One of the cave replicas at the Getty’s Dunhuang exhibit
For close to 1,000 years, Dunhuang, an oasis town in western China, served as the crossroads of the world, with art that reflected its cosmopolitan nature. Much of that art is found in the Mogao Caves located just outside of the town and reflect the development of Buddhist art in China from 400 AD to approximately 1400 AD. Fast-forward to today and Dunhuang is a virtual unknown to most Americans. Its hypnotic cave art completely forgotten by the world at large.
But starting this Saturday, the Getty Center will change this status quo, bringing the jewels of Dunhuang to North America in a magical exhibit that is not to be missed. Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road contemplates the Getty’s 25-year history conserving this amazing art and supporting the Dunhuang Academy, a Chinese-based organization created in 1944 to preserve the Buddhist cave art of Dunhuang.
A westernized figurine in one of the earlier caves
Cave Temples of Dunhuang is broken down into three parts. The first portion is a perfect replica of three caves – Cave 275, Cave 285 and Cave 320. Surrounded by imposing Buddhist statues and with walls covered with Buddhist art, together these caves show the development and siniciziation of Buddhist art. In Cave 275, western artistic influence is apparent, with one statute displaying clear Western features. Cave 285 includes Hindu deities as part of the Buddha’s court. But by Cave 320, the art is clearly Chinese. It is also the height of Chinese art.
After visiting the caves, you are escorted to the second part and it is likely this part that will serve as the biggest draw. It is probably the reason why the Getty is extending its weekend hours. Instead of physically replicating the caves, the Getty commissioned yU+co to create a 3-D, immersion copy of one of the Mogao Caves. After donning 3-D glasses, you are escorted to a dark room and soon, you are flying around Cave 45, stopping periodically on a statute or painting on the ceiling, with the narrator explaining the religious significance of each piece. It is a fun way to see this art and an amazing experience. It is also likely the way of the future for museums shows. Or at least those that can afford it.
But it is the third part – the most traditional – that truly showcases the gems of this exhibit. After 1400, the Mogao Caves were largely closed, forgotten and covered by sand. But in the early 1900s, western explorers re-discovered this area. With China in the throes of dynastic decline and revolution, these explores absconded with some of the best art – paintings on silk, ancient manuscripts, instructions on how to paint the caves – all of which had been perfectly preserved in a sealed up cave known as the Library Cave. These masterpieces largely sit in storerooms of British and French museums. The British Museum, which has the most artifacts from the Library Cave, has none of these pieces on permanent display. The French museums also rarely show their Dunhuang pieces. While these museums argue that exposure to the light would destroy these delicate artifacts, one wonders if, in 2016, that is still the real reason why only a select few are permitted to see these amazing pieces of art and important relics of world history.
How did all those tiny Buddhas get to the ceiling? The Getty explains
Fortunately, the Getty was able to borrow many of the treasures of the Library Cave and has displayed these for visitors to see. The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book, is on display, as are writings reflecting the various religions practiced in Dunhuang – Hebrew scripture, a Christian psalm translated into Chinese. But the paintings on silk are truly mesmerizing, with bold colors and patterns that hold your attention. One painting on silk seems more like an art deco piece of the 1920s than a piece from 700 AD, making one realize that some conceptions of beauty never go out of style. Once the Getty closes this show and returns the art, these are pieces that will likely never see the light of day again which is truly a travesty. This alone is a reason to see this show. But the final part of Cave Temples of Dunhuang ends with an explanation of how these caves were built, the lives of the artisans and how exactly they did all of this, allowing the visitor to better understand the people who commissioned
1920s Art Deco or 700s Tang Dynasty?
and built these caves.
Through Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road, and the care that went into creating such a breathtaking show, the Getty Center’s dedication to preserving this important world cultural site and sharing its beauty is clear. And unlike its British and French museum counterparts, the Getty understands that this important art must been seen by the world at large. Cave Temples of Dunhuang also does a wonderful job of explaining the religious and historical significance of the art and perfectly captures why Dunhuang is still an important site. If you are in Los Angeles this summer, be sure to put this at the top of your list. You won’t regret it.
Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road
May 7, 2016 – September 4, 2016
The Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angles, CA 90049 ***During the Exhibit, the Getty will stay open late on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays***
Note that tickets for the physical and immersion caves are timed but the exhibit of artifacts can be seen at any time.
Today, the Mogao caves are are UN World Heritage Site. But for a few hundred years the caves fell into oblivion. Few knew of their existence and none visited. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the caves were “re-discovered” by a Taoist abbot named Wang Yuanlu. Quickly word of his discovery reached some of the Western archaeologist-explorers traveling through Central Asia. Understanding the significance of this art, many of these Western explorers descended on Dunhuang to see this all for themselves.
As a result, many of the greatest pieces of Dunhuang art are in various museums in the West. Was this art taken legally? Do the Chinese want it back?
Dunhuang expert, Dr. Neil Schmid answers these questions and more in Part 2 of his interview with China Law & Policy. If you would like to hear Dr. Schmid speak live, join him next week as he speaks on these issues on September 23 at 7:30 PM at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing.
Read the transcript below of Part 2 of this two-part interview or click on the media player below to listen:
Length: 12:29 minutes
To read or listen to Part 1 of this two-part interview series with Dr. Scmid, click here.
EL: Just to move away from the art to the political. I know when I visited the Mogao caves, it appears that for foreigners visiting the caves, part of the tour is a stop in a separate building documenting the Western countries’ purchasing and taking of the Mogao’s manuscripts and cave art at the turn of the 20th century. We know that in the case of the British, they purchased from the monk in charge of the caves at the time, the world’s oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra. They had examples of an American explorer also purchasing some old Buddhist manuscripts, as well as physically lifting some of the cave art out of the caves. In that period, why were Westerns so interested in the Mogao caves and how did they even know about it to go out there?
NS: Great questions. So the first visitors were before 1900 and they were typically involved in exploration and survey. This has to do with what was called the Great Game, the machinations between the United Kingdom and Russia, the Russian Empire, to control Central Asia. So it was through that process that Central Asia began to be known. While we have these military and quasi-military figures in Central Asia, the first sort of striking discovery was something called the Bower Manuscript. This manuscript was a shock because here in Central Asia we find a birch bark manuscript from the 4th to 6th Centuries in what’s called Hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit or Prakrit.
Before nobody ever thought that we would find these types of materials. What it means is that the Indian civilization in many ways reached into Central Asia. This got people very excited. Number one because these materials don’t exist in India for the most part because the climate is much too moist.
Sir Aurel Stein, 1909
So what happens is after they discovered that manuscript you began to have so-called scholar-explorers, archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein is a perfect example of that combination, come in and began to do surveys and archaeological surveys of Central Asia.
It was during this period that they began to get word of this great Buddhist site and also a site with lots of manuscripts and that got them very, very excited.
EL: Based on the fact that the tours with Westerners in Dunhuang make it a point to recount this history of the Western explorers and the purchasing of many of the manuscripts, is China making any efforts to get these manuscripts back? Especially the Diamond Sutra.
NS: Not on a large basis. So what we have is a lot of scholars working together, e.g., Chinese scholars with British scholars or French scholars, on an increasingly large basis. Also museums and institutions working together. So what we find now is that on the scholarly end of things, a lot of these materials have been digitized by the International Dunhuang Project. It’s a remarkable project for the amount of material and it is based out of the British Library. They in the process, over the years, have gotten a number of other institutions on board – the Chinese, also the French, the Russians, the Germans – to begin to digitalize their materials, manuscripts and paintings. So this is one thing that has sort of lessened the desperation for return finds because scholars have access to the materials world-wide now.
The Dunhuang Mogao Caves from Afar
Regarding so-called plunderer, Aurel Stein is often labeled that, but as you mentioned, he actually purchased the manuscripts. Of course that is controversial. Also there was Langdon Warner, who is from your alma mater [Harvard], and he is notorious for having used a technique which he felt was innovative. Basically to use tape – I am simplifying it – to put on the murals and rip them off. In the process some were damaged. He actually has a receipt for these. So Harvard’s response might be, for example, “Oh, we have a receipt, they were paid for, we bought them in good order.”
