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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Buddha's Caves

July 8, 2008

The New York Times (USA)
July 6, 2008

DUNHUANG, China -- SAND is implacable here in far western China. It
blows and shifts and eats away at everything, erasing boundaries,
scouring graves, leaving farmers in despair.

It's one of many threats to the major tourist draw of this oasis city
on the lip of the Gobi desert: the hundreds of rock-cut Buddhist
grottoes that pepper a cliff face outside town. Known as Mogaoku --
"peerless caves" -- and filled with paradisiacal frescos and
hand-molded clay sculptures of savior-gods and saints, they are, in
size and historical breadth, like nothing else in the Chinese Buddhist world.

And Mogaoku is in trouble. Thrown open to visitors in recent decades,
the site has been swamped by tourists in the past few years. The
caves now suffer from high levels of carbon dioxide and humidity,
which are severely undermining conservation efforts. The short-term
solution has been to limit the number of caves that can be visited
and to admit people only on timed tours, but the deterioration continues.

Plans are under way to recast the entire Dunhuang experience in a way
that will both intensify and distance it. Digital technology will
give visitors a kind of total immersion encounter with the caves
impossible before now, but that immersion will take place 15 miles
from the site.

The question of access versus preservation is a poignant one and is
by no means confined to Mogaoku. It applies to many fragile
monuments. What are we willing to give up to keep what we have? If
you're a Buddhist -- I am not -- you know that the material world is
a phantom or a dream, "a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a
flickering lamp," as the Buddha puts it in the Diamond Sutra.

As part of that world Mogaoku is a phantom too, but one that I had
always wanted to see, one of my must-get-to-in-this-lifetime places.
And finally I was here. With the permission of the Dunhuang Academy,
the Chinese conservation and research body that oversees the caves, I
stayed in quarters at the site rather than in Dunhuang itself, a city
that doesn't look like much now but certainly must have once.

Set between Mongolia and Tibet, it was a vital, cosmopolitan juncture
on the Silk Road. Whether you traveled the northern branch east from
Rome, or the southern one from Arabia, you ended up doing business
here. And because of its gateway position, it was where Buddhism
spilled out of India and Central Asia into China, leaving a residue
of spectacular art.

The first cave at Mogaoku was carved in A.D. 366 by an itinerant monk
named Yuezun who said that one night he saw flamelike lights pulsing
across the cliff face and took them as a sign: Here you must stay. So
he cut a hole in the sandstone wall and moved in.

The association of caves with religious devotion, ancient in India,
caught on here. The earliest examples, small and plain, were used for
shelter and meditation, occasionally for burials. From the window of
my room in the academy's guest house I could see dozens of these
hollows set high up on the cliff, their low entrances black with
shadows. They are hard to reach and, apart from archaeologists, few
people visit them now. Probably few ever did. They were made for solitude.

Yet by the early fifth century, a cave boom was underway in the
Dunhuang area, with activity concentrated at Mogaoku. Larger and
larger grottoes were excavated as temples and monastic lecture halls:
essentially, public spaces. Many had chapel-like niches and
free-standing walk-around altars, all cut from stone. As with the
Ajanta Buddhist caves in India, interiors were carved with
architectural features -- beams, eaves, pitched roofs, coffered
ceiling -- as if to simulate buildings.

Painting covered everything. Murals illustrating jatakas, tales from
the Buddha's past lives, were popular; they're like panoramic
comic-book storyboards spread across a wall. For imperially
commissioned interiors, images of princeling saints and court fetes
were the rule. Rock ceilings were covered with fields of decorative
patterning to evoke an illusion of fabric pavilions. Any leftover
space was filled with figures of tiny deities -- Mogaoku was known as
the Thousand Buddha Caves -- painted directly on the plastered walls
or stuck on as sculptural plaques.

Sculpture was where Dunhuang departed from the Indian model. In
Indian caves figures were chiseled from the living rock. Everything
was literally of a piece. Maybe because the sandstone at Mogaoku was
too crumbly for fine work, the artists here used another method. They
made figures from mud mixed with grass and molded over bundled
branches and reeds.

Exceptionally large figures, in need of a solid core to keep them
from collapsing, were made in a different way. The body of the
75-foot-tall Buddha in the cave known as the Nine-Story Temple is
carved from the rock face and plastered over. His feet are planted at
the cliff base; he looks out through a window, cut near the top.

Of the 800 or so caves created here from the 5th to 14th centuries,
nearly half had some form of decoration. What survives adds up to a
developmental timeline of Buddhist art in China, an encyclopedic
archive of styles and ideas, of dashes forward and retreats to the past.

