The Modern Grottoes of Ancient Dunhuang

2020-02-10 04:03:13 《China Pictorial》 2020年1期

by Liu Min

The Danghe River makes a turn at a location about 30 kilometers southwest of downtown Dunhuang. Severely eroded by wind, the cliffs in this place were cracked and turned into deep trenches like canyons. The renowned Western Thousand-Buddha Caves, featuring frescos similar in structure and artistic style to those in the Mogao Caves, are located there. Two kilometers west of the Western Thousand-Buddha Caves is the northern bank of the Danghe River. Six meters above the semi-dry riverbed are three stories of two dozen window-like caves in the cliffs. The caves are the Art Center of the Modern Dunhuang Caves.

The ancient Dunhuang Caves, including the Mogao Caves, the Yulin Caves and the Western ThousandBuddha Caves, are known for abundant Buddhist statues, gorgeous murals and magnificent landscapes. The modern Dunhuang Caves are a more recent work by Chinese people. The intention of building the modern Dunhuang Caves is to inherit the 1,600-year-old Dunhuang Buddhist art and create new space for modern Chinese art and life.

Passing on the Dunhuang Legacy

The modern Dunhuang Caves were established by painter Chang Jiahuang. Back in 1996, he began raising funds and digging caves. His father, Chang Shuhong (1904-1994), was the founding director of the Dunhuang Art Institute when it opened in 1943. After the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, Chang Shuhong became the first director of the Dunhuang Academy. Because he devoted his life to the research and protection of Dunhuang art, he was hailed as the “Guardian of Dunhuang.”

After his fathers death in 1994, Chang Jiahuangs mother, the painter Li Chengxian, told him that his father had wanted to dig new grottoes on the cliffs near Dunhuang as early as the 1950s to inherit and pass on Dunhuang art through creating new frescos and painted sculptures. Executing his late fathers wish of“continuing Dunhuang art and using the ancient carrier to leave work from present civilization for future generations,” Chang and his 72-year-old mother began to raise funds themselves to build modern caves in November 1996.

The local government was tremendously supportive of construction of new caves. The Dunhuang Municipal Bureau of Land Management approved 30,000 square meters of land for cultural use. The Qinghai Petroleum Management Bureau even laid two kilometers of underground cables and water pipelines for the modern caves for free.

Changs concepts for the modern grotto art project are concrete and detailed. The first step is to build caves to house lost national treasures. He wants to restore exquisite Dunhuang paintings on silk, which were lost overseas, on the walls of the modern caves. The second is to preserve his parents achievements in Dunhuang research during the past 50 years.

The most outstanding relic of the ancient grottoes in Dunhuang is Cave 220 built in the Tang Dynasty(618-907), which features the most exquisite and best-preserved murals with the highest artistic value among Dunhuang frescoes. The new cave dubbed the “Best Tang Dynasty Works of the Modern Dunhuang Caves” is an exact replica of Cave 220.

Painstaking Efforts

Of the 20-plus new caves, Cave 1 is the “Cave of Lost National Treasures,” Cave 2, also known as the“Cave with the Best Tang Dynasty Works,” is now under construction and Cave 3 is planned to be“Pure Land Sect Exchange between China and Japan,” in which workers are restoring an exquisite mural that was transported from China to the Taimadera Temple in Nara, Japan, in the 7th century. This cave isnt yet complete. In addition, more than 10 artists from countries including Japan, Hungary, Australia and Iran have traveled to the modern caves to create new works.

After Changs mother passed away in 2003, Professor Li Bailing from the School of Fine Arts of Southwest University continued the work on the fresco painting in Cave 1. She led her students to study photos of renowned Dunhuang paintings on silk, including Samantabhadra Bodhisattva Riding an Elephant, Portrait of a Travelling Monk, Scene from Hell, and Explaining Sutra under the Tree, housed in renowned international museums such as the British Museum and the Guimet Musuem, and enlarged the images to make them frescoes on the walls.

