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​Explore Dunhuang ② | Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes

Editor's Note: The Sixth Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo will be held in Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu Province, from September 6 to 7, 2023. As a key pass along the ancient Silk Road, Dunhuang is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Mogao Grottoes, the Mingsha Mountain and Crescent Spring Scenic Spot, and so on. Starting from September 4, GDToday will bring you an in-depth exploration of the city of Dunhuang.

The Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, or the Dunhuang Mogao Caves, are a World Cultural Heritage Site located in northwest China's Gansu Province. It is a shrine of Buddhist art treasures.

According to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) records, a monk named Lezun had a vision of a thousand Buddhas under showers of golden rays. Thus inspired, he started construction on the caves, which span 10 dynasties. The Mogao Grottoes are commonly known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas. This is apt because there is a vast wealth of Buddhist artworks, murals, statues, meditation chambers, burial sites and living quarters in the caves.

Rediscovered in 1900, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao Caves are home to more than 2,000 exquisite sculptures and 45,000 square meters of frescos, featuring many different cultural elements. Here, you can find Greek-style columns, abstruse manuscripts written in ancient Hindu, and decom orative patterns originating from Persia.

The Flying Apsaras, or Feitian in Mandarin, are often considered a symbol of the Mogao Grottoes. They refer to a spiritual being in Hindu and Buddhist culture with an image of a beautiful female. It is said that Chinese craftsmen first painted the apsaras in murals in the Mogao Grottoes during the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304-439). Nowadays, we can see lively images of Flying Apsaras in various forms, such as dances, trademarks, and ads.

The Mogao Grottoes comprises large grotto temples showcasing paintings, sculptures, architectural designs and murals. It is not only a splendid art treasure of ancient Chinese civilization, but also an important witness to the communication between different civilizations on the ancient Silk Road.

The city of Dunhuang has, for centuries, been a key outpost on the ancient Silk Road, providing shelter and respite for weary traders along the route east to west or vice versa. And it is because of its location that the Mogao Caves can also be called a pantheon. It is not just Buddhist art that adorns its walls.

Ancient beauty reproduced in digital form

Protecting the Mogao Grottoes has become a daunting task due to a variety of problems, such as changes in the colors of the ancient paint after exposure to light, the efflorescence of the frescos over time, and the variable changes in humidity and heat generated by visitors, all of which can cause damage to the invaluable frescos. Digitalization is an important way to keep the grottoes alive forever.

The Dunhuang Academy inaugurated “Digital Dunhuang,” a digitalization project, in order to create digital versions of the Mogao Grottoes in the 1990s. The project aims to establish complete digital files on the grottoes, including its full collection of cultural relics, by processing and permanently storing 2D and 3D data through the application of photogrammetry and 3D digital reconstruction technologies, among other approaches.

In 2016, the first phase of the Digital Dunhuang resource database went online. People from all over the world can enjoy high-definition images and panoramic tours of 30 caves on the Digital Dunhuang website, which shows a new idea of cultural relics protection philosophy.

This project is pursuing overall digitization, including the collection, processing and storage of the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes and related cultural relics using advanced science and technology.  

Chinese tech giant Tencent cooperated with the Dunhuang Academy in 2017 to provide a new pattern for the digital development of the cultural industry. Digital Dunhuang integrates all kinds of data, including videos, 3D data, pictures and others, into a digital repository of cave cultural relics that can be shared globally over the internet.  

Although the Digital Dunhuang project has a long way to go, it significantly benefits cultural heritage protection.

Travel tips:

Opening hours for online reservation system: 7:00-22:00;

Peak season: April to November; opening hours: 7:30-18:00;

Low season: December to March; opening hours: 9:30-17:30;

You can easily book tickets at www.mgk.org.cn, the official online ticketing website. Valid identification is required for purchase.

Text source: GDToday, CGTN, People's Daily Online

Video: Wingheng, Zelda (intern)

Poster: Mia

Editor: Olivia, Steven, Nan, James

Video footages provided to GDToday

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