The Silk Road developed and thrived over a period of one thousand years, resulting in centuries of contact and exchange between Eastern and Western civilizations and peoples. These ancient trade routes also facilitated the development in northwest China of the Mogao Grottoes, a Buddhist site that flourished from the fourth century to the fourteenth century, producing a remarkable collection of Buddhist art. The Buddhist cave temples at Mogao embraced local Han and Jin dynasty artistic traditions while assimilating artistic styles from the Southern and Northern dynasties, as well as the Tang and the Song. The site also incorporated artistic influences from India and Central and Western Asia.
The Mogao Grottoes that visitors behold today displays the journey and development of Buddhist art in China, a record of the history of artistic exchanges between China and regions well beyond its borders. The significance of the Mogao Grottoes and its universal value are reflected in its 1987 listing as a World Heritage Site, meeting all six cultural criteria.
Development of the Dunhuang Academy
Approximately sixteen hundred years after the first artisans, using hammers, chisels, and other simple implements, began carving cave temples out of the rough cliff face at Mogao—creating a stunning religious realm replete with inspiring wall paintings and sculpture—Chinese scholars and artists rediscovered the site in the first half of the twentieth century. Their interest in the site's preservation led to the establishment in 1944 of the Dunhuang Academy (originally known as the Dunhuang Art Research Institute) to oversee the study and conservation of Mogao. Since then, the site has undertaken an over-seventy-year journey, led by Chang Shuhong, Duan Wenjie, and Fan Jinshi, and aided by generation after generation of Academy staff contributing to the site's conservation, management, and dissemination efforts.
During the course of this work, the conservation and study of the Mogao Grottoes has been fortunate, gaining the support and interest of many at home and abroad, particularly since the 1980s when the Dunhuang Academy embarked on wide-ranging collaborations both within China and internationally. We have carried out successful joint programs in training, research, site conservation, digitization of the site's art, and dissemination of cultural and educational material on Dunhuang with many international institutions, including the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, the former Australian Heritage Commission, the Tokyo University of the Arts, the Courtauld Institute of Art in the United Kingdom, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Northwest University in the United States. The Dunhuang Academy and the GCI have collaborated on the greatest number of and most extensive conservation projects, more than any of our other international partners; this successful partnership has now been recognized as the model for international collaboration by the Chinese government. These collaborative projects have also provided practical models for a range of conservation work at the site and have been utilized in the conservation of many important sites throughout China: in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong, among others. The collaboration also provided the Academy with a strong foundation to successfully establish, within its institutional framework, China's National Research Center for Conservation of Ancient Wall Paintings and Earthen Sites.
The Academy Today
The Dunhuang Academy of today has become a comprehensive academic and management organization where conservation, research, and dissemination and education, the three core areas of our work, are undertaken by various sections. The Academy's major responsibilities of conservation and management are reflected in our organizational structure. On the research side, we have established institutes of Conservation, Fine Arts, Archaeology, Documentation, Ethnic Religious Culture, and Heritage Digitization, as well as the Dunhuang Studies Journal Office. For management, administration, and visitor services, we have created the Dunhuang Studies Information Center, the Network Center, the Visitors Center, the Visitor Reception Department, and the Security Section.
The National Research Center for Conservation of Ancient Wall Paintings and Earthen Sites, established at the Academy in 2009, has undertaken projects at the Mogao Grottoes and has assisted with the conservation of ancient wall paintings and earthen structures at many other sites within China. The Center has worked on wall painting conservation projects at the Potala Palace, Sakya Monastery, Norbulingka, and ruins of the Guge kingdom in Tibet; the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province; the Beiyue Temple in Hebei; the Dai Temple in Shandong; and the Maijishan Grottoes, Bingling Grottoes, Tianti Mountain Grottoes, Mati Temple Grottoes, and Shuiliandong Grottoes in Gansu. The National Center also participated in earthen structures conservation projects at the Jiaohe ruins and Beiting ruins in Xinjiang; the Western Xia Tombs in Ningxia; the site of the Yuan capital of Xanadu in Inner Mongolia; and the Yumen Gate, Suoyang ruins, and sections of the Great Wall in Gansu.