EL: So it’s all very legal.
NS: It’s all very legal, exactly. People might disagree with the methods and the authorities he spoke to actually purchase the materials. Of course, there is a lot of room for debate on this issue.
EL: I think in a talk you gave previously, you had mentioned that the Abbot [at the Mogao Caves] had tried to get the Qing Dynasty and the Emperor interested it. Could you just talk a little bit more about that?
NS: Yes. Wang Yuanlu was the person who was renovating the cave site in around the year 1900 when he discovered the cache of manuscripts. And it is a fantastic cache of manuscripts. He recognized that they were important, he wanted to get in touch with the authorities in order to know what to do with these manuscripts. And in fact the Qing Dynasty authorities weren’t that interested. Part of the slow response by the Chinese government at the time was that it was dominated by Confucian elites. They saw Buddhist materials as simply not that interesting. So this is one reason I believe that the process was slowed down for the Chinese government to recognize the value of this incredible find.
EL: Just to fast-forward a bit in time, when you go to the Mogao Caves you still see a tremendous amount of art
Tang Dynasty cave art peeking out of an entrance at Mogao caves
on the walls, you still see a tremendous amount of the carvings. How were these cave arts able to survive the Cultural Revolution as well as the campaign against the Four Olds that sought to destroy a lot of Buddhist art?
NS: Mogao and Dunhuang was fortunate because they had a powerful patron if you will, Zhou Enlai, Premier Zhou Enlai. He was hugely supportive of the renovation project, the project to stabilize the cliff face, to begin the catalogue process and also research in general. He specifically said that Mogao Caves were not to be damaged. And I have to put in a plug here also for the Dunhuang Research Academy and the people there, scholars there, who had been working on the materials for literally dozens of years at that point, they made a serious effort to talk to Red Guards, to discuss the value of the materials.
EL: And what about today, what’s being done to preserve the caves and will preservation be successful especially as more tourists come to Dunhuang?
Camels on the Silk Road
NS: Part of the problem with the caves today is that moisture and also carbon dioxide is beginning to deteriorate the caves. There’s also ground water coming up because there’s a lot of irrigation to make pretty gardens, if you will, in front of the attraction. So that water is seeping up into the caves so that the lower level of caves, at the bottom of the murals, they’re beginning to completely deteriorate.
So what’s been done over the last three decades is that the Getty Conservation Institute has gotten involved – of the Getty Museum in L.A.. That’s since 1985. It’s been their longest running project of conservation, heritage conservation. They have been instrumental in working with the Dunhuang Research Academy and also the Chinese government in creating, number one an analysis, a very detailed analysis, of the materials involved in the construction of the caves, how they deteriorate, why they deteriorate and ways to prevent it. On top of that there’s also a digitalization project going on [and a major upcoming exhibit on Dunhuang caves May 2016 at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles]
Part of that, along with the visitors center that recently opened, is to provide tourists with an alternative experience. So through the digitalization or the immersive digitalization of the case themselves at the vistor’s center and then to decrease the number of visitors actually going into the caves.
Mogao Cave #98, Uighur retinue
EL: The visitor’s center is very, very impressive and a lot of fun which leads me to think they’re hoping a lot more people come to visit it. For people who aren’t China people, China scholars, what do you think is the significance of these caves? Why should just regular Americans, when they take a trip to China, why should they go out to Dunhuang?
NS: The caves which span in their creation 1,000 years are the largest repository of Chinese art. Maintain and contain items and designs and styles, aesthetics, and also the very space itself that doesn’t exist anywhere else in China. So in terms of this kind of immersive experience, you can’t get better than Dunhuang to see how people experienced Buddhism in the Tang, for example, period. So that’s a major reason. Dunhuang itself and the Mogao caves, the site is stunning and gives you a sense of what the power of trade that unfolded over 1000 years on the silk roads or silk route if you will. The caves themselves have a cosmopolitanism. Dunhuang at that time we know from manuscripts was incredibly mixed and well-integrated. So there is a fascination with that as well.
