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China's Hidden Artistic Treasures


One of professor Sarah Fraser’s greatest legacies in the field of Chinese art history will no doubt be her role as founding architect of the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive, overseeing the photography of thousands of invaluable cave paintings. What is it about the Dunhuang paintings that makes them so important?

Simply put, they provide a concentrated, unmatched overview of Chinese life, religion and culture from the fifth to the 13th centuries. By studying the paintings, scholars can trace changes in Chinese society, many of them a result of Dunhuang’s strategically important location.

Dunhuang lies along the route of the ancient Silk Road, which connected China to India, Persia and the Mediterranean Sea. That meant that ideas — in addition to goods — were constantly passing through town, and as those ideas took hold and gradually influenced Chinese life and religious practices, those changes were reflected in the cave paintings.

While the overwhelming focus of the mural is religious — paintings of Buddha, scenes from traditional Buddhist stories — their style and backgrounds often provide valuable clues about the society that produced them. For example, the towers, temples and palaces pictured in the murals provide detailed information on Chinese architecture of the time. Other murals show Chinese and foreign musical performances, dancing and acrobatics. By examining the changing ways faces and figures were portrayed through the centuries, art historians can track the influence of artistic traditions from elsewhere in China and from the West — making the caves concrete, physical proof of the region’s role as a melting pot for various disparate cultures.

In addition to paintings, one cave also contained a massive, 20,000-text library — sealed between 1002 and 1006 — that Fraser describes as the Chinese equivalent of the ancient library of Alexandria. Manuscripts included Buddhist sutras or scriptures, marriage records, government documents and travelers’ accounts of their journeys.

“It provided the entire spectrum of life at that time,” says Fraser. In the early 20th century, when the caves were rediscovered, European archaeologists carted these priceless documents home with them; eventually the documents were scattered in libraries and museums across the world.

In addition to photographing the cave paintings, Fraser has also helped coordinate digital photography of these documents, from sources such as the British Museum in London and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. “The digital environment allows us to put all these dispersed materials together,” says Fraser. Virtually, at least, the Dunhuang library finally will be gathered in once place again. — E.C.B.

Celestial beings called apsaras, as shown in this modern copy, grace the scenes above the Buddha in the Dunhuang caves in northwestern China.
Celestial beings called apsaras, as shown in this modern copy, grace the scenes above the Buddha in the Dunhuang caves in northwestern China. Courtesy of Dunhuang Research Academy