But of course much of it has not survived. By the 11th century
Dunhuang's fortunes were in decline. Sea trade had cut into Silk Road
traffic. Regional wars left the town isolated. Monks, possibly
panicked by rumors of an Islamic invasion, sealed up tens of
thousands of manuscript scrolls in a small cave. The invasion didn't
happen, but the books, many of them already ancient, stayed hidden
and forgotten, as Mogaoku itself was for centuries.

Nature went to work. Sand from the dunes swept into the grottoes.
Rock facades gave way, leaving interiors exposed. When people finally
reappeared, the damage only increased. In the late 19th century a
wandering Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu settled down and started a
ruinous program of "conservation," discovering the bricked-up library
cave with its precious scrolls in the process. He didn't know it, but
he had made of one of the most important archaeological finds of modern times.

Other people soon knew. In 1907 the British explorer Aurel Stein
arrived. For a pittance he bought around 5,000 silk and paper scrolls
from Wang and sent them to England. Some were paintings and banners;
the bulk were religious and secular books in Chinese, Sanskrit,
Tibetan, Mongolian and other regional languages, evidence of the
capacious ethnic melting pot that China has always been.

Of all Stein's books the prize was a ninth-century woodblock copy of
the Diamond Sutra, or the "Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom of the
Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion." As if defying the scripture's
insistence on transience as the only reality, this marvelous scroll
is the earliest known dated example of a printed book, six centuries
older than the Gutenberg Bible.

After Stein came the French linguist and Sinologist Paul Pelliot. In
one marathon reading session he eyeballed the entire remaining
contents of the library cave, sorted out the cream and packed it off
to Paris. Then a Japanese expedition arrived to claim a share,
followed by a Russian one. In the 1920s the swashbuckling American
art historian Langdon Warner sliced 26 murals from Mogaoku cave walls
and gave them to Harvard, along with a pilfered sculpture. (You can
still see the ghost-outlines of figures where he lifted off the thin
plaster sheets.)

Whatever else can be said of them, these men fully understood the
value of what they saw at Mogaoku. "There was nothing to do but
gasp," Warner wrote of his first glimpse of decorated caves. This is
still a natural reaction. It was my reaction. Accompanied by a
Dunhuang Academy researcher and guide, Liu Qin, I visited two dozen
caves in a single day, and afterward couldn't shake what I'd seen.

First there is darkness, intensified because of the blazing desert
sun. When your eyes adjust to the dusky light filtering in, you see
that you're being observed by other eyes, those of a larger-than-life
fifth century Northern Wei Buddha. He has a large broad head, soft
limbs and a moony smile. Dressed in a hot-weather Indian dhoti, he
looks like a giant toddler lost in a world of his own.

Further inside, the only illumination is Mr. Liu's flashlight.
Visions come and go. A small sculptured Buddha backed by a jade-green
halo meditates in a niche. A standing divinity wreathed by a garland
of maiden angels wears a flower-spattered robe of Persian brocade.
Calligraphic figures, blue against white, tumble across the wall like
swallows in a wind. Feathered, but with human faces, riding
dragon-drawn chariots, they might be immortals from Chinese
mythology, though in the flickering light it is hard to tell.

Then they are gone, replaced by court musicians with banjos and
flutes. Soon these are gone too. Then a drama in several scenes about
bandits being blinded for their crimes and rejoicing as the Buddha
restores their sight. Gone. A corps of heavenly dancers, a hundred
Maya Plisetskayas in saris. The flashlight sweeps a ceiling thick
with colored patterns; they seem to stream toward a central lotus
medallion like filings to a magnet. The total effect is riotous,
hallucinatory, of another realm. No wonder Warner took chunks of it home.

China, engulfed in a long period of political disunity and chaos,
couldn't prevent the plundering. Finally in 1944 the Dunhuang
Research Institute, formed by a band of young Chinese scholars, took
control of the site. Now called the Dunhuang Academy, it is still
here, stabilizing the caves structurally, conserving their sculptures
and paintings and monitoring visitor access.

Mogaoku is charmed ground. In late spring and early summer the air is
fragrant, the sky a lambent blue, the desert oceanically serene. And
there is the art and the soaked-in atmosphere of devotion. The place
leaves strong and alluring memories in the memories of visitors; in
its caretakers it inspires lifelong loyalty.

The current director of the Dunhuang Academy, Fan Jinshi, arrived as
a graduate student in 1963. At that time getting here was an ordeal;
there were no planes, few trains. The academy's headquarters had
neither electricity nor running water. She married, but her husband
worked elsewhere. Sometimes they didn't see each other for months at
a time, once for a full year. In 1998, after 35 years on the job, she
was named director of the academy. At 70, she is still here, working
as hard as ever.

During her time much has changed. The site has been brought
technologically up to date. A once-bare-bones staff has grown to
around 300 full-time conservators, researchers, groundskeepers and
guards, supplemented since the late 1980s by training teams from the
Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, led by Neville Agnew.
The ever-encroaching tide of sand has been slowed by a system of
wind-breaking nets.

