China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Mogao Ku
Date: Fri, 04 Sep 1998 15:36:07 -0700

16:49 Feitian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu--China :: TU 01 SEP 98

The deep black smudge runs up the wall, spreading like stems from a vase. In a corner opposite too, the same sooty grime. Underneath, colour and line, figure and landscape. At the edges, struggling for life, while at the centre, where the fire fumes licked hottest, obscured, obliterated entirely. A pedestal where lively sculpture once danced, or looked deeply into your heart. Dust and broken clay remain.

The wonderful, fluid lines, the expressions of a cultural renaissance unequaled in Asia, before or since. The stories told here. The lives and moments recorded. Lost. Erased. Like the photo-album lost in the blaze. More precious than the colourful stones we mine and hoard, than the yellow metal ingots. Our identity. Our achievements. Our glories. Our moments of rare perfections.

The conscious ignorance characterising this kind of casual destruction dumbfounds me. Were it simple property, some person's hard-worked-for belonging, evil enough. But these walls are a human voice speaking across time. This is how we transmit beauty, understanding, how we remind ourselves who we are, where we came from, even where we are going.

The White Russian troops who billeted here in cave #256, destroyers out of ignorance, carelessness, uncaringness. They scraped the gold from the faces of Buddhas painted on the wall, as if the value of the gold were intrinsic to what could be purchased with it. They did not consider the love and devotion with which that gold was applied, or they didn't care, or they thought it trite.

More destroyers, the Muslims who came and scratched out the faces, tore down the statues. Mohammed had written, "no images of living creatures," and so the murals and carvings were evil, against the wishes of god.

The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching

19:35 Feitian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu--China :: TU 01 SEP 98

And then the well-meaning, the well intentioned. The Europeans, the foreign devils. Who arrived on the site of arguably the archaeologic find of the century, and one under demonstrated duress from Muslims, pilgrims and white russians. They carted away so much, even sections of the murals,

My job is to break my neck to rescue and preserve anything and everything I can from this quick ruin. It has been stable enough for centuries, but the end is in sight now.
  graphical element Langdon Warner, 1923
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

An arguable point but in Cave #324 the guide points to the missing section of mural and comments, "Stolen by an American. Now at Harvard University."

For the Chinese it's another example of the plundering of the country by foreigners in the 18th and 19th centuries.... Of course, one hates to think what would have happened to the collection if [Sir Aurel] Stein had left it where it was--most likely the Red Guards would have used it for a road base during the Cultural Revolution.
  graphical element China Travel Survival Kit, p. 915
Lonely Planet Publications, 1996

I ask the guide about this. I have seen with my own eyes the damage wreaked by the Cultural Revolution, in monasteries and private homes, temples and public buildings, all across China. Buildings levelled, artwork defaced or altogether removed. But Mogao Ku had been set aside in 1961 by government decree. 'Dunhuangology,' had apparently developed into a single important branch of archaeology, and gathered world renown. A research institute had been established on the site years before the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. The guide asserted that no damage accrued to the caves in the 10-year period of Red Guard activity. Had Stein and the rest left what they found, then the vast collection would be displayed in Mogao and Beijing rather than Harvard, London, Moscow and Berlin.

Reason to believe the assertion: I have seen no finer collection of pre-Ming art anywhere in China. As one of the guidebooks states, this is a country whose successive dynasties tended to be built upon the ashes of the prior. Mogao Ku at Dunhuang somehow escaped this fate. Perhaps its remoteness, perhaps its obscurity, perhaps just lucky.

Finally, the unwitting destroyers, the unthinking, the worshippers, the pilgrims. In one cave, clay plaques of Buddhas line the wall. Pilgrim's pulled them down, to take home for private and village shrines. The guide hardly chastises this ill-treatment. "Not stolen, not destroyed, merely pilgrims who came and prayed then took home a souvenir."

Still, despite the best efforts of all these destroyers Mogao Ku presents an exhausting representation of Chinese art, history and culture.

In the morning we arrive a little late. No more english guides. No problem, we think, we'll just wander through the caves without a guide. But nearly all the caves stand behind locked doors. Guides have the keys. So we follow a Chinese group, but quickly tire of crowded caves filled with unintelligible babble, thinking about how much information we are missing.

Back to the gate, where we wait for an english guide. We spot an English couple, retired, on a private tour. We ask to join them and are treated to four caves before the 11:30 AM closure. A taste.

