SAND is implacable here in far western China. It blows and shiftsand 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 oasiscity on the lip of the Gobi desert: the hundreds of rock-cut Buddhistgrottoes that pepper a cliff face outside town. Known as Mogaoku ??peerless caves? ? and filled with paradisiacal frescos and hand-moldedclay sculptures of savior-gods and saints, they are, in size andhistorical breadth, like nothing else in the Chinese Buddhist world.
And Mogaoku is in trouble. Thrown open to visitors in recentdecades, 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-termsolution has been to limit the number of caves that can be visited andto admit people only on timed tours, but the deterioration continues.
Plans are under way to recast the entire Dunhuang experience in away that will both intensify and distance it. Digital technology willgive visitors a kind of total immersion encounter with the cavesimpossible before now, but that immersion will take place 15 miles fromthe site.
The question of access versus preservation is a poignant one and isby 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 aBuddhist ? I am not ? you know that the material world is a phantom ora 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 hadalways 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, Istayed in quarters at the site rather than in Dunhuang itself, a citythat doesn?t look like much now but certainly must have once.
Set between Mongolia and Tibet, it was a vital, cosmopolitanjuncture on the Silk Road. Whether you traveled the northern brancheast from Rome, or the southern one from Arabia, you ended up doingbusiness here. And because of its gateway position, it was whereBuddhism spilled out of India and Central Asia into China, leaving aresidue of spectacular art.
The first cave at Mogaoku was carved in A.D. 366 by an itinerantmonk named Yuezun who said that one night he saw flamelike lightspulsing across the cliff face and took them as a sign: Here you muststay. 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 forshelter and meditation, occasionally for burials. From the window of myroom in the academy?s guest house I could see dozens of these hollowsset high up on the cliff, their low entrances black with shadows. Theyare hard to reach and, apart from archaeologists, few people visit themnow. Probably few ever did. They were made for solitude.
Yet by the early fifth century, a cave boom was underway in theDunhuang area, with activity concentrated at Mogaoku. Larger and largergrottoes were excavated as temples and monastic lecture halls:essentially, public spaces. Many had chapel-like niches andfree-standing walk-around altars, all cut from stone. As with theAjanta Buddhist caves in India, interiors were carved witharchitectural features ? beams, eaves, pitched roofs, coffered ceiling? as if to simulate buildings.
Painting covered everything. Murals illustrating jatakas, talesfrom the Buddha?s past lives, were popular; they?re like panoramiccomic-book storyboards spread across a wall. For imperiallycommissioned interiors, images of princeling saints and court feteswere the rule. Rock ceilings were covered with fields of decorativepatterning to evoke an illusion of fabric pavilions. Any leftover spacewas filled with figures of tiny deities ? Mogaoku was known as theThousand Buddha Caves ? painted directly on the plastered walls orstuck on as sculptural plaques.
Sculpture was where Dunhuang departed from the Indian model. InIndian caves figures were chiseled from the living rock. Everything wasliterally of a piece. Maybe because the sandstone at Mogaoku was toocrumbly for fine work, the artists here used another method. They madefigures from mud mixed with grass and molded over bundled branches andreeds.
Exceptionally large figures, in need of a solid core to keep themfrom collapsing, were made in a different way. The body of the75-foot-tall Buddha in the cave known as the Nine-Story Temple iscarved from the rock face and plastered over. His feet are planted atthe 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 adevelopmental timeline of Buddhist art in China, an encyclopedicarchive of styles and ideas, of dashes forward and retreats to thepast.
But of course much of it has not survived. By the 11th centuryDunhuang?s fortunes were in decline. Sea trade had cut into Silk Roadtraffic. Regional wars left the town isolated. Monks, possibly panickedby rumors of an Islamic invasion, sealed up tens of thousands ofmanuscript scrolls in a small cave. The invasion didn?t happen, but thebooks, many of them already ancient, stayed hidden and forgotten, asMogaoku 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 finallyreappeared, the damage only increased. In the late 19th century awandering Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu settled down and started aruinous program of ?conservation,? discovering the bricked-up librarycave with its precious scrolls in the process. He didn?t know it, buthe had made of one of the most important archaeological finds of moderntimes.
