The Buddhist Caves of Dunhuang


On a second visit to CTS I finally succeeded in booking a flight to Dunhuang (paying a generous fee for their service), the large cave complex at the western edge of the Taklimakan desert. I had spent weeks studying the maps of the Hungarian-Englishman Sir Aurel Stein and his French competitor Pelliot who explored the Magao Grottos or Wan Fo Dong—Thousand Buddha Caves in the 19th and early 20th century, and who had brought back large caches of 6th-9th-century manuscripts, which they purchased from a enterprising Daoist monk who lived there. Today this treasure trove, still largely untranslated and unpublished, lies in the basements of the British Museum and the Guimard in Paris. The Chinese government declared Dunhuang a National Monument and established a Dunhuang Institute only in the fifties. Now they are highly irate over the "plunderings" by Western and Japanese explorers, but much of this valuable material would have been destroyed or been used to light the fires of a band of White Russians who hid in the caves during the Russian Revolution. A second large cave complex Wan Fo Xia exists seventy miles to the east, which is crumbling, uncharted and out of bounds to Westerners.

May that be as it is, I had memorized every mountain and every wash on Stein's maps and in additon the catalogue and pictures of the Americans Basil Gray and Mrs. John B. Vincent who visited the caves in 1948. I knew exactly what I wanted to see and where to find it.

 Dunhuang's main street. However, the practical problems proved daunting. The only foreigners hotel in the dusty and forlorn town was filled with French, German, and Japanese tour-groups. I was sent to the county guest house, the uninspiring building on the right, where I was assigned a "Mao-Bed," for $1.50 per day, a cotton-filled mattress on a hard board, in a dormitory crowded with "Students of the Chinese Language." By far the oldest traveler, I quickly made the acquaintance of two Bavarian lifeguards touring China and of Andi, a drifter from California. She was a genuine Chinese language student with a halo of feminist curls and a Bronx accent. Her boyfriend, plagued by a virus, was sweating it out under five woolen blankets.... I had found my place in the "Children's Crusade." Each of these good people contributed something to my China experience. The Bavarians prevented me from taking a boat down the Jiangtse River and recommended a visit to E-mei Shan instead. They had come up by boat. Was it worth the effort? "Oh, der Rhein ist schöner."— the Rhine is prettier, was the summary of their experience. Availing myself of Andi's fluency in Chinese I accompanied her to a "hole-in-the-wall" for dinner, where we made the far-reaching acquaintance of the "Woman in the Dunes." To find out more about this mystery woman, read the Dunhuang chapter in The Return of the Monkey King.

At 6 am everyone was awakened by blaring public loudspeakers in the village. Instead of the quaint melody of the muezzin they the played "The East is Red," the national anthem followed by news and exhortations. I asked Andi whether they were political propaganda. "You are still living in the Cultural Revolution!" she laughed. "No, they are reminding you to brush your teeth, and that one should obey traffic laws..." I got up to take a walk before breakfast.—Chinese breakfast: saltless rice congee, vile kimchi, cold marinated cabbage and fish preserves, thin green tea on demand.... I was condemned to eat this breakfast fare for four days....!

 A romantic view, the Silk Road in the early morning light. Silk does no longer pass this way, it has been replaced by cotton, which is the main industry in Dunhuang.


Wan Fo Dong — the Thousand Buddha Caves.

I went back to the tourist hotel where I befriended Claude the kind escort of a French  group. He allowed me to join him for a guided tour, the only way one can see the caves. Over the grumble of his pax, they came from Strassbourg, we drove off in their bus.  

 The first view of the caves. The more than 500 man-made caves honeycomb a cliff bordering a desert wash. Above them shifting sand dunes stretch for miles to the distant foot hills of the Kunlun Mountans, the southern border of Chinese Tibet.

On the following day I went back alone by public bus and wandered into the dunes. That was where I came upon the mysterious Woman in the Dunes sleeping in a hollow.

I sat on a hill looking into the desert and meditated on the singing of the wind and sand and the caravans from lands as far as Syria which had once filled the wash with life.  

 Trees watered by a brook coming from the hills gave the desert travelers shade and shelter. It now hides the buildings of the Dunhuang Institute.

 The main temple of the complex houses a thirty-meter-high Maitreya Buddha statue while the caves are often barely big enough to shelter a single person. 

 The original wood galeries connecting the five stories of caves have in the fifties been replaced by ugly concrete walk-ways that threaten to bring the entire cliff-side down in an earthquake. Locked doors prevent the unauthorized access to the caves, which were completely dark and unlit in '83.

The earliest caves were hewn from the rock around 366 AD (Eastern Jin), the earliest preserved frescoes date from 467AD (Southern Song). All caves, even the smallest, are painted with frescoes bottom to ceiling. The last frescoes, Tantric images now walled-off and not shown to the tourists because of their indecent(!) subject matter, were painted in the 13th-century Yüan Dynasty. An open-air gallery ocovering 900 years of superb Central Asian painting (i.e., Ladakh, Western Tibet, Xinjiang/Chinese-Turkestan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan). The Dunhuang collection has no parallel in size and importance.

