of the Dunhuang Academy, Wang Xudong, has a friendlier approach. Over lunch in his private dining room, Mr. Wang, who praised Ms. Gates’s work, said he was intent on making Dunhuang not only a tourist attraction but also an international research center for scholars.
Unlike the Great Wall, a monument to China’s strenuous efforts to keep outsiders at bay, ancient Dunhuang was inclusive, a fitting theme for the contemporary era of China’s global reach.
“Dunhuang is a broader story,’’ he said. “It shows China’s willingness to interact with other cultures.”
Our hotel and flights were organized by Abercrombie & Kent Hong Kong. The round-trip flight between Beijing and Dunhuang on Air China and three nights at the Dunhuang Silk Road Hotel, double room, breakfast included: $1,470.
The Dunhuang Foundation, established in 2010 by Mimi Gardner Gates, a group that supports the preservation of the caves in conjunction with the Dunhuang Academy, requests a $2,500 per person, tax deductible donation for the full access tour with Ms. Gates. The foundation plans at least two trips in 2016, dates to be determined. Information: dunhuangfoundation.us.
As excellent preparation (or in case you cannot go) the Getty Center in Los Angeles is opening an exhibition on the Dunhuang caves in May 2016 that will feature three hand-painted replicas of caves at Dunhuang; the ninth-century Diamond Sutra, on loan from the British Library; and other art and sculpture borrowed from Dunhuang.
For background reading: A new account of America’s fascination with Chinese art, “The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures,” by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac (Palgrave Macmillan), has a highly readable chapter on the adventures of Langdon Warner. A more scholarly account of Dunhuang is “Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road,” by Roderick and Susan Whitfield and Neville Agnew (Getty Conservation Institute).
背景阅读：有关美国对中国艺术的迷恋的新记述，卡尔·E·梅耶(Karl E. Meyer)与沙林·布莱尔·布莱萨克(Shareen Blair Brysac)合著的《中国藏家：美国追寻亚洲艺术珍宝的百年》（The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures，麦克米伦出版社)中有关兰登·华尔纳冒险经历的章节非常值得一读。还有一本比较学术的书籍，罗德里克(Roderick)和苏珊·惠特菲尔德(Susan Whitfield)及内维尔·阿格纽(Neville Agnew)所写的《敦煌莫高窟的石窟寺：丝绸之路上的艺术与历史》（Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road，盖蒂保护研究所出版）。