Other people soon knew. In 1907 the British explorer Aurel Steinarrived. For a pittance he bought around 5,000 silk and paper scrollsfrom 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 thecapacious ethnic melting pot that China has always been.
Of all Stein?s books the prize was a ninth-century woodblock copyof the Diamond Sutra, or the ?Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom of theDiamond that Cuts Through Illusion.? As if defying the scripture?sinsistence on transience as the only reality, this marvelous scroll isthe earliest known dated example of a printed book, six centuries olderthan the Gutenberg Bible.
After Stein came the French linguist and Sinologist Paul Pelliot.In one marathon reading session he eyeballed the entire remainingcontents of the library cave, sorted out the cream and packed it off toParis. Then a Japanese expedition arrived to claim a share, followed bya Russian one. In the 1920s the swashbuckling American art historianLangdon Warner sliced 26 murals from Mogaoku cave walls and gave themto Harvard, along with a pilfered sculpture. (You can still see theghost-outlines of figures where he lifted off the thin plaster sheets.)
Whatever else can be said of them, these men fully understood thevalue 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 anatural reaction. It was my reaction. Accompanied by a Dunhuang Academyresearcher and guide, Liu Qin, I visited two dozen caves in a singleday, and afterward couldn?t shake what I?d seen.
First there is darkness, intensified because of the blazing desertsun. When your eyes adjust to the dusky light filtering in, you seethat you?re being observed by other eyes, those of a larger-than-lifefifth century Northern Wei Buddha. He has a large broad head, softlimbs and a moony smile. Dressed in a hot-weather Indian dhoti, helooks 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-greenhalo meditates in a niche. A standing divinity wreathed by a garland ofmaiden angels wears a flower-spattered robe of Persian brocade.Calligraphic figures, blue against white, tumble across the wall likeswallows in a wind. Feathered, but with human faces, ridingdragon-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 andflutes. Soon these are gone too. Then a drama in several scenes aboutbandits being blinded for their crimes and rejoicing as the Buddharestores their sight. Gone. A corps of heavenly dancers, a hundred MayaPlisetskayas in saris. The flashlight sweeps a ceiling thick withcolored patterns; they seem to stream toward a central lotus medallionlike 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 ResearchInstitute, formed by a band of young Chinese scholars, took control ofthe site. Now called the Dunhuang Academy, it is still here,stabilizing the caves structurally, conserving their sculptures andpaintings and monitoring visitor access.
Mogaoku is charmed ground. In late spring and early summer the airis fragrant, the sky a lambent blue, the desert oceanically serene. Andthere is the art and the soaked-in atmosphere of devotion. The placeleaves strong and alluring memories in the memories of visitors; in itscaretakers it inspires lifelong loyalty.
The current director of the Dunhuang Academy, Fan Jinshi, arrivedas a graduate student in 1963. At that time getting here was an ordeal;there were no planes, few trains. The academy?s headquarters hadneither electricity nor running water. She married, but her husbandworked elsewhere. Sometimes they didn?t see each other for months at atime, once for a full year. In 1998, after 35 years on the job, she wasnamed director of the academy. At 70, she is still here, working ashard as ever.
During her time much has changed. The site has been broughttechnologically up to date. A once-bare-bones staff has grown to around300 full-time conservators, researchers, groundskeepers and guards,supplemented since the late 1980s by training teams from the GettyConservation Institute in Los Angeles, led by Neville Agnew. Theever-encroaching tide of sand has been slowed by a system ofwind-breaking nets.