EL: Finally, can you describe your favorite cave and why it is your favorite cave? You have to have a favorite.
EL: You can’t love them all.
Mogao Cave #98, King of Khotan and retinue (c.920)
NS: In spite of its formulaic nature, there’s a cave, Cave 98, which is remarkable. It’s quite large; it’s a large family cave, it’s an elite’s cave. But what’s fascinating for me is it’s well preserved but it also lays out the political nature of the caves, the political nature of Buddhism also. You have large donor portraits of the King of Khotan and his relations to the Dunhuang elite. Its remarkable for that reason that here we have a sort of detailed outline of political alliances that were being constructed and set in a ritual space, which is a cave. This sort of liturgical moment that in some ways is frozen in time. That’s what these caves do, they maintain relationships both among people and also with the Buddha forever and forever. I find that fascinating and Cave 98 is particularly rich in the historical-political elements.
EL: Okay, well, thank you again Dr. Schmid for your enlightening explanation of the Mogao caves. Hopefully, more people will go there but not breathe on the caves. Thank you.
NS: Thank you very much
See, for example, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (London: Kodansha International, 1992).
A selection of Dr. Schmid’s publications and talks can be found by clicking here. Or join Dr. Schmid at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing on September 23, 2015 at 7:30 pm.
Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Rong, Xinjiang, and Imre Galambos. Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
Whitfield, Roderick, Susan Whitfield, and Neville Agnew. Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road, Second Edition. Second Edition, Revised edition. Los Angeles, California: Getty Conservation Institute, 2015.
Tibet is considered the Buddhist capital of China, causing many not familiar with China’s geography to believe that Buddhism came to China from India through Tibet. But with the highest mountain peaks in the world, the Himalayas, separating India and China, Buddhism had to take a different route. Instead, it entered northern China through what has become known as the Silk Road. As a result, some very early Buddhist art can be found in remote northwestern regions of China. One such example are the Buddhist cave art in Dunhuang, an oasis town situated in the Gobi Desert which with its desert climate was able to preserve this art. The Mogao Caves are probably the best known.
But any trip to the Mogao caves by a Buddhist art novice leaves one with many questions on the art, the history and its significance. Fortunately, China Law & Policy had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Neil Schmid, an American expert on Buddhist Studies and Dunhuang. If you are in Beijing, Dr. Schmid will be speaking on these issue next week, September 23 at 7:30 PM at the Courtyard Institute.
Read the transcript below of Part 1 of this two-part interview or click on the media player below to listen:
EL: Thank you for joining us today. First, can you give us a little bit of background on the caves: when were they first constructed, why and by whom?
NS: Elizabeth, thank you for inviting me. So there’s a story, maybe apocryphal, that in 366 [CE] a monk by the name of Le Zun had a vision. This is a vision that happened outside of the oasis of Dunhuang, in a small, small ravine with a cliff face. There he had this vision that he was basically to build a cave. This is, again maybe it is apocryphal, is the originating story of the Mogao caves.
EL: And what year was that again?
NS: 366. So he was followed by another monk, Fa Liang, and then a series of monks after that.
EL: So can you explain more why these caves were created?
NS: As I said initially they were dug out as meditation spaces. Spaces where monks could live relatively distant from Dunhuang or some sort of urban or town center due to spiritual practices. This is the origin of these caves. Then what happens over time, over the centuries, is that the site becomes a pilgrimage site and with these powerful monks – spiritually that is – people began to patronize them. In doing so, they began building caves themselves. These people were typically the elites or also groups of people who would gather together and fund the digging and the construction of a cave in Mogao, in this area.