A vast cave, the largest from the Tang Dynasty. All the statues gone from the central platform, but all around the walls, murals. On the front wall, on either side of the entrance, the Princess daughters of the Patriarch who had the cave built. A dozen or so maids each. Elaborately detailed dresses, and the fake flowers glued to their faces. And on the back wall, Wutaishan, one of the five holy Buddhist mountains in China, found in Shanxi province. I had cycled past the valley many months ago, electing not to enter due to the thunderheads rumbling there. Later, a friend in Beijing would visit and bring back a pendant. The scenes of the monastery show slices of life. Monks seeking alms from the villagers, villagers farming the land, herding sheep and goats, war games and prayer, music and dance. All variety of Tang life here, on a vast wall. Hours and hours needed to read the story told with faded and oxidized pigment.

A smaller cave with exquisite Tang statues. Poise and grace, a master's work. Another small cave. Here for the Sui Dynasty murals, just prior to Tang. Styles so different. Fatter lines, and features from Buddhism's source, India and Pakistan. The statues replaced during the Qing. Caricatures, amusingly stiff and boardlike, cartoonish features. As if an attempt at parody. More than a thousand years after the Tang came the Qing. Such an aesthetic decline. Why did White Russian soldiers leave these standing and destroy the beautiful Tang?

22:16 Feitian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu--China :: TU 01 SEP 98

Finally, the last cave of our morning. The books say local sandstone was too soft for carving statues. True for the life-size figure which are clay over wood frames then stucco over straw. But for the absolutely magnificent, the 35 meter Maitreya Buddha sitting under his wooden roof, staring out to the ragged Qilianshan through a small window, the sandstone was hard enough. Sandstone, then clay, then straw then stucco. Repainted in the 1930's (if recollection serves) this enormous figure, the second tallest Buddha in China, also emphasize the high-art of the Tang period.

We stand between his spread feet and look up, way up. One hand upraised, palm flat facing away from the body: the power to dispel evil and protect; One hand in his lap, palm flat and upward: generosity; follow the Buddha and he will provide for you. Seated not with legs crossed on a lotus flower, but upright as on a chair, or throne. Three Buddhas: past, present and future. Past I cannot name. Present is Sakyamuni, Siddhartha Goutama, the Buddha whose words have been written down. Future is Maitreya Buddha. He of the Western Heaven. He of the coming enlightenmnet of all mankind.

Even from this perspective, nearly under his chin, the warming visage of enlightened calm apparent. All warmth and light and loving kindness.

And then we are rushed out. The caves close to visitors between 11:30 and 2:30. What to do now? Not a difficult decision. Our tickets are good for the afternoon session; we will wait and try again then for an english tour. At the dining hall we order a lunch more palatable than the tourist sites in all the rest of the world. Not quite memorable, which is relatively a complement. While we wait for the caves to open again, I ride out to the north, looking for a panoramic view of the crescent bend in the currently trickling river which cut the cliffs that for 1600 years have been the focus of mankind's struggle to understand and explain itself.

We have some time, then, before the afternoon session...

Emma and I woke early this day. Rather, I woke early, at 7AM with the rising sun. China is the worlds second or third largest country, but time across its entire expanse is officially kept at Beijing time, GMT+8hrs. There's an advantage to this for two, definitely-not-morning-people bicyclists. By the simple fact of cycling westward, westward, we are gradually becoming morning people. By the time we reach Kashgar, the sun should be rising at 8AM. Those cool-dawn starts, long before the sun brings the air over desert sand to a rippling boil, seem not so formidable for two people who hate alarm clocks.

Still, early rise and all, we leave too late, about 8:15AM. Twenty-five kilometers to Mogao Ku. At least an hour's ride. Indeed, an hour passes and we are still climbing the alluvial fan spilling between the very end of the ragged Qilianshan and the very beginning of the Mingsha Shan, the mountainous yellow dunes rippling right to the edge of Dunhuang. An hour and fifteen minutes later, I am stopped by a uniformed guard. Young, sharp featured, a bolt action rifle with thin bayonet slung over shoulder. I've not brought the phrasebook so it takes a bit to sort out that, no, I don't need a permit but I must show him my passport. He also wants to see the rental receipt or city licence for my bicycle. "Wo zixingche," my bicycle, I tell him. "Jianada zixingche," a Canadian bicycle. Ahh.

He writes down information from the passport. Name (xingming), country (guoji), passport number. He hands back the passport and gives a friendly dismissal with a wave and a smile. I've told him about my friend, pengyou, and motion that I will wait for her. Emma appears around the bend after a while. A couple hundred meters away we hear her singing to herself. Or perhaps talking.

9:16 Shirley's Cafe, Dunhuang; Gansu--China :: WE 02 SEP 98

No, she's humming and she arrives, a little huffy and in some pain. Several days back, in Jiayuguan, one of those silly cyclist accidents. She rides up to the base of the Overhanging Great Wall, comes to a complete stop and...can't get a foot out of a toe-clip.