Transportation to Dunhuang has become relatively easy. A new trainstation has just gone up; the airport runway, once made of tar that wassaid to turn soft in the sun, has been reinforced. Yet from a planewindow the town still has a marooned, precarious look, like a loneatoll 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 Japanesetourists in search of the roots of their own Buddhist tradition.Recently this pattern has radically changed. With a flourishingeconomy, a relaxation of the Cultural Revolution?s disapproval ofreligion and the central government?s strenuous promotion of a newnationalist pride, hundreds of thousands of tourists, 90 percent ofthem Chinese, are coming to Mogaoku each year, jamming into the caves.
The impact has been significant. The risk of direct contact withart is somewhat reduced by the installation of transparent screens, butthe 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 eventuallyhave to be closed to the public.
Plans for drastic remedial action are in place. Under Dr. Fan andthe vice director, Wang Xudong, the academy will build by 2011 a newvisitor reception center several miles from the caves, near the airportand railroad station. All Mogaoku-bound travelers will be required togo to the center first, where they will be given an immersiveintroduction to the caves? history, digital tours of interiors andsimulated restorations on film of damaged images. They will then beshuttled to the site itself, where they will take in the ambience ofits desert-edge locale and see the insides of one or two caves beforereturning to where they started.
(About 70 percent of the money for the visitor center ? theequivalent of $38 million ? is coming from the Chinese government. Therest must be raised from private sources. Details related to theproject can be found on friendsofdunhuang.org.)
For Chinese visitors a partly virtual approach may not feelunusual. Many museums in China give equal time to art objects andinformation technology. Multimedia evocations of sites are common: itis the only way to see excavated tomb frescos too sensitive to lightand air to be removed from the underground. And it is common practicesubstitute copies of famous works of art in museums when the originalsare unavailable.
For Westerners addicted to the concept of authenticity, to theromance of ?the real thing,? the idea of a primarily digital experienceof Mogaoku is hard, if not impossible to accept. Art is, after all,about the aura attached to uniqueness. The art experience depends onbeing there.
Paradoxically this insistence on authenticity is also the impulsedriving contemporary conservation. At whatever cost, the integrity ofthe original must be preserved. Yet conservators know that often theonly way to protect the ?real thing? is by restricting access to it, byforcing an audience to accept a condition of not being there, bysubstituting virtual auras for actual ones. And so the contradictionspile up, and change inexorably goes on.
At dawn on the morning I am leaving Mogaoku, it is quiet. I watchthe sun hit the hard-to-reach caves high up on the cliff. Then I watchbuses 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 donot mind making noise.
Exactly what they are looking for at Mogaoku, or will find, is hardto know; they seem so distracted, so somewhere else. Yet just beforereaching the cave they stop and linger, as do other, older visitors,over a small text-and-photo display. It documents Wang Yuanlu?spresence here a century ago and describes the visits of Stein, Pelliotand Warner and what they took away. Maybe this is what Mogaoku means toits new audience: not art, not faith but cultural heritage with aloaded political history.
As for me, I?m heading to the airport. I consider making a quickreturn to the Nine-Story Temple before I leave, but head in theopposite direction, toward the desert. From afar I had noticed ascattering of small stupa towers and hutlike shrines just beyondMogaoku?s boundaries. Mr. Liu said they were memorials to monks andpriests who had died at Mogaoku, Wang Yuanlu being one. There were lotsof markers once, but most have been worn down.
They are made from the same stuff as almost all of the cavesculptures, air-dried earth mixed with grass. Outdoors it cracks andbreaks easily; chips from the memorials litter the ground. Two of theshrine huts have crude little frescos in shelflike niches, with sandsilted up in the corners. I brush some away.
Well, I think to myself, you made it here, someplace you alwayswanted to go. Is it what you hoped it would be? Yes, exactly as I?dhoped. Will you return? Life is busy; time is a problem; the distanceis great. Besides, if I did return, it wouldn?t be the same. It wouldchange, wouldn?t it?
On some impulse I look back at the cliff, toward the face of thegreat stone Buddha behind his window, but I can?t see his eyes.
[Special thanks to drj573's photostream on Flickr for the image of the great Buddha. Pls click on the image for more photos and full documentation.]