In Northwest China, at the edge of the Gobi desert, a sinuous line of vertiginous cliffs is home to the Mogao grottoes. Although inspired by the Buddhist faith, these ancient caverns are more than a religious relic, providing a vibrant record of Chinese history and the tumultuous relationship between East and West. However, the beauty of these subterranean treasures is in danger and their future may depend on a group of Hong Kong entrepreneurs who want to give them a very modern kind of immortality.

In 366 AD, beneath a flaming sun, a tired and hungry monk arrived at the foot of Echoing-Sand Mountain in Dunhuang, a small oasis in the Gobi desert. As dusk descended the ascetic began to meditate. Suddenly, he saw beacons of golden light erupt from the mountain, as if its peak had become the playground of Buddha, blazing forth in thousands of fiery manifestations. The monk, known to history as Lezun was stunned and in the roseate glow he believed that the Buddha had appeared to him. He immediately vowed to carve a shrine in the cliff to commemorate his vision and give thanks to his God.

If Lezun was shocked by his vision he would have been even more surprised by what followed. Over the next millennium many others would follow his lead, building shrines throughout the Mogao caves. Lezun’s legend became widespread, and attracted a great number of Buddhists to Dunhuang. Before long monks, aristocrats and commoners were competing with each other to build the finest and most sacred shrines, inviting the best craftsmen and painters to glorify the grottoes. In response the caves were given the name Mogao (meaning “none better”) so that all would know that the shrine built by Lezun was the most sacred.

From 366AD to 1372AD, nearly 800 cave shrines were created, 492 of which were decorated with exquisite murals that cover nearly 45,000 square meters, some 40 times the expanse of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. With more than 2,000 painted sculptures and tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, the cultural treasure of Dunhuang Mogao is now recognised as the most comprehensive and exquisite repository of Buddhist art in the world.

However, the grandeur of Dunhuang at its peak can only be surmised from the existing caves. And if nothing is done to protect what remains, Dunhuang will soon be nothing but a beautiful memory.

“Historical artifacts are constantly under the threat of degradation, and will not last forever. The Mogao Grottoes are declining with age, they didn’t look the same a hundred years ago.”

says Fan Jinshi, the Director of Dunhuang Academy, the custodian of the heritage site, who has worked at the Academy since 1963.

Fan often compares photos taken in 1908 with ones taken in 2008, saying, “We can see obvious paint peeling, colour degradation, as well as erosion. What does this mean? The thousand-old caves have seen the most serious degradation in the last century.”

A representation of the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha on a mural in Mogao cave 217, (High Tang, 705-781AD)

A representation of the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha on a mural in Mogao cave 217, (High Tang, 705-781AD)

“Due to the natural and man-made factors, I am afraid these grottoes will virtually disappear without sufficient protection,” says Lo Chi-Ming, the Vice-Chairman of the Friends of Dunhuang (Hong Kong), a non-profit organisation established in 2010 to raise money for the conservation of the caves in their current state and to create a digital version of the grottoes that will bring their splendours to a wider audience. The organisation has received help from many wealthy Hong Kong citizens, who are keen to save the caves from the biggest threat they have faced in 1600 years.

Members of the Friends of Dunhuang, many of who have visited the caves, say they are horrified by the recent deterioration and by the lack of action among Chinese people to save one of their greatest cultural assets.

“We believe preserving culture is the most worthy use of our money,” says Lo Chi-Ming, a founding member of Friends of Dunhuang and the President of an electronics technology company. Lo says the idea of establishing the Friends of Dunhuang dates back to the mid-1990s, “At that time, we went to visit Mogao Grottoes, and came across a list of major donors. To our surprise, four out of the five major donors were Japanese! Only one was Chinese – Run Run Shaw.”

The mountain where Lezun saw his vision is called Sanwei. It is not far from the hinterland of early Chinese civilisation, as defined in the Book of Documents, an early history of China that dates back at least 2,500 years. Just like other mountains in Northwest China, Sanwei looks drab, its colours bled away by the scorching sunshine. Along with the khaki Gobi desert, it represents the tonal palette experienced by Lezun and all the early acetic travellers.

“The border city stands in solitude and peculiarity, isolated by miles of sand and withered grass”, was how the Tang Dynasty border poet Cen Shen described the area. Beyond Dunhuang to the west lie the Jade and Yang Passes in the barren Gobi Desert, which was sorrowfully described as “without any green or anyone you might know” in poems by the Tang writers Wang Zhihuan and Wang Wei. Further west is the hell-on-earth of the Taklimakan Desert.