You asked about whom they were actually built by. So they had funders, they had donors, but there was – and we have a lot of information especially from the 10th century on. We know that it was a professional class of artisans who actually did the construction work – painters, sculptors, metal smiths, textile workers.  They were organized hierarchically according to their expertise and their titles reflected their skill and their standing. So these are the people who actually built the caves and we can talk a little bit later about that process of building itself.
EL: So that’s interesting that you talk about the professional class of artisans and also just the changes over who was sponsoring the building over centuries. When you go to the Mogao caves themselves, you do see some changes to the art when you visit different caves. Can you explain more or highlight what some of those changes are from the beginning to the later parts. And do you believe there’s a high point to the art itself?
NS: The earliest caves we have are from the Northern Liang and that’s 397 [CE] to 439 [CE]. These caves are very, very heavily influenced by Indian and also Central Asian styles. The motifs, the iconography, the sculpture, is very, very much dominated by something other than Chinese. Over the years, these artistic forms and iconography and also the ritual space itself begins to shift away from monks towards an increasingly lay-oriented perspective. What the caves also take on in terms of transformation of the artistic styles and ritual styles is an increasingly sinicized, i.e. Chinese aesthetic. So for example what happens later, you have stories about Indian, about the Buddha done completely in Chinese costume, in Chinese-like settings. It naturalizes in some ways Buddhism for Chinese. We see this very clearly evidenced in the caves.
Mogao Cave #275, Northern Liang (397-439)
EL: I know some art historians believe that some dynasties have better art than others or higher-end art than others. Do you agree with that? I think everyone always thinks the Tang Dynasty but how do you deal with that?
NS: That’s a good question. I could talk about my personal favorites.
EL: That’s okay.
NS: I particularly like Tang, what’s known as high Tang style. But it is very, very difficult to say one style is a high point. Obviously it depends on the reference points of what you consider a high point. There’s amazing artistic skill that goes into the creation of earlier caves in terms of actual painting styles which are now lost in China. So in some ways you could say that due to their introduction and disappearance, these were high points in particular artistic styles.
EL: That’s fair. I guess the other thing is when visiting the caves you can’t help but wonder how starting in 400 AD, people were able to paint and build such amazing art. In particular, there is that one awe-inspiring Buddha. Do we know exactly how these caves were built? How the painting was put onto the walls? How many people it took to build these caves? I think you were already talking a little bit about the professionalization of the artisans. If you could go into a little bit more depth about that.
NS: So what happens in the Tang, the Five Dynasties period, and also in the Song, is that you have elite families funding the construction of caves and in the process they create what is essentially a painting academy. At this painting academy you have trained artisans. Note that they are laity; they are not monks, they are not clerics. We have lots and lots of documentation from this period and detailed manuscripts about what they were paid, how often they were paid, were they lived, the types of work, individual specialties. We know that laborers were typically paid in food, so cooked meals. Also oil, also grains. This was a typical form of payment.
How the caves themselves were actually constructed, they were constructed by starting at the top of the interior of a cave and then digging it out and down. So what they would do then after it was dug out is they would begin to furnish the walls and then apply a straw and stucco mix. Then on top of that begin the painting process.
In this period, again very late Tang, Five Dynasties period, Song period, it became very programmatic, very organized in terms of the pictorial program of the caves themselves. And very standardized. They used a variety of drawings for example to create on a regular basis the paintings in the caves. They also used something called “pounces” which is a piece of paper with dots cut in that they would then typically blow a paint across to get an outline. Then they would color that in. One of the motifs you see again and again at Dunhuang in the Mogao caves is the Thousand Buddha motif.
Mogao cave 249, Western Wei (534-556AD) Early version of Thousand Buddha motif.
EL: Right, right. You see that it is painted like in an assembly line.
NS: Exactly. There is this whole modularity to the construction and also the painting process. Then the paint themselves typically use things like -the expensive ones – lapis lazuli and malachite. The painting was done on dry stucco and again through a series of artisans. The construction of a cave, or a large cave, during this period would be perhaps a year. It would take a year.
 On the construction of the caves and guilds, see Sarah Fraser’s excellent overview, Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (Stanford University Press, 2003).