Anyone who has visited the National Art Museum of China in Beijing recently will notice that it now resembles a mountain housing several caves. Chinese visitors will quickly recognize the made-over facade as an imitation of the famed Mogao Grottoes, one of China's three largest grottoes, located in Dunhuang, northwest China's Gansu Province, 2,000 km west of Beijing.
The other two are the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, central China's Henan Province, and the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, north China's Shanxi Province.
Dunhuang used to be an important stopping point on the ancient Silk Road and has a history of more than 2,000 years. Since the fourth century, with the rise of Buddhism in China, Chinese people have carved caves along mountain cliffs that contain Buddhist statues and frescos. This practice has continued for centuries, making Dunhuang a world-renowned treasure house of Buddhist art.
Now some of that art can be seen on display at the National Art Museum, where a massive exhibition area of more than 4,000 square meters has been allocated. Running from January 19 to March 21, the exhibition is proving a big hit in the capital.
The long daily queues outside the museum have remained since day one and by February 24 more than 200, 000 visitors had past through the door, breaking all previous attendance records.
"During the seven-day Chinese Lunar New Year holiday we had more than 40,000 visitors," said He Lin, Director of the Department of Public Education at the museum.
Regarding the big hit that the exhibition has made in Beijing, Ma Shulin, Deputy Director of the National Art Museum, said that the aesthetic and art value of the Mogao Grottoes is still as strong today as it was at the time of creation and this resonates with art lovers.
"All the items on display in Beijing this time are the representatives of Dunhuang art, through which visitors can learn much about Dunhuang," Ma said.
The message that Dunhuang art conveys contains the ideals and pursuits of the ancient people, which shows the civilization process of our ancestors in understanding life. All these art works that were created by artists throughout the centuries can traverse time and space and are still attractive even to people today, said Ma.
This is the eighth exhibition of Dunhuang art in Beijing and also the largest. Nine original colored statues, 10 pieces of unearthed documents, 10 bricks, 10 actual-sized replicas of caves, 13 copies of statues and 120 pieces of fresco copies of the Mogao Grottoes are on display.
Although Dunhuang art has been exhibited previously in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong Province and also in Japan, it is unprecedented that 10 replica caves are on display at one time.
The majority of the art pieces on display are copies, but visitors do have a feeling of entering the real world of the Mogao Grottoes. Most of these replicas were made by Chinese fine arts masters after the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and some have a history of more than 50 years, said Hou Liming, Director of the Fine Arts Institute of the Dunhuang Academy China.
"If any art copies have a history of over 50 years, they can themselves be seen as cultural relics," Hou said. He also said that to avoid the damage of these treasures during transportation, this would be the last large-scale exhibition of Dunhuang art.
Caves need protection
Located on the eastern slope of a mountain 25 km southeast of the town of Dunhuang, the Mogao Grottoes (also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves) consist of 492 caves carved in the steep cliff of the mountain from the fourth century to the 14th century. The caves vary in size and are scattered along the mountain cliff in three or four stories for around 1.6 km. Inside the caves are some 2,100 colored statues, varying in size from a few centimeters to 33 meters, and 45,000 square meters of frescos.
Because of its long history, large scale, profound art content and exquisite art skills, the Mogao Grottoes were included into the world cultural heritage protection list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1987.
But as Dunhuang is located in the northwest of China where the climate is dry, with frequent and strong winds and sandstorms, the protection of the Mogao Grottoes has been a big problem. The annual rainfall is only slightly more than 40 mm, and evaporation creates a typical desert climate. Being sandstone, the caves are easily eroded by the elements, prompting experts to predict the caves will disappear in 50 or 100 years if not protected.
However, the biggest threat to the Mogao Grottoes is not the heavy wind or quicksand, but people, said Fan Jinshi, Director of the Dunhuang Academy China.
According to Fan, when the Mogao Grottoes first opened to the public in 1979, the number of visitors was restricted to tens of thousands a year. In 1984, the number of visitors was only 100,000. But in 1988, the number doubled. After that, the number of tourists to Dunhuang has increased steadily year by year, and in 2006 the number of tourists reached 550,000.
"The Mogao Grottoes cannot sustain the increase in visitors," said Fan. Other researchers at the Dunhuang Academy said that visitors entering into the caves will change their temperature and humidity, which will greatly damage the statues and frescos inside.
Realizing the danger, the Chinese Government has made great efforts to reduce the effect of the worsening environment, such as planting trees near the Mogao Grottoes to immobilize sands.
To help with preservation, the National Art Museum has recently decided to open a half hour earlier and limit the number of visitors each day to 10,000.
Making national treasures accessible
For many art lovers who can't make it to Dunhuang, the Beijing exhibition is a godsend.
"It's so wonderful. Visitors to the exhibition can see many of the actual-sized caves and valuable artifacts, which are even impossible to be seen in Dunhuang as some caves are not open to the public," said Wang Meizi, a second-time visitor who works with the French Cultural Center in Beijing. She said that after seeing the art on display she has been motivated to travel to Dunhuang to see the real thing and experience part of history.
"I have an impulse now to go to Dunhuang and to experience the feeling of meeting history," said Wang.
And now CCTV, China's national TV station, has announced that the Central Government will invest 261 million yuan (around $37 million) to renovate and protect the Mogao Grottoes. The largest project of this preservation program is to build digital display halls, in which visitors can watch video and theme movies to appreciate the Dunhuang art and culture.
If such digital halls are built, some cultural relics can be moved out of caves, which can effectively reduce the stay time of visitors in caves and better preserve the Mogao Grottoes. CCTV said that the project has already started. It is the largest scale protection project yet carried out on the Mogao Grottoes.