Lezun, who had travelled the barren lands around Dunhuang as part of his ascetic search for enlightenment, must have known that the Silk Road was not as romantic as it sounds to modern ears. The vast Gobi Desert does not tolerate weakness in any living thing, and lonely travellers in times past always faced the risk of getting lost, which would mean almost certain death. The scorching heat in the Gobi Desert creates mirages that lured thirsty and desperate travellers to their doom, assuming that robbers, or the formidable Hun troops did not get them first.

But faith has a secret strength that has supported many pilgrims who sought out Mogao. There are not many records of Lezun’s visits, but 33 years after he built the first Mogao grotto it’s documented that a monk named Faxian departed from Chang’an westbound, passed Dunhuang and headed toward Central Asia and India. He became the first Chinese monk to travel overseas in search of Buddhist manuscripts. Two years later the Indian monk Kumarajiva came to China via Dunhuang to preach the Buddhist faith on an unprecedented scale. Later famous Chinese pilgrims including Huisheng and Xuanzang paid visits.

Thus did missionaries coming east, and pilgrims heading west pass through Dunhuang, because of its strategic position on the Silk Road.

They translated Buddhist manuscripts into Chinese and preached Buddhism, inspiring generations of believers to create and decorate the Mogao cliffs with their faith.

Around the time when Lezun created the first grotto Buddhism, which had arrived in China three hundred years before, suddenly gained strength and swept through the middle kingdom like an irresistible tide.

The early caves that were built immediately after Lezun had a palette of blue, dark green and brown. The statues have the facial characteristics of people from India, featuring high noses and deep-set eyes. The flying Apsara are nude, demonstrating a very strong Indian style. The brush strokes are harsh and forceful, a characteristic of nomadic tribes from Central Asian. Although the drawing techniques are not yet mature, the uninhibited and unpredictable brushwork created a vortex of innovation.

A mural painting showing a prince sacrificing himself to feed a group of starving tigers in Mogao cave 428, (Northen Zhou, 557-581AD)

A mural painting showing a prince sacrificing himself to feed a group of starving tigers in Mogao cave 428, (Northen Zhou, 557-581AD)

At that time, artisans painted Buddhist messages on the walls so that the illiterate public could understand and some of these stories are stained with blood. For example, one describes how a prince jumped to his death in order that a starving tiger could feed on his flesh. A similar story depicts how dedicated believers killed themselves to feed famished eagles. Another painting tells of a young novice who resorted to self-immolation because he was caught between a marriage proposal from a beautiful girl and the teachings of the Buddha, which commanded him to be celibate.

Before long, the Buddhist preachers found that ordinary Chinese people who cherish the “body” found it hard to relate to such tales of self-mutilation and sacrifice. The other ideas the stories were trying to convey – that the flesh or physical body is just a fleeting illusion – were too philosophical for the general public to understand. By contrast, the most attractive elements in Buddhist teaching was the prophecy that every being could be a Buddha, and the promise that a deity in the making called Maitreya, would, on becoming a Buddha, create a paradise where there was no earthly torture. This proved to be the most effective spiritual panacea for the common people, who usually lived in constant suffering from poverty and oppression.

As time passed, the exotic elements and stories of self-mutilation began to be excluded from Mogao painting. The grottoes began to flash with golden images of Buddha that promoted the notion that everybody could reach Nirvana. The Pure Land is also depicted as a perfect paradise, with Flying Asparas shuttling between the pavilions, some facing away from the audience, some looking down from heaven, pointing at the visitors who look up.

They are playful with long ribbons that float behind them, decorated with pigment made from rare lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan. In images from this period Bodhisattva often appear more like charming and confident women, with the well-known “Cave of beauties” (number 57) containing several Bodhisattva that have semi-closed, enticing eyes reminding visitors of the graceful Tang dynasty when it was at its peak.

Who painted such beautiful murals? History has not left us with the name of Dunhuang’s Michelangelo, or its Leonardo Da Vinci. There are few records, and we only know that the wealthy aristocratic families in Dunhuang established an Art Academy for craftsmen who were responsible for the fine art in the grottoes.

However, Dunhuang greatness cannot be denied by anonymity. As the Dunhuang scholar Ji Xianlin observed,

“There exist only four cultural systems that are time-honoured, broad, and far-reaching: China, India, Greece and Islam, and there is no fifth; And there exists only one area where these four cultural systems converge, and that is China’s Xinjiang regions, especially in Dunhuang, and there is no second.”

