Even though the Dunhuang grottoes were discovered 100 years ago, they remain a mystery to most Chinese. The grottoes, or caves, are the stuff of legend, of a time far removed from the present when men created a mystical dreamland to traffic in ideas completely opposite the commercial ends of the legendary silk Road or life's day-to-day difficulties.
The No. 220 Cave describes the dance and entertainment scene of the beginning of Tang Dynasty (618-960).
But, despite the construction of modern facilities designed to make the grottoes more available to toruists and students -while protecting the grottoes and the art inside them -"going to the heavenly west of Buddhism" in Gansu Province can still be a daunting task. It takes considerable time and money to make such an excursion.
The opening of the Grand Exhibition of Dunhuang Arts, from July 4 to through August 31, at the Chinese History Museum has changed this to some extent, Lucky Beijingers need only make their way to the museum to view frescoes, Buddhist statues, and murals from the so-called Scripture Caves that have provided the focus or background for many Chinese novels, movies and tales. The artworks on display reveal the flavor of a particular period in Chinese history that leaves presentday observers with a sense of the country's glory that was once hidden deep under the dust, and a sense of humiliation stemming from what happened after they were revealed.
The Dunhuang grottoes were built using highly developed stone carving skills that reached their peak of perfection during the Han and jin dynasties under the perceivable influence of Buddhism. They are scattered over a vast area, although the Mogao Grotto near present-day Dunhuang is surely the most remarkable.
The construction of the Mogao Grotto began during the 4th century during the North/South Dynasty and continued through the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties to the 14th century and the Yuan Dynasty. With a length of 1,680 meters, the Mogao Grotto is the longest of the grottoes. The influence of Buddhism in everyday life, but also in the arts and literature, is evident here in this best-preserved example of the period's development.
In 1900, the famous Scripture Cave was discovered by chance, and many Buddhist scriptures, social documents from various times, pieces of embroidery, silk paintings, musical instruments especially designed for Buddhist masses, all came into view. The discovery shocked the world and marked the beginning of special studies concerning Dunhuang. The 50,000 articles found there provided a golden opportunity for the study of ancient history, geography, religion, the economy, politics, language, literature, art, sciences and technologies used in China as well as Middle Asia, and its designation as a "mid-ancient encyclopedia".
Legend has it that Wang, a Daoist priest, discovered the sand-covered grottoes on June 22, 1900, but the history of the Dunhuang grotto complex dates back to 1035. During the past 100 years, more than 570 murals covering an area of more than 50,000 square meters have been discovered.
But the story of Dunhuang is also one of calamity and humiliation. Explorers and scientists, one after another, came from England, France, Japan, Russia and America to fulfil their greedy passions; they left with sacks full of Dunhuang's treasures, which found their way to public and private museums around the world. In sum, the grottoes were looted, and China's treasure was taken away before many Chinese even knew it existed.
The Dunhuang exhibition in Beijing is reportedly the largest of its kind ever held. It was put together with the highest of standards and the finest quality in mind. There are 4 life-size replicas of the grottoes, all containing colored statues; 30 copies of murals, 14 original Buddhist scriptures and 10 replicas; 6 original silk paintings and 44 replicas, things you might expect to see at the real Mogao Grotto. They were carefully selected by experts on the study of Dunhuang because they are representative of the grottoes'' architecture, colored drawings and murals.
More than 80 precious historical photos are being displayed for the first time. They portray the history of Dunhuang, the delight at the discovery of the Scripture Cave after 1,000 years of oblivion, and the painful memory of the consequent looting. The display features relics that were kept in China and replicas of those that were taken abroad. Some are the works, copies, of outstanding painters from early times. These are better preserved than some of the real murals that have almost faded from view.
The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Gansu provincial government and the National Bureau of Ancient Relics, which has also sent their Dancing and singing Group to interpret Dunhuang arts in a different way for the benefit of audiences in Shanghai which cannot attend the Beijing show.
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