China Geography


China Geography

This is an article taken from our China Eye magazine (2007) written by Brian Morgan.

Buddhist caves
The caves at Dunhuang

Dunhuang, in the far North West of China, has long held an important strategic position. It is situated at the northern end of the fertile Hexi Corridor into China, with vast deserts to the north, and high mountains to the south. It guards the Yumen and Yanguan passes, as two parts of the Great Silk Road meet, on their ways to Xian and Luoyang. Quite naturally, it was chosen early as a route out of China.

Old Dunhuang was a fort in the desert, not far from the furthest reaches of the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty. The old city was quite small, about a mile around the city walls, and is now being completely rebuilt as a working museum of life of about 900 years ago, in the Song Period. Inside are replica shops, a pawnbrokers office, a theatre, tearooms, washhouses, etc., all being served by people in Song period dress. There is also a gruesome prison yard, showing ancient punishments. Outside the city walls are replicas of war-machines, such as would be used by defenders and invaders, - battering rams, stone-throwers, spikes, etc.

The old town is now often used as a film set, and I was lucky enough to see a Tang period film being made. There were Arabs with their camels, soldiers in full armour, administrators, etc. It was quite a treat to mix with and chat with these artists.

New Dunhuang is about 3 miles from the old fort, and is quite a bustling tourist centre. It serves places of interest, like the Whistling Sands Mountain and the Crescent Moon Lake, with its period architecture. Ascending these high and shifting sand dunes by camel was quite an un-nerving experience. The camels' gait feels as if it is about to dislocate its legs, and topple you down the dune. At the top of the dune is a flag-a good photo shot opportunity as proof of achieving the peak. The intrepid Chinese have introduced sledges up there, so most visitors revert to children, and whiz down the slope back to their patient camels. The vendor smiled when he gave me one with widely spaced slats. This filled with sand on the descent, and somehow doubled the speed! A new feature are quad-bikes, allowing visitors to go anywhere on many square miles of desert and dune. Also gliding with paravanes is increasingly popular.

At the moment it is quite inconvenient to travel to Dunhuang, as the nearest railway station is 120 kilometres away at Liu Yuan. But this autumn a new railway, close to Dunhuang, and with newly built hotels, is due to open. There is an airport, but with too few air passengers, the airfares are prohibitive.

The main feature near Dunhuang is the Mogao caves complex. These 700 odd caves were cut by hand into a massive sandstone hill, lying along the Dangshui River. They are filled with plaster and stucco statues, and follow the development of Buddhism in China. The walls are still covered with original paintings, illustrating the stories of Buddhism, and warning of the dangers of travel, e.g., robbers, camels falling off cliffs, etc. Many of the early paintings were over painted during the Tang and Song periods, but it is still a treasure house of early Chinese art. This is not like the art we know today, because most of this developed during the Song period. The caves also contain many artefacts written in Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan, Persian, Sanskrit and even Hebrew.

Buddhist caves
Buddhist paintings in the caves

There has been damage from time to time by various invading forces, but most of the art is remarkably intact. Unfortunately, some damage was done by one of China's greatest artists, Zhang Da Qian. He went there in 1941 to copy frescoes and paintings. But temptation was too much for him, and he removed some of the over paintings to get to the earliest ones underneath. He has never been forgiven; now members of the Research Institute want to locate his original paintings, and surprisingly asked me for my help! My Chinese art teacher was one of his best students, and is still around, at 92, in Beijing. I think some of his paintings are still in China, but many went with him to Taiwan.

The complex is controlled by the Dunhuang Research Institute, consisting of top scholars and artists. A few of the caves are opened on a two-year rotation, to minimize light damage. There is a free, multi-lingual guide service; cameras are not allowed, and are stored at the gate. The earliest caves, from before 400 AD, are pure Indian, and only later developed Chinese characteristics. Many of the original paintings outside of the caves are still in good order, because the artists used crushed mineral pigments, like malachite and lapis lazuli. These were not used in Chinese Art until later. In the 1960's the Chinese Government built a protective fa¸ade on most of the caves, but the Western Caves are still largely untouched.

The first cave was dug about 366AD, by a wandering monk, on his way to India, to collect authentic scriptures. He had a vision, and saw lights coming from the sandstone hill, as if it contained a thousand illuminated Buddhas. His was quite a small cave. In later periods, caves were cut by benefactors, who had their own likeness painted on the entrance walls to the cave. The size of the cave represented the extent of donation, and the wealth of the donor.

In 1900, another cave was discovered. A priest was clearing away accumulated sand, and noticed a crack in the wall, from earlier earthquake damage. The wall had been over-painted, probably during the Song period. This newly found cave contained a whole library of 50,000 artefacts, Buddhist scriptures, and silk paintings. At the back of the cave is a statue of a prominent monk.

Before the introduction of Buddhism, Chinese people were greatly restrained by the restrictions of Confucian ideals; responsibility, duty, filial piety, and loyalty. Buddhism allowed scope for imaginative and religious development, and gradually Buddhism assumed a Chinese form. The art here is basically Buddhist, with overtones of Chinese national and folk art.

Two things struck me particularly here; firstly most of the statues and paintings had a halo, which seemed remarkably similar to those of early Christian art: they also had artificially extended ears, rather like the pre-historic Oceanic Long Ear cult, which extended from the Brazilian rainforests, through Oceania, Southern China and into East Africa.

During the Tang period, there were active moves to cooperate with outside cultures, and this led to increased trade, and more caves being dug at Mogao. It all remains a vast treasure house, and reflects well over a thousand years of Chinese cultural development.

We also visited 'Devil City'. This is now known as the Yadan National Geological Park, and meant a further 180kms journey, largely down dust track roads, through the Yumen Pass and past the furthest reaches of the original Han Great Wall. New roads are now being built across the desert, so next year it will be far more accessible.

In this area, the constant wind has eroded the sandstone rock into many weird and wonderful forms, all rising out of a sea of sand. It extends for about 20,000 sq kms. It was always feared by travellers, because of the strange shapes, the desolate area, the strange moaning of the winds, and unusual geomagnetism. So compasses also fail to work properly here. There are many recognisable shapes, like birds, people, ships at sea, and even the head of Beethoven! There are signs that wild camels still live here.

I was lucky enough to see a 'twisting dragon wind', and to photograph it. It started from nothing, and a plume of sand started rising into the air. This began to twist, like a cyclone, and gather more sand around it, moving at a walking place, a distance of 50 metres, and then disappeared as suddenly as it came.

The return rail journey from Liu Yuan took us first through desert, with new wind farms and oil complexes. Then on into the mountains, where we followed a major tributary of the Yellow River. The track twisted and turned around the cliffs, along viaducts above the river, and through many tunnels, one over 26 Km long. Massive civil engineering works are going on here, and even the riverbed is being reshaped, to control the flow at peak flood periods.

The weather in the highlands of Northern Gansu was cold and dry, and this delays the growth of crops. As we went further south, the appearance of spring was obvious. Along the upper reaches of the Yellow River, plum blossom was just past full bloom, and green touches were appearing in the fields. By the time we reached Shaanxi, it seemed to be like summer.

But my journey had not finished. I still had to go to my family in Nanjing, then on to the old family in Shandong, finally returning to Beijing, before my return home to England, via Vienna.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2007, reprinted from China Eye magazine Issue 15, Autumn 2007

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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