Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I always wanted to get to Dunhuang, and not just because half of its name is half of my given name in Chinese. This summer I finally got there.
The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang are located in the province of Gansu in northwestern China, once an important stop — and a wealthy town — on the Silk Road. For a thousand years starting in the 4th century, prominent local families sponsored artisans to paint and sculpt one cave after another at Mogao in Buddhist themes. Some of the painters and sculptors wound up spending half a lifetime there. So many caves were painted and sculpted that Mogao also came to be known as the place of a “A Thousand Buddha Grottoes.” Even today, 735 remain. Many caves are masterpieces of Buddhist art, and some reminded me of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
But for all the murals and sculptures, the Mogao Grottoes are also famous for a single small chamber that was once filled with seemingly endless pages of documents collected over a millennium. The discovery of these documents, arguably more significant for understanding ancient cultural exchanges along the Silk Road than the magnificent art, was itself a matter of both legend and bitter controversy. Peter Hopkirk recounts the fascinating tale of the race of archeologists in his book, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road.
On June 22, 1900, a Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu was working on raising money to secure the artistic treasures of Mogao when his assistant came to tell him something. The assistant had happened to knock on the wall of one of the known caves and heard a hollow echo from behind it. In the dead of night, the two men broke down the wall and discovered what came to be known as the “Sutra-Hiding Cave.”
The Rev. Wang informed the local magistrate of his discovery. But the mandarin was unimpressed and told him to handle the matter locally. Perhaps to raise money further to preserve the artwork, Wang began selling pages of the manuscripts, mostly Buddhist sutras and other religious documents, to local people who believed that they might carry magical or healing powers.
Eventually word of ancient manuscripts being sold off for a pittance reached the ears of Western explorers working around the Taklamakan Desert. Aurel Stein, a British scholar who had been born into a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the first to hear the news. Stein was the sort of man who hiked up the harrowing Kunlun Mountains of Western China, once thought the abode of the gods, for the sake of a survey mission, losing several toes to frostbite in the process. He would eventually be buried in Afghanistan while on one last expedition into Central Asia.
With his Chinese assistant, Stein rushed out to Dunhuang in May 1907. For a substantial sum of silver, Wang sold Stein some 7,000 manuscripts in addition to thousands of loose pages and other artifacts, including a printed copy of the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest printed text, dating to 868 A.D. These are now housed in the British Museum in London.
The following spring, the French archeologist Paul Pelliot also heard about Mogao and rushed out there. For 500 taels of silver, he bought over 6,000 items from Wang and shipped them to Paris through Beijing. While in Beijing, though, he consulted a number of Chinese scholars regarding the manuscripts. Suddenly Chinese intellectuals became aware of the Dunhuang discovery, and they called on the imperial government to secure the finds and prevent further sales. The government would not act on their recommendation until 1910. When officials finally moved the remaining documents to the imperial library in Beijing, they counted some 8,000 pieces. The Chinese would later regard the removal of the manuscripts as theft, even as Western scholars protest that they bought the artifacts legitimately.
But even after that, Mogao remained a target of pillage/preservation (depending on your point of view). Japanese and Russian scholars were able to visit and obtain small numbers of manuscripts in 1912 and 1914. In 1924, Prof. Langdon Warner of Harvard attempted to strip several murals from Mogao using an experimental chemical solution. He was only halfway successful so that some of the paintings were damaged in the process. Later he would defend his actions as an act of scholarly conservation. Warner went on to become one of the “Monuments Men” of the U.S. Army during WWII and may have helped to preserve treasures of Japanese culture from American fire bombing and the atomic bomb.
For me, as befitting the theme of this blog, it was the evidence of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road that most fascinated me. There was the mural showing the twelve signs of the Western, rather than Chinese, zodiac — your Pisces and Virgo and Sagittarius and Capricorn. Too bad I wasn’t allowed to take a photo. And then there were prayers in Hebrew and the Psalms of the Bible in Syriac, besides manuscripts in fascinating extinct Inner Asian languages such as Tangut, from the Kingdom of Xixia that thrived about a thousand years ago.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."