Transportation to Dunhuang has become relatively easy. A new train
station has just gone up; the airport runway, once made of tar that
was said to turn soft in the sun, has been reinforced. Yet from a
plane window the town still has a marooned, precarious look, like a
lone atoll at sea.

In 1980 the caves, or some of them, were opened to the public,
although only a trickle of visitors came, most of them Japanese
tourists in search of the roots of their own Buddhist tradition.
Recently this pattern has radically changed. With a flourishing
economy, a relaxation of the Cultural Revolution's disapproval of
religion and the central government's strenuous promotion of a new
nationalist pride, hundreds of thousands of tourists, 90 percent of
them Chinese, are coming to Mogaoku each year, jamming into the caves.

The impact has been significant. The risk of direct contact with art
is somewhat reduced by the installation of transparent screens, but
the physical degradation caused by fluctuating atmospheric conditions
-- humid to dry to humid again -- is acute. Although no one is saying
so, it is possible that without major change, all the caves will
eventually have to be closed to the public.

Plans for drastic remedial action are in place. Under Dr. Fan and the
vice director, Wang Xudong, the academy will build by 2011 a new
visitor reception center several miles from the caves, near the
airport and railroad station. All Mogaoku-bound travelers will be
required to go to the center first, where they will be given an
immersive introduction to the caves' history, digital tours of
interiors and simulated restorations on film of damaged images. They
will then be shuttled to the site itself, where they will take in the
ambience of its desert-edge locale and see the insides of one or two
caves before returning to where they started.

(About 70 percent of the money for the visitor center -- the
equivalent of $38 million -- is coming from the Chinese government.
The rest must be raised from private sources. Details related to the
project can be found on

For Chinese visitors a partly virtual approach may not feel unusual.
Many museums in China give equal time to art objects and information
technology. Multimedia evocations of sites are common: it is the only
way to see excavated tomb frescos too sensitive to light and air to
be removed from the underground. And it is common practice substitute
copies of famous works of art in museums when the originals are unavailable.

For Westerners addicted to the concept of authenticity, to the
romance of "the real thing," the idea of a primarily digital
experience of Mogaoku is hard, if not impossible to accept. Art is,
after all, about the aura attached to uniqueness. The art experience
depends on being there.

Paradoxically this insistence on authenticity is also the impulse
driving contemporary conservation. At whatever cost, the integrity of
the original must be preserved. Yet conservators know that often the
only way to protect the "real thing" is by restricting access to it,
by forcing an audience to accept a condition of not being there, by
substituting virtual auras for actual ones. And so the contradictions
pile up, and change inexorably goes on.

At dawn on the morning I am leaving Mogaoku, it is quiet. I watch the
sun hit the hard-to-reach caves high up on the cliff. Then I watch
buses of Chinese tourists arrive from hotels in town, coming early,
before the heat of day. Several are teenagers or a little older,
plugged into iPods, taking photos with cellphones, in an antic mood.
Together they troop across the barrier bridge that leads to the
caves. They're wearing hard-soled shoes. They laugh, some inside
joke. They do not mind making noise.

Exactly what they are looking for at Mogaoku, or will find, is hard
to know; they seem so distracted, so somewhere else. Yet just before
reaching the cave they stop and linger, as do other, older visitors,
over a small text-and-photo display. It documents Wang Yuanlu's
presence here a century ago and describes the visits of Stein,
Pelliot and Warner and what they took away. Maybe this is what
Mogaoku means to its new audience: not art, not faith but cultural
heritage with a loaded political history.

As for me, I'm heading to the airport. I consider making a quick
return to the Nine-Story Temple before I leave, but head in the
opposite direction, toward the desert. From afar I had noticed a
scattering of small stupa towers and hutlike shrines just beyond
Mogaoku's boundaries. Mr. Liu said they were memorials to monks and
priests who had died at Mogaoku, Wang Yuanlu being one. There were
lots of markers once, but most have been worn down.

They are made from the same stuff as almost all of the cave
sculptures, air-dried earth mixed with grass. Outdoors it cracks and
breaks easily; chips from the memorials litter the ground. Two of the
shrine huts have crude little frescos in shelflike niches, with sand
silted up in the corners. I brush some away.

Well, I think to myself, you made it here, someplace you always
wanted to go. Is it what you hoped it would be? Yes, exactly as I'd
hoped. Will you return? Life is busy; time is a problem; the distance
is great. Besides, if I did return, it wouldn't be the same. It would
change, wouldn't it?

On some impulse I look back at the cliff, toward the face of the
great stone Buddha behind his window, but I can't see his eyes.
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