In some of Dunhuang’s murals the Greek’s Titan and Hinduism’s Shiva appear magically along side the Chinese gods Fuxi and Nvwa; ancient Persian lion patterns were particularly popular in the Grottoes carved during the Sui and Tang dynasties, as were scenes that reveal the semi-transparent glass bowls, dance styles and shawls from Central Asian kingdoms. These material and spiritual imports are hints of an era when the Silk Road was unimpeded and the source of a prosperous exchange between East and West.

In addition to faith, the biggest motivation that drove people to embark on a journey along the Silk Road tour was money. The camel caravans shipped tea, porcelain and silk to the West, and jade, spices and horses to the East. These ancient luxuries, just as today, realised sizeable profits, and also brought social and economic prosperity to Dunhuang, which in turn fuelled the artistic intensity of the work done in the Grottoes.

As time passed Dunhuang’s destiny swung between a host of different regimes, with Han Chinese Xianbei, Tibetans and Mongolians taking their turns in power. The new rulers not only carved new caves but also painted new murals upon old. Images of donors from wealthy aristocratic families became taller and taller, making the deities seem small and their shrines insignificant. In some of the latest grottoes carved in the Yuan Dynasty, deities were mainly Tibetan Buddhist Green and Blue Taras.

Sculptures of Buddha and attendants in Mogao cave number 332, from the early (Tang Dynasty, 618-704AD)

Sculptures of Buddha and attendants in Mogao cave number 332, from the early (Tang Dynasty, 618-704AD)

After the 10th century, the importance of the Silk Road gradually decreased due to the rise of sea power. Legendary cities and kingdoms such as Rouzhi, Loulan, Kucha, and Khotan, once flourishing, seemed to have disappeared overnight, until unearthed by desert treasure hunters who dug them from the sand 700 years later. Dunhuang is no exception. Since the Ming Dynasty, which put its westbound limit at the Jiayu Pass, the Jade and Yang Passes became denizens of an abandoned land, gradually fading from the focus of the Chinese civilisation.

In the 1,600 years after it was established, the Mogao Grottoes have seen aristocratic and wealthy families prostrating themselves; they have endured the Muslims’ attack on clay Bodhisattva, witnessed devout believers muttering prayers, given shelter to Tsarist deserters who damaged the sacrosanct precincts by cooking in the caves, suffered the cruel looting of scripts that had been stored in the Library Cave for more than a thousand years and sheltered several generations of lonely scholars and painters who carried oil lamps from dawn to sunset studying the artifacts or copying the majestic murals. The Mogao Grottoes has survived the ravages of war and pillage, nature and neglect, as if under the protection of the Buddha. However, the test of time is far from over.

The surface for the murals in the caves was made of straw, sand and mud from the riverbed. They are so fragile that a single touch can cause them to disintegrate. Although the mineral pigments are still vibrant, they have been threatened by a wide range of factors such as the abrasion of the paint surface, corrosion, pests, earthquakes and floods. Since the grottoes are close to the vast sand dunes of the Echoing-Sand Mountain, a large number of murals had vanished forever due to the abrasive sand and wind.

However, the most threatening factor in recent times has been the number of tourists swamping the site.

“The space in the caves is limited, but the interest of the tourists is unlimited. This is the greatest threat faced by Mogao grottoes.”

says Wang Xudong, the Deputy Director of Dunhuang Academy.

Data from the Dunhuang Academy shows that 40 individuals in a cave for half an hour will cause a five-fold rise in carbon dioxide levels, a 10% increase of the relative humidity, and a four degrees of Celsius degree increase in temperature. These changes will accelerate the deterioration of the murals and painted sculptures. Another study shows that daily visits should be fewer than 3,000 people, whereas in reality the number of the visitors has surpassed six million over the last thirty-five years. In 2012 alone there were 700,000 visitors, an average of 6,000 people per day during high season.

In an effort to limit deterioration, the Dunhuang Academy has begun to control the number of caves that are open to the public. However, those who have worked at the Academy for more than 10 years say the murals have become increasingly hard to see properly.

In order to ease the conflict between making Dunhuang accessible to the world and the ongoing need to protect its treasures, the Dunhuang Academy has been trying to preserve the artistic and spiritual essence of the Mogao Grottoes using digital technology since the 1980s. Twelve years ago the Academy cooperated with the Mellon Foundation and Northwestern University to digitise the murals into high-resolution images, a process that has now been used in the 147 caves with the most exquisite murals, a total area of more than 23,000 square metres. Before it is finished “Digital Dunhuang” will have created a perfect digital record of the entire Mogao cave system begun by Lezun.

