Yesterday we went to the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, also in northwestern China. These caves were carved out of sandstone by Buddhist monks and decorated with the most amazing murals, frescoes, bas-relief, statues, and tile over the course of about 1000 years, funded by offerings from merchants traveling the Silk Road. They are amazing.
Up until this point I frankly hadn’t seen anything in China that I would fly 5000 miles to see, and was in fact a little disappointed with the tour: we’ve mostly gone from overcrowded tourist spot to overcrowded tourist spot, with very little left in the sense of awe. It’s hard to fully appreciate beautiful scenery when it’s overrun with tourists (including you), and hard to take good photos when on a tight time schedule and trotting after your guide. While it was nice to get fed three times a day and not have to worry about hotels, I was worried that the entire tour would be like that. But the caves, now, they are something else.
There were originally over 1000 caves carved out of the sandstone, but only about 600 have survived to the present date. (We’re lucky to have any of them at all, between the plundering of locals, passing archaeologists, and the depredations of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The guide said that if they’d been any closer to the city, they would probably have been destroyed by the Red Guard, but they’re several dozen km from the city, so the guard never got around to them. Lucky!) They’re not exactly caves – more like rooms carved from sandstone and elaborately decorated. They’re also referred to as grottoes, which confused me no end because to me grottoes are associated with water and this is in the middle of a giant desert.
At any rate, we went to the caves and hired an English-speaking guide to show us around. We visited about fifteen caves in toto, ranging from the 4th century AD to the 11th century. They were covered, walls and ceiling, with beautiful, delicately painted renderings of the Buddha – past, present, and future – and the boddhisatvas, apsaras, etc. – plus depictions of everyday life and paintings of the donors. Also statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, although the statues had mostly been restored in the 18th century, as the wood and clay had decayed with age.
The styles of the paintings and the people depicted in them had great variety – there were Persian, Indian, and Greek influences in some of the paintings, appropriate for what was at that time a bustling merchant center, and the people in them were not just Han Chinese, but also a number of minorities (visible from their different facial features and clothing). But mostly what I remembered about them was the incredible fineness of the artistry, and how well-preserved it was. The reds and whites (made from lead) had flaked away with age, but the blues, greens, ochres, whites made with mica, etc. were still visible, as was some of the gold leafing in the higher portions of the chamber. The brush-strokes were fine and distinct (in the areas where the chamber had not flaked away), giving you a real sense for how they must have looked in their glory. It made me wish I’d been there, back when it was being created.
One of the things that the caves drove home was how civilized China was, back when Europeans were still running around in animal skins hitting each other with sticks. The art in those caves would still be sophisticated and glorious if it were made today – and it was over 1500 years ago! Coming from a country where the history of the dominant culture spans less than 400 years, I find it awe-inspiring. The giant Buddha statues (100+ feet high) carved into the rock – by hand – testify to determination and imagination on a grand scale. They are just gorgeous. (The bigger one is also now the second-largest Buddha statue in the world, after the Taliban dynamited the two giant Buddhas in Afghanistan.)
From a purely technical perspective, I was also amazed by how long the pigments have lasted. I believe they’re mostly made with various kinds of stone – the blue (said the guide) was lapis lazuli and azurite, the green malachite, the reds ochre. The lead-based red and white paints oxidized away from humidity, and much of the gold leaf was scraped away by locals, but the patterns are still clear. If I were doing painting, I would hope for my work to last equally long.
Today is a travel day – we are stopping by a silk carpet factory that specializes in rugs made after the style of the Mogao paintings, but as I’ve already bought one gorgeous silk rug, I doubt I’ll buy another. After that it’s a four-hour ride to the next city we’re stopping in, so it’s really an entire travel day. I expect I will probably finish one more of my travel socks tomorrow. It’s going laboriously slowly, since it’s a two-color sock in black and multicolor yarn, but I’m getting there. Mogao caves it’s not, but it will be pretty, and I hope fun to wear.