Claude's group was shown about 40 caves chosen seemingly at the whim of a embarrassingly ignorant female guide from the Institute who moreover treated us with indifferent disdain. Personal flashlights and photography were strictly forbidden. The guide had a flashlight which she played erratically over the walls and ceilings picking out anecdotal stories of interest to Chinese historians and Socialists. She would or could not answer questions of religious or iconographic nature.... Claude, reading from a guide book tried to fill in in French. I made a fool of myelf by asking the guide to hold her light steady on the features Claude was reading about and was nearly expelled from the premises: Foreign experts were undesirables who had done enough damage and should stay away. Claude's Frenchmen began to grumble that I should leave. — A singularly infuriating visit....

Having no photographs of my own to offer and to give an idea of the quality and sophistication of these frescoes I reproduce a selection of color post cards reprinted by the Chinese government— without reference to their origin — from several volumes of images photographed by Japanese group of professionals.

 For an outline of history from the Chinese point of view see my A Synchronology of East-Western History. In China historic dates are given by their respective dynasty, some of which lasted several hundred years. Only very recently, and rarely in Chinese Museums, have exact Western style dates been added to the exhibited artifacts. In the case of Dunhuang, which was more often under the rule of the neighboring Northern Barbaric Tribes, the dynastic attributions are often inaccurate and suspect and at least highly confusing. This was the reason that I collected this outline, a labor of several years before and after my visits. You are welcome to print the outline and use it for your personal needs. In cases of discrepancies between the tiles of the pictures and the text, the text overrules.

 A general view of one of the lager, early caves. Typically a central pillar carrying clay sculptures occupies the center. The raw walls have been covered with a clay-straw and stucco mixture, which was then painted al fresco with mineral colors suspended in water. Throughout the state of preservation of the vivid, totally un-Chinese colors is excellent. Red, blue, and turquoise dominate like in other Central Asian frescoes. Central Chinese influence except in the Tang (618-907) is minimal. There have been very few recent restaurations. Buddha Maitreya and Attendants, Cave 248, Northern Wei Dynasty, around 470 AD.

 A superb example of a smiling ("Early Greek") Central Asian Buddha. At his broken knee one can see the straw and wood with which Central Asian clay statues are filled. Buddha Maitreya, Cave 259, Northern Wei, around 470 AD.

 The Sculptures in the Buddhist caves of Northern China (e.g. the Northern Wei Yun-Gang caves near Datong, Maiji Shan in Gansu, etc), which are rock sculptures, are more sophisticated than the average clay statue of Central Asia, but there are no comparable frescoes in China.... This remarkable figure of the the historical Buddha delivering a sermon, surrounded by abstract designs and dancing figures is an example of the earliest paintings in Dunhuang. One should remember that this painting was created around the time of the mosaics in Ravenna, 400 years before the earliest preserved Karolingian frescoes in Europe. Buddha Gautama, Cave 272, Northern Wei, around 480 AD.

 An early depiction of Buddha's Paranirvana — the historical Buddha's death The distress of his disciples who at later times assume grotesk expressions — highly un-Chinese! — is accomplished by very effective, mininmal, abstract means. Cave 428, Nothern Zou, around 560 AD.

 Another Buddha Gautama preaching the Dharma two generations later. Notable are the donors at the bottom, another feature of Central Asian painting. Cave 249, Western Wei, around 550 AD

The Buddha restores the eysight of a five robbers to see the truth of the Dharma. A Jataka story — a teaching tale from the Buddha's life. During the Western Wei new colors appear (the lapis-blue!) and a fluid narrative style. Cave 285, Western Wei, 535 AD.

 The following three images are examples of the apogee of early painting at Duhuang. Caves 249 and 404 show an exhilarating explosion of colors and psychodelic forms. The entire cave space is swirling and the colors could be perceived as intense and saturated as shown here — if the paintings were properly illuminated and freed from dust. I believe that these are the ecstatic visions seen in intense meditation. It is not possible to give a clear interpretation of the iconography especially of the ceiling of Cave 249 above. Cave 249, part of ceiling, Western Wei, around 550 AD.

A Bodhisattva in Cave 404, 40-years later. Here a direct Indian influence is evident, although the colors are stronger than, e.g., in the earlier Ajanta frescoes. Cave 404, Sui, around 590 AD. 

 An Apsara — a female heavenly messenger also called Dakini or fei-tian in Chinese— floats on rivers of intense colors. Also from Cave 404, Sui, around 590 AD.

 Apsaras and Boddhisattvas on the ceiling of an early Tang cave. The Indian influence and emotional ecstasy lasted into the 7th century as did the strong, Central Asian colors, before they were extinguished by the influence of a more muted, monochrome Chinese sensibility. Cave 321, Early Tang, 7th century.

 A Bodhisattva. During the Tang China expanded westwards and for two centuries Dunhuang came under direct Chinese rule. Buddhist visual arts flourished in China and reverse-ferilized Dunhuang anew. Cave 328, Early Tang, 7th century.

 The riotious colors of Central Asia succumbed to a new interest in line and form as this example demonstrates. Cave 202 Early Tang, 642 AD.

 The Late Tang produced an impressionist style that is related to Chinese porcelain painting of the time. Cave 95, Late Tang, 865 AD

On the drive back to Duhuang Claude spied this burial mound in the vast nowhere of the desert, which I had not noticed.

 Next morning I went back to the area and found a recent grave ornamented with flower wreaths which are obviously Buddhist Wheels of the Dharma that also crown the roof of Tibetan meditation halls, e.g., Taersi. Paper money and joss-sticks had been burned in the foreground. A hole in the mound allows the dead's spirit to escape....

 On my second visit to the caves I hitched a ride back with a Japanese tour bus. A sandstorm raged behind us.