Imagining Piety

SHANG SHI, a young aspiring artist, reflects on what truly makes the art of Dunhuang timeless.

Dunhuang, located in western China, is an oasis in a desert, a world-famous heritage site of Chinese civilization, and an arena in which academics, businessmen, adventurers and politicians competed for decades in a wild treasure hunt.

   People see distinct aspects in this intersection of narratives. As an art student, I am supposed to see “art”the unparalleled artistic achievements of the frescos and statues, the meticulous rendering of color and form, and the unique styles central to China’s traditional cultural identity.

   Simply knowing what the art is, however, cannot satisfy me. I am more interested in understanding why Dunhuang is the way it is.

   Shi Xiaoyu, a craftsman living in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), was the only artist who left his name on Dunhuang’s fresco. All other painters were anonymous—they were underclass laborers considered unworthy of remembrance. The concepts of “art” and “artist” are merely modern constructs. So what drove ancient painters to create such breathtaking beauty? As I tried in vain to capture on my sketchbook fragments of the inexplicable beauty around me, I started to realize that something beyond art was behind the mystery of Dunhuang.

   In the Tang Dynasty, Dunhuang was the second largest city in China, only after the capital Chang’an. Just imagine a Shanghai or Beijing located in the deep hinterlands of the Chinese northwest. The source of Dunhuang’s prosperity was its pivotal role in Buddhist worship. Kings and lords from the middle of Asia would scramble for the honor of building their own monasteries in the city. Medieval Dunhuang was heaven on earth in the most literal sense. Painters and sculptors were recreating Sukhāvatī on the walls of hundreds of caves. Their inspiration sprang from a devotion to the sacred that has been long lost to the modern world.

   Immersion in the sacred involves all of a man’s senses: the visual, the aural and the tactile. Images of religious music instruments are preserved on wall paintings. They are the vestiges of a sensually sacred experience, the materialization of the ethereal, the codification of the unspeakable.

   And then I saw them, not warped in the glory of art, but exposed in a dazzling fuzziness of lazurite blue. They are gods from Cave No. 285: Rain, Wind, Lightning and Thunder. They are running in the clouds. Wild beasts they are, forever fixed on the wall in a nervous tension. Where do they come from? Who created them?

   Buddhism in its medieval form is dead. Pious mantras no longer reverberate between the walls of desolate caves. Over the past century, Dunhuang has played the complicated role of “cultural heritage.” It was neglected, excavated, dissected, interpreted and reconstructed.

   When it was rediscovered from centuries of oblivion, it quickly fell prey to controversial excavations conducted by foreign adventurers like Aurel Stein. When the Chinese government finally initiated preservation projects, damages were beyond repair. Right now the narrative of Dunhuang studies is still entangled with China‘s “century of humiliation” and is elevated to the physical embodiment of China’s battered national dignity.

   I stood amidst the roaring winds, gazing upon the distant towers of Mogao Caves, which stood opposite to the grave of Chang Shuhong, one among many who lived and died for the desert. He gave up his burgeoning art career in France and founded the National Dunhuang Academy amid the turmoils of the Sino-Japanese War. The first to number the caves, his numerical system is still in use today. I wonder if Chang had realized that however hard he tried, the sand would eventually take over everything. Faced with the corrosive powers of nature, human efforts are rendered meaningless. And yet he and many others still worked diligently on the mountain of despair and preserved the Dunhuang we can appreciate today.

   Due to the overburden of tourism, contemporary artists have created replicas of certain caves. The meticulous reproductions are masterpieces in their own right. They not only provide tourists with better experiences in a much more comfortable setting, but also protect original works from the moisture and heat of crowds. Visitors, however, are often dissatisfied with this “fake” experience. They are obsessed with seeing the authentic Dunhuang, which allegedly carries more artistic value.

   But where is that authenticity? For me, it does not lie in externalities, but exists within ourselves. Piety will only reveal itself in profound silence in which we voluntarily shut down our senses and savor intuitively the mystical connections between the thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara and the Thousand Realms which we inhabit. Ancient sculptors humbled themselves before wood and clay to create transcendental statues that exceed the explanatory powers of art history. Yet they never even considered themselves to be artists.

   I see the starry sky above me, drenched in a timeless and yet lively solitude. What is the difference between heaven and earth when stars are humans and humans are stars? Dunhuang possesses a mission that will extend far beyond into the future. The observer’s every twinkle and every smile will eventually acquire a cosmological significance.

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Shang is a junior at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. Contact him at season1996@sina.com.

Sketches // Shang Shi

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