We've all done this at some point in our lives, or something like it. I've seen a fellow in a bike shop, dressed like a pro, standing next to his spiffy Campi road bike, road rash all up and down his left side. "Ouch!" I said. "That must have been an awful crash!?" He smiled self-deprecatingly, "Yeah. Came to a stop and fell over. Terrible. Really mad at myself too: bent a brake lever."

My own arrival in Beijing was punctuated with just such a graceless pitch onto the roadway. But somehow, Emma adds a new twist to the technique, literally. I'm still thinking about the angles, and can't quite envision them yet, but she manages to plant her sternum squarely on the end of the handlebar.


I tell her to hand over the passport and while the guard scribbles down her information we discuss the pain she's feeling. The next day she traipses out to the hospital in Dunhuang: "simple muscle pain," they tell her. Simply painful, I think.

The ticket office for Mogao Ku, and the beginning of the souvenir stands, all selling the same souvenirs, lies just a few hundred meters further down the road. The two guidebooks we're using disagree about prices and hours. They're both incorrect. It's 50 Yuan to see the caves and 5 more to see the exhibition centre. Chinese speaking guides are included in the admission price while foreign language guides require an additional 20 Yuan fee for the caves and 5 Yuan for the exhibition centre.

However, we are told all the english speaking guides are engaged, giving tours at the caves. Oh. Guess we'll go guideless. Head for the exchibition centre first, hoping for some english explication, some history, some context. A little disappointing at first. Several replications of the more important and beautiful caves, but no accompanying english text. Beautiful, but what's the significance, how do I place these images in the scheme of Chinese history? Who painted them? How? I want the details, the stories.

A smallish display runs quickly through the history, short on details, on stories. Little information not already described in the guidebooks. Less detail, in fact.

Sixteen centuries ago, the first caves were hewn from the cliffsides. For the next 600 years donors paid extravagant sums to carve out the grottoes and have artisans fill them with images, for prosperity in this life, for good fortune on an upcoming venture across the western wastes, for merit in the next life, for the prestige of the family name. Caves excavated and decorated by the rich and powerful, by communities, by the savings of monks and nuns from distant monasteries, by small traders and caravaners.

By the end of the Tang Dynasty, the cliffs were completely honeycombed with caves. No space for new ones. Work after this time involved restoration, enlargement and makeover. It is not difficult to see the decline of craftsmanship and vision after the Tang. Though the work during the Yuan dynasty, when the Mongolian Kublai Kahn sat on the emperor's throne in Beijing, is quite beautiful, it represents a cultural tangent from the Chinese, importing European techniques and Tibetan styles. By the time of the Qing, the art of sculpture declined to a point Tang artists would have considered rudimentary, garish, even childish.

A display provides images of western archaeologists who, depending on your point of view, either ransacked the caves or carefully preserved their contents for posterity. The text is in Chinese. I'm left curious about the language, what is being said. During the afternoon session, my speculations will be confirmed.

Upstairs is a collection of Tibetan bronzes, all heavily influenced by Indian mythology. Of particular interest to me are a pair of disconnected Buddha feet, a meter and a half long each, with toes widely separated and deftly articulated. I'm not certain whether they came from a reclining, or seated buddha. Perhaps sitting in the lotus position, since reclining Buddhas always have their feet together. But I've never seen a Buddha with separately articulated toes either. The lines are beautiful, and the dharma wheel in the soul exquisitely patterned.

But again, no text, no explanation, no context. We move onto the caves and there discover the same difficulty, as described above.

At two o'clock we ask again at the reception centre for an english tour guide. "Yes, they are available. 200 Yuan each, please." We point to the sign which explicitly states foreign language guides cost only 20 Yuan per person. "Yes, but there are only two of you." I don't think at the time to add these numbers up, but none of the groups contained 20 people. I just know we're getting ripped off. Fortunately, a CITS (China International Travel Service) tour group of Italians comes through before I feel compelled to start making telephone inquiries. We join their group of 8 for the specified 20 Yuan each.

A word about CITS. I've been in China now for five months and used their services but send a fax to Japan Air Lines while attempting to re-route my homebound flight. No problems there, but from the numerous people I've met who've arranged tours through CITS, nothing but a stream of unmitigated horrors. And expensive ones to boot. The CITS guide we meet at Mogao Ku is patient, engaging, friendly, vivacious. Not at all what I expected. She confirms that even if there are but two of us in the group, the fee should remain 20Y, each, for a guide.

Our english-speaking Mogao guide is good. We begin at caves 16 and 17, where we began our earlier Chinese tours. The guide's voice echoes in the cavern yet his diction rings clear and he enjoys telling the story. Not all the Italians speak english, though, so the flow suffers from periodic interruptions for translation. Still, I'm happy as the story of the caves fills the echoing space.

Cave 17 is special. I knew this from the Chinese-language tour we'd first followed in here. The Chinese tourist's oooh'd and aaah'd as the Chinese guide animatedly recounted a story of some significance. I wished I could understand.

