Rejuvenating Cultural Treasures
Researcher on a mission to preserve and revive time-honored Dunhuang art
By Zhao Wei  ·  2016-09-04  ·   Source: | NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 8, 2016


Dunhuang mural replicas on display at an exhibition at Peking University on August 25 (WEI YAO)

Despite spending 25 years on the edge of the Gobi Desert researching world-renowned Buddhist grottoes, Wang Xudong, Director of the Dunhuang Academy, still calls himself a member of a younger generation. "A lot of co-workers have worked for more than 30 years at the academy. For instance, my predecessor Fan Jinshi has worked there 53 years since graduating from Peking University in 1963," he said.

Dunhuang, a city in northwest China's Gansu Province, is known for its ancient caves featuring Buddhist art—including the Mogao Caves, which were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1987.

Wang remembers the first time he arrived there in early 1991. He told Beijing Review at a Dunhuang art lecture and exhibition at Peking University in August that he was attracted by the ineffable beauty of Dunhuang's desolation as well as the murals and painted statues from the 4th century to the 14th century in the Mogao Caves. "I gained inner peace in Dunhuang," Wang said, explaining his decision to stay. "The longer I worked there, the more perception on life I acquired."


Wang Xudong, Director of the Dunhuang Academy (WEI YAO)

Commitment to preservation

Wang, who in 2015 became head of the Dunhuang Academy, a research institute devoted to the preservation and study of the city's ancient caves, said that his main task was to protect Dunhuang's heritage.

With a PhD degree in geological engineering, Wang said that despite his scientific mentality, he reveres Dunhuang's art heritage.

Using modern technologies to protect the art is the highlight of the work of the academy. Wang and his colleagues have built a system for monitoring the impact of natural and human factors on the caves' environment. Their efforts have led to a 70-percent drop in the amount of sand blown into the caves. To restore the murals, they have formed a set of procedures using protective materials to be applied in different caves under varying conditions.

Earlier this year, the Dunhuang Academy launched a website—Digital Dunhuang, which displays high-resolution images of 30 Mogao Caves and their contents. Visitors all over the world can see the murals created during different historical periods from their own homes. The site has received millions of page views in a few months.

Ji Xianlin (1911-2009), an eminent scholar and professor at Peking University, used to say that although Dunhuang is in China, studies focusing on it should be conducted around the world. Wang agreed with this standpoint.

"Dunhuang's art was not just the creation of ancient Chinese. Many art features came from Western Regions. After the integration of various styles, Dunhuang's art became what we see today. The art is a splendid presentation of the exchange of Chinese and Western cultures in ancient times," Wang said.

Dunhuang used to be a trade hub along the ancient Silk Road that linked China with countries in Central Asia, West Asia and Europe.

Gong Yuzhen, a professor with Peking University's National School of Development, commented, "The most salient feature of Dunhuang is its open-mindedness, which is the core of Dunhuang culture. The greatest significance of the Silk Road lies in the building of a channel between China and the outside world, not only for traffic and business, but also for cultural exchanges."

Last November, after receiving approval from the Central Government, Dunhuang became the permanent venue of the Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo. The aim of the expo, which opens for the first time in September, is to promote the city's ancient cultural values in modern society.

"Different cultures can blend together and influence each other. Dunhuang in this regard gives us enlightenment, which helps us understand each other in the modern world," Wang said.


Dunhuang-themed coloring books (FILE)

Coloring ancient murals

The Dunhuang Academy has compiled a series of coloring books using Dunhuang murals as templates. The first of the three-volume series was published in April.

"Dunhuang's murals were drawn by unnamed folk artists in ancient China. Now all readers can color their own Dunhuang murals. I think this is the best way to promote its art," Wang said.

Talking about the decision to publish the Dunhuang-themed coloring books, Bruce Chen, the series' planner who helped organize Wang's lecture, said the idea originated from his travels to Dunhuang last August, during which he was impressed by the cultural legacy. After associating the mural-drawing process with coloring books, Chen decided that the books would not be aimed at reducing stress, but at experiencing the culture.

Yuan Xiaocha, executive editor of the book series, wrote a blog to record her experiences during the first book's editing process. "When I was handed a sample book, I was so excited to turn each page. What I was coloring was a copy of a painting that ancient artists colored 1,650 years ago," wrote the 25-year-old.

The books are designed to show copies of original Dunhuang murals on the left pages, while the right pages are left with the outlines that should be colored in. "History is on the left page, and the present is on the right," said Wang, explaining the design process.

Chang Shana is the daughter of the first Dunhuang Academy director, Chang Shuhong (1904-94). She arrived in Dunhuang in 1943 with her father at the age of 12 and has been replicating the murals ever since then.

"I feel my work has been permeated with the 'Spirit of Dunhuang,' which is part of the cultural context of our tradition. It is also the artistic principle of elderly artists, 'being national, scientific, and public-minded.' I think it is a very good idea to combine Dunhuang culture with coloring books, so younger generations will familiarize themselves with it through their own coloring. It is beneficial for China's original creations and designs."

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

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