National Geographic : 2010 Jun
• "Unlike Indian Buddhists, the Chinese wanted to know in detail all the forms of the a erlife," says Zhao Shengliang, an art historian at the Dunhuang Academy. "The purpose of all this color and movement was to show pil- grims the beauty of the Pure Land---and to con- vince them that it was real. e painters made it feel like the whole universe was moving." More earthly tumult periodically swept through Dunhuang. Yet even as the town was conquered by competing dynasties, local aristocracies, and foreign powers---Tibet ruled here from 781 to 847---the creative enterprise at Mogao continued without pause. What accounts for its persistence? It may have been more than a simple respect for beauty or Bud- dhism. Rather than wiping out all traces of their pre- decessors, successive rulers financed new caves, each more magnificent than the last---and emblazoned them with their own pi- ous images. The rows of wealthy patrons depicted on the bases of most murals increased in size over the centuries until they dwarfed the religious gures in the paintings. The showiest patron of all may have been Empress Wu Zetian, whose desire for divine pro- jection---and protection---led her to oversee, in 695, the creation of the complex's largest statue, a 116-foot-tall seated Buddha. By the late tenth century the Silk Road had begun to fade. More caves would be dug and decorated, including one with sexually charged tantric murals that was built in 1267 under the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan. But as new sea routes opened and faster ships were built, land caravans slipped into obsolescence. China, moreover, lost control over large por- tions of the Silk Road, and Islam had started its long migration over the mountains from Central Asia. By the early 11th century sev- eral of the so-called western regions (part of modern-day Xinjiang, in China's far west) had been converted to Islam, and Buddhist monks placed tens of thousands of manuscripts and paintings in a small side chamber adjoining a larger Mogao grotto. Were the monks hiding documents for fear of an eventual Muslim invasion? Nobody knows for sure. e only certainty is that the chamber---now known as Cave 17, or the Library Cave---was sealed up, plastered over, and concealed by murals. The secret cache would remain entombed for 900 years. gouged by an ancient sand dri is still visible on the murals outside Cave 17. By the turn of the 20th cen- tury, when a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu be- came the sanctuaries' self- appointed guardian, many of the abandoned grot- toes were buried in sand. In June 1900, as workers cleared away a dune, Wang found a hidden door that led to a small cave crammed with thousands of scrolls. He gave some of them to local o cials, hoping to elicit a donation. All he received was an order to seal up the contents of the cave. It would take another encounter with the West to reveal the secrets of the caves---and to sound China's patriotic alarms. Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born scholar working for the British government in India and the British Museum, made it to Dunhuang in early 1907 using Xuan- zang's seventh-century descriptions to guide him across the Taklimakan Desert. Wang re- fused to let the foreigner see the bundles from the Library Cave---until he heard that Stein too was a keen admirer of Xuanzang. Many of the Jewelry encrusted with gold leaf makes this seventh-century portrait of the Bodhisattva Guanyin seem three-dimensional---and thus more real. Depicted as a male gure in Indian Buddhism, Guanyin would gradually transform into a female in China, in part to accommodate older Chinese beliefs in a female goddess of mercy. CAVE 57, PAGE 131 eir canvases consisted of river mud mixed with straw. But Dunhuang's artists would record on these humble surfaces the evolution of Chinese art---and the transformation of Buddhism into a Chinese faith.