In 2018, the reproduction of Cave 220 saw new progress. Associate Professor Chen Jiangxiao from the Fine Arts Academy of Yuxi Normal University took an early retirement. She planned to spend 10 years to complete the reproduction of Cave 220 with help from students and volunteers. About 20 years ago, as a graduate student, Chen mapped out all the frescoes of Cave 1 with her teacher and classmates. Two decades later, she is leading students and volunteers to recreate the original appearance of Cave 220 with outstanding Tang Dynasty works.

“Professor Chen continued my parents work to recreate Cave 220,”said Chang Jiahuang. “Her students now are already third-generation painters of the modern Dunhuang Caves.”

The late Chang Shuhong said the frescoes in Cave 220 “boast excellent composition and coloring as gorgeous as those in church decorative paintings of the Italian Renaissance.”

Chang Shuhong and his wife Li Chengxian spent decades researching and restoring the cave. In the last few years of her life, Li identified all the original hues before discoloration and drew a detailed colored version of the original image.

To recreate Cave 220, the cliff faces had to be trimmed before digging the cave. Despite their similar geographical conditions, the digging of modern Dunhuang Caves encountered more difficulties than the ancient Mogao Caves. After a cave is excavated, the uneven wall surface is smoothed with a 5-centimeter-thick layer of soil to make it suitable for painting. After this process, painting a mural requires several more steps. First, content for the whole cave is designed. Then a draft is worked out. Outlines of the design are then drawn on the wall. Only then can colors be applied, starting with the base color followed by polished images using color-gradation technique. Finally, the figures are delineated to highlight character images.

Professor Chen has attached great attention to delineating and coloring during the restoration process. She estimates that three years will be needed to restore the frescoes on one wall. That means it will require almost 10 years for all three walls of the cave. Of all the time consumed, nearly 90 percent will be used for sorting lines and only 10 percent devoted to drawing in the cave. For each specific fresco, the lines must be sorted and arranged in order before the drawing can be enlarged and printed on parchment paper.

In contrast to Western painting, traditional Chinese painting emphasizes the role of lines as carriers of life. Painters showcase the texture of objects and the movements and emotions through expressive lines. By employing different and changing lines and strokes, the spirit and inner strength of objects are captured. Along with lines, coloring a draft is tremendously important for frescoes. From far away, the colors of frescoes can better reflect the atmosphere and artistic concepts of the whole cave. And the skill involved in filling colors on the draft can better display the style and spirit of the frescoes.

Life of Tang Painters

Professor Chen knows too well that a life of building grottoes brings endless silence and loneliness. At night, her only friends are the stars behind dark purple mountains in the distance. Meanwhile, Chang Jiahuang considers Chens determination the closest to the Tang Dynasty painters.

“When you arrive in Dunhuang, you must make your heart a grain of rice in a large water tank and let it sink quietly to the bottom,”Chang said. “You must start by feeling the frescoes, copying them and researching them. Then you can start to talk about artistic creation.”

The first painters working in the Mogao Caves more than 1,000 years ago were mostly monks. They were painting their beliefs and spiritual world into the murals. According to historical records found in Dunhuang,“three painters had steamed buns for breakfast and two flatbreads each for lunch, and they ate like this for two days and then ran out of food,” but they continued to work.

To meet modern artists needs for protein and vitamins, Chang Jiahuang intends to use low-energy LED lights and soilless cultivation technology to grow vegetables and hydroponic products in caves without natural light. After the modern caves are equipped with better living conditions, painters can more easily carry out larger-scale artistic activities.

Twenty-three years have passed since construction of the modern caves began. Chang Jiahuang, now in his late 60s, has much to say. “Two decades ago when I first started talking about building modern caves, many people called the idea a utopian dream and dubbed me insane,” he said. “I considered giving up and imagined sealing the entrance of the modern caves with cement many times. But I have never done so because I always remember what my mother said before her death. She believed that with the development of China, the public would foster a deeper understanding of the modern caves and that our undertakings would continue. Now, more and more people are starting to support our work on the modern caves.”