04 Sep 1998 15:36:07 -0700
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
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
||Attributed to Lao
The Tao Te Ching
19:35 Feitian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu--China :: TU 01
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.
||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
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.
||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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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 once...to 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.
The Silk Road, p. 165
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
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
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.