“This is a massive project encompassing the collection of data, the preservation of heritage and the promotion of culture, based on high-resolution photographic technologies,” says Wang.

“Over decades we have been working with academic institutions and foundations across the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, Switzerland, Japan and Great Britain. We hope that institutes from all over the globe can work together in realising this mega-project. The workload is huge, and will not finished by our generation.”

“In addition to preserving the historical heritage forever, digitalisation has opened numerous ways to combine conservation, research and promotion of the Dunhuang grottoes.” said Fan. For instance, the digitalisation project will form the basis for “virtual grottoes” which can be viewed in the Visitor’s Centre, a museum near the Mogao Grottoes was opened to the public in September 2014.

The project kicked off in 2008 with a budget of 260 million RMB, partly funded by the government. “We hope that the digitalisation of the Grottoes will solve the dilemma between preservation and promotion,” says Wang.

The inauguration of the Mogao Grottoes' visitor center is held in Dunhuang, Sept 10, 2014

The inauguration of the Mogao Grottoes’ visitor center is held in Dunhuang, Sept 10, 2014

The monumental Digital Dunhuang project has also been a major focus for the Friends of Dunhuang, who have now raised nearly eight million RMB to support the digitalisation of 35 caves, 12 of which have been finished.

Just as the original grottoes required donors who were eager to provide funds, so the cost of digitising the treasure calls for generosity from the wealthy.

“As Hong Kong citizens, we felt deeply ashamed because it is our own cultural heritage but not many Chinese people really care about it,” says Lo. “That’s why we established a fund-raising organisation for the preservation of the caves. All the funds raised will be used in projects, without a penny used for administrative costs.”

The success of the digitalisation projects supported by the Friends of Dunhuang has been demonstrated in a exhibition, Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, sponsored by Gabriel Yu, the Chairman of the Friends of Dunhuang. The exhibition was co-produced by the Dunhuang Academy and the City University of Hong Kong and has been displayed at the City University of Hong Kong. Using high-resolution photography and laser scanning data to create a 1:1 scale facsimile of a Grotto that can be viewed in 360 degrees, the exhibition shows the extraordinary wealth of paintings found in Cave 220 through a combination of animation, 3D modeling, pictorial re-colouring, digital enlargement and a rich sound design, bringing viewers an astounding immersive experience that is almost as good as being in Mogao.

This groundbreaking work has received wide acclaim, and was selected as the centrepiece exhibit for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the pre-eminent museum for Asian art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which took place in 2012.

Wang speaks highly of Friends of Dunhuang, “In recent years it has greatly supported the fund-raising work for the digitalisation project. More importantly, they have helped the promotion of Dunhuang culture by letting more people get to know about its heritage.”

In the hope of gaining more support from the cream of Hong Kong society, Lo led a trip to Dunhuang recently. The party consisted of entrepreneurs, professors, financiers, lawyers, socialites and talented designers. They were not only amazed by the grandeur of Dunhuang, but also touched by the efforts of the Dunhuang Academy. However, although China has begun a new era of philanthropy in the wake of disasters such as the Wenchuan earthquake, there is still not much interest in giving money for cultural preservation.

“It’s because unlike economic achievements or the building of new cities, culture is ‘soft’, you can’t touch it or see it,” Fan said in a recent speech .

“Culture is the leading factor in a nation’s destiny. Culture in current China is poor and uncared for, and you can see that many heritages sites are in bad condition. Yet culture is what China is lacking at the moment, and this problem will be clearer and clearer as time goes by.”

Fan, who has been the guardian of the Mogao Grottoes for 50 years, says that donations to cultural projects are not only a matter of money. “Fund-raising activity not only lead people to care about Dunhuang and its conservation, but more importantly, it makes the public think about what is the reason a nation exists, and what is the basis of the resurrection of China as a nation. It will help people develop a mind-set that values our culture.”

Which is another surprise for Lezun, who must have imagined that the Buddhist faith would forever be the principle protector of Dunhuang. As it turns out the saviour of the grottoes in the 21st century may end up being a group of affluent Asians, some of whom are Christians and whose main motivation is the protection of China’s cultural heritage, rather than the glorification of Buddha.

By Daisy Zhong