An emerald dot shimmers in the haze. A mysterious mirage appears on the horizon, approaching the plane window across oceans of sand and time: the historic oasis town of Dunhuang, millennia-old watering hole to the smelly donkeys and camels that once chanced passage across the great Taklimakan and Gobi deserts. From here brave Silk Road souls sallied forth beyond the singing dunes of Mingsha out through the last great gate of the Great Wall and into a world of bloodthirsty savagery: the backwaters of Europe and Asia that craved fine silks and porcelains.
Gateway to the West when China was the world’s Fortnum & Mason, this once-prosperous trade hub today looks more like a derelict market town.
Yet for 10 centuries this Silk Road hub, a pre-eminent exporter of globalization, splurged its vast resources on astonishing public works of startling logistical complications, building over 492 breathtaking Buddhist caves.
Where once were Silk Road caravans today are wind and solar energy farms. They stretch across the sands beyond the ancient Great Wall, heralding a brand new wave of globalization: green technology, a field in which China is the world’s new market leader. Of course to those who know their Dunhuang history, there is nothing new under the sun.
Mogao Cave Murals
Some 450,000 square feet of murals and sculptures dating from the fourth to the 14th centuries, the Mogao Caves are a complex and illuminating database of Chinese politics, theology and history. As illustrated by the adventures of Xuan Zhang, bringer of Buddhism to China, Buddhist cave art, like Buddhism itself, is basically an Indian import.
When they started, the cave walls offered rare visualization to the spiritual ideas that facilitate meditation. But as time went on, the caves came to be used to proselytize Buddhist concepts to an illiterate audience, offering an attractive and accessible library of parables and sutras. The long drawn-out process of excavating and renovating a cave involved importing high-quality decorative materials and fostering artistic talent. It did not come cheap, and a sponsor might have more worldly motives: The largest of all the statues, the massive structure in Cave 96, for example, contains a 100-foot White Buddha sculpted in 695 for the Tang Dynasty Emperor Wu Zetian, modeled on her physiognomy. It was built a year after the top lady – the only female Emperor in Chinese history – issued an edict that giant Buddha statues should be erected all across the country. Why? Because as Buddhism assimilated into China’s everyday political and religious life, an emperor’s legitimacy could be reinforced through his, or especially her, association with the popular Buddhist order. Compare and contrast this with 12 centuries later, when statues of Mao were being erected everywhere.
Great Wall (ancient section)
In his poem “Go North of the Great Wall”, Tang dynasty (618– 907) poet Wang Zhihuan wrote, “Beyond the Jade Gate Pass, the breath of spring has never crossed”. This old trading post and the singing sand dunes to the south stand in stark contrast to the arid landscape.
After passing the Jade Gate Pass, there can be seen some of the earliest remnants of the old Great Wall: stamped earth, sand, straw and brushwood. From thousands of miles east, the Great Wall in its many guises stretches its knotted spine to arrive and end here in the stony, desert plains of Dunhuang. This section of older wall is a more humble affair, and should not be confused by the visitor with more traditional notions of bricks and mortar. That more picturesque version is not to be found here and came much later, mostly in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Bring a camera and water.