The tireless efforts of the early generation of conservators and managers at Mogao have provided the Dunhuang Academy with a strong foundation from which it can continue to expand its domestic and international collaborations. We plan to broaden our horizons through even greater efforts to make our work accessible to others and to work with the general public to galvanize support to conserve and protect this precious site of art and history.
Conservation at Mogao is gradually transitioning from an emergency conservation mind-set to a preventive conservation approach. We are establishing a risk monitoring and early warning alert system based on risk management theories, with routine monitoring, management, and maintenance playing important roles. We are also expediting the Dunhuang Digitization Project. This is an effort to digitally record approximately three hundred of the site's most important cave temples to provide an extensive and precise digital record of the caves, wall paintings, and statuary, insurance against an unforeseen disaster happening at the site. We are also working with Chinese and international colleagues on theoretical and applied research on the conservation of ancient wall paintings and earthen structures and on the management of World Heritage Sites, focusing on cultural properties. We strongly believe these initiatives will play a role in the conservation of China's cultural heritage and of cultural heritage sites elsewhere along the Silk Road.
In order to further Dunhuang Studies, we plan to fully share our digital resources at the site—including the Digital Dunhuang Resources Databank that is currently being created—with academics undertaking research on Dunhuang, both at the Academy and internationally. We will also seek to attract academics from both China and abroad who have expressed an interest in undertaking research in Dunhuang Studies, with a special focus on reaching out to younger academics. This collaboration should result in Dunhuang and the Mogao Grottoes gaining a more prominent place in historical studies and will promote a greater appreciation of its contributions to art, culture, and religion. These gains will encourage further research in a variety of disciplines with the objective of attaining an even better understanding of the historic, artistic, and scientific values of this exquisite World Heritage Site.
All of this research will make an important contribution to enhancing cultural exchange among different countries, peoples, and religions. The historic international nature of Dunhuang—after all, the town in the age of the Silk Road was a crossroads of cultures, as well as commerce—means that research on Dunhuang Studies must be further internationalized, with the Dunhuang Academy becoming an international base for research into the Dunhuang region and the general conservation of cultural heritage sites. The Academy will provide assistance to Chinese and international scholars, helping them undertake their research in ways that connect their academic studies with their counterparts at the Dunhuang Academy. The Academy is also determined to do what it can to send Chinese academics, particularly young scholars, overseas to study at universities, museums, and institutes in pursuit of their research and to undertake short-term visits and exchanges.
The Academy has established a strong and comprehensive foundation of knowledge and research on the art and conservation of the Mogao Grottoes, forming the basis of our dissemination and public education efforts. We will endeavor to make the best use of our resources to disseminate internationally information regarding Dunhuang culture and arts, so that this cultural heritage site, which truly belongs to all humanity, can contribute to enhancing peaceful development and understanding among nations. Our approach includes the management of domestic and international visitors at the site according to the principles and notions of responsible cultural tourism. Moreover, the Academy maintains an outreach program, sending staff into schools and communities throughout China to talk about the culture, arts, and preservation of Dunhuang. We also work with our international partners in organizing exhibitions around the world—notably Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, organized with our Getty partners and opening May 2016. Finally, in making effective use of the Internet as a tool of dissemination, we will build on the achievements of the International Dunhuang Project, providing the general public with online access to a vast amount of material about—and from—Dunhuang.
In the future, we see both opportunities and challenges for the Dunhuang Academy. We will continue to seek the support and assistance of our colleagues nationally and internationally, as well as members of the public who care about cultural heritage. Over the next ten to fifteen years, the Dunhuang Academy will strive to further solidify its place as an international institution dedicated to the research and conservation not only of Dunhuang, but also of many other cultural heritage sites along the Silk Road, enabling even more people to learn about and appreciate the art of Dunhuang in the context of its place in history. This outreach will undoubtedly enable the Academy to improve its conservation, research, dissemination, and public education work, thereby enhancing visitation and management of the Mogao Grottoes, helping to ensure that coming generations will be able to enjoy and appreciate the site in a condition that reflects its authenticity and integrity.
Wang Xudong is the director of the Dunhuang Academy.