Caves of Dunhuang_Secondary

from Issue 8

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Book review: The Caves of Dunhuang

by Lucy Kelaart

Fan Jinshi
Scala Publishers, 2010
256 pp, £35

Cave building in Dunhuang, begun sometime in the mid-fourth century ad, lasted for over 1,000 years until the decline of land-based trading routes. It reached its peak in the early Tang period (618–755), an era that saw the fusion of art from Central China with that from India, Western Asia and Central Asia, and therefore constituted a golden age for the cave art of Dunhuang. Today there are over 800 extant caves in the area, and in The Caves of Dunhuang Fan Jinshi, President of the Dunhuang Academy, has done extraordinary justice to them despite only being able to scratch the surface within the space of a hardback book.

Nevertheless, Fan provides a concise history of the caves, demonstrating how Dunhuang was like a double-bottleneck for east–west and north–south routes, ensuring that all travellers, merchants and holy men voyaging between the Chinese Empire and Central Asia had little choice but to come that way. As this strategic location was populated by Chinese troops and farmers, Chinese culture predominated at first. Soon Buddhism arrived from the south and west, and was adopted by the principalities of the region. The temple caves began to spring up, patronised by local rulers. Fan describes the various temple layouts and discusses Buddhist iconography along with the architecture of the caves; the central part of the book focuses on thirty-eight of the caves around Dunhuang, describing the statues and wall paintings in detail and allowing the reader to see how different historical periods affected the cave art and iconography.

One of the last chapters talks about the now-famous Cave 17, discovered in 1900 by the monk Wang Yuanlu. It contained tens of thousands of manuscripts, including the first complete printed book in the world, a copy of the Diamond Sutra. The discovery of these manuscripts, 90 per cent of which were Buddhist in context and many of which were in other languages such as Tibetan, Khotanese and Sogdian, was perhaps one of the most important academic and historical finds of the twentieth century. Information on the International Dunhuang Project, established to bring together these thousands of manuscripts online, is also detailed.

The book closes with a short chapter on the conservation of the caves, and another on their future. Tourism is a double-edged sword, bringing in much-needed funds for the conservation of the caves, but it also speeds up the caves’ decline. The Dunhuang Academy has been collaborating with international partners and developing its own cadre of highly skilled conservators over the last twenty years, and in this book the details of ongoing projects are laid out.

This book allows the reader to absorb the great commingling on the Silk Road of art, religion, trade and military might. Having visited the caves myself (after a six-month horse and camel ride to get there), I can genuinely say that this book gave me much greater insight (not to mention much better visibility) into the caves than actually being there did.

Lucy Kelaart is the Editor of Steppe Magazine