In 1900 Wang Yuan-lu, a Taoist priest and 'self-styled' abbot of Mogao, noticed a hollow sounding wall in the entranceway of cave 16, which workers were clearing of sand and debris. He opened a hole in the wall and uncovered the archaeological discovery of the new century.

There were more than 50,000 manuscripts from the temple library, including religious texts and documents on history, customs, literature, art, mathematics, medicine and economics. These treasures were sealed up in a small hidden cave by Buddhist monks in the 11th century, presumably to save them from the ravages of war with Xixia. The Viceroy of [Gansu] was anxious that the finds be protected, but could not afford the transhipment to Lanzhou; he simply ordered the caves resealed. In order to pay for his restoration plans, Abbot Wang took it upon him- self to sell some of the manuscripts to excited foreigners.


Sir Aurel Stein arrived at Dunhuang [in 1907] and persuaded the abbot to re-open the cave containing the manuscripts. Night after night, Stein and his translator secretly perused bundles of documents. Manuscripts in Cinese, Uygur, Sogdian, Tibetan, Snaskrit, Runic-Turkic and unknown languages were revealed, including a printed version of the Diamond Sutra dating from AD 868. One of the world's oldest printed books, this important Mahayana Buddhist text states that phenomena are all illusion; it is so called because it is 'sharp like a diamond that cuts away all unnecessary conceptualization and brings one to the further shore of enlightenment.' Stein left Dunhuang with a collection of almost 10,000 documents and wall paintings, which is now divided between the British Museum in London and the National Museum in New Delhi.

  graphical element Judy Bonavia
The Silk Road, p. 165
Oddyssey Guides

After Stein came the Frenchman Pelliot who negotiated a fee of 90 British Pounds Sterling for his haul of documents. In 1911, Beijinglearned of the manuscripts and ordered an embargo but still they trickled out, to Japan, to Russia, to the USA.

I had read all this about Cave #17, about this small, non-descript seeming hole in the wall, with a rough, chipped and faded stucco figure seated in the lotus position. The guide explained that the figure is that of the Buddhist Master at Mogao who'd had the manuscripts sealed in the cave nine centuries ago. And I wonder again what might have happened if Stein and Co. hadn't taken those manuscripts home, hadn't alerted the academic community to their significance. Perhaps in 1961 there is no government decree to protect Mogao and perhaps the Red Guard do use the manuscripts for road-base, as the Lonely Planet suggests.

15:00 Some Main St. diner, Liuyuan; Gansu--China :: FR 04 SEP 98

From there we go through a long series of caves, a tour lasting three hours. The Italians elect to see a couple 'closed' caves, caves we must pay extra for. Emma and I dish up the 140RMB each and join them. I'd recount for you, but I took no notes and have only my impressions. So many caves, so many images, so many stories: too many to recall or retell.

Three of the largest Buddha images in China may be found here. A reclining one is the second largest reclining Buddha in China. The guide wonders aloud if this makes it the second largest in the world. I tell him I believe that distinction is reserved for a monstrous one, covered in gold, found in a Bangkok Wat.

It's interesting how important superlatives are to Buddhism. I've heard so many times, "Largest," "oldest," "longest," "only one of its kind," and usually paired with some other descriptive. "Largest seated jade Buddha image," or "Only standing Buddha sculpted in the round," or "Carved from a single trunk of sandalwood." I am reminded of the reasons why many of these caves were excavated and painted, why many monasteries were constructed: prestige, status. Donors were in the habit of having their own images worked into the murals, sometimes even into scenes depicting Buddha's life. In one Tang Dynasty cave the guide points out how much larger the donor's images are than in the caves of preceeding dynasties.

Still, the beauty and clarity of the work moves me. The stories, those told on the walls and in the statues, as well as those told by the guide, fascinate.

At other times, on other tours, in other historical places, I have sunk myself into the period of the place, imagined with some success what it might have been like to be there, during the excavation. That's not been happening much on this trip, and Mogao proves to be no exception. For a moment, back at Cave #17 I see the workers clearing sand and debris from a wall hiding archeological treasure. Otherwise, I am distracted, not just by the Italian tour leader re-interpreting the english-speaking guide's words for the non-english-speaking members of the tour. Not just by the tour itself and the concomitant lack of personal space and a quiet moment to think.

I am distracted by the present. By the way people are now. By the way I am now. Difficult to imagine myself anywhere but the here and now. And so I see in the paintings and the statues the expressive, lively lines, the ability of the artists to capture expression and replay it. I hear the stories, and think to myself, "what a marvellous place, what a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, wandering from cool cave to cool cave witnessing the unfurling of time and stories like the onion-peel layerings of murals on the walls."

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master's way.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 43
trans. Stephen Mitchell