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The Mogao Grottoes are a series of 492 caves carved into a cliff face near the city of Dunhuang, a central stop along the fabled Silk Road in northwestern China. Since 1989, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the Dunhuang Academy have worked together to preserve and protect these cave temples, which constitute one of the world’s most significant sites of Buddhist art.

Neville Agnew, head of the GCI’s Dunhuang initiative; Lori Wong, principal project specialist at the GCI; Susan Whitfield, director of the International Dunhuang Project and curator of Central Asian manuscripts at the British Library; and Marcia Reed, chief curator at the Getty Research Institute, discuss the creation and preservation of the Dunhuang caves, as well as their historical importance.

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JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

LORI WONG:  A lot of scholars have debated how these caves were used.

NEVILLE AGNEW:  We did documentation, we taught them scientific methodology…

SUSAN WHITFIELD:  They were put in the cave, and the cave was then sealed.

MARCIA REED:  Their muscular, bulging arms are coming out of dragon mouths.

CUNO:  In this episode I speak with Neville Agnew, Lori Wong, Susan Whitfield, and Marcia Reed about the Getty exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang.

For almost 30 years the Getty Conservation Institute has worked with the Dunhuang Academy to protect and study the more than 500 caves cut into a desert cliff face near the Silk Road frontier town of Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the west of China.

Called the Mogao Grottoes, Mogao meaning “peerless” in Chinese, these extraordinary painted and sculpted caves date from the fifth through the fifteenth centuries and document the development and transmission of Buddhist iconography and Chinese painting from the Northern Wei through the Ming Dynasties.

Over the summer of 2016, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, and Dunhuang Academy presented an exhibition on the caves, their cultural history, modern rediscovery, and conservation challenges.

Neville Agnew is head of the  Dunhuang initiative at the Getty. We spoke inside one of the life-size replicas of the Mogao caves, which were created on-site at the Getty by artists from Dunhuang to give visitors to the exhibition a sense of the caves’ size, scale, and spirituality, and to contextualize the scrolls and sculptures from the caves, which are featured in nearby galleries.

CUNO:  Thank you, Neville, for meeting with me this morning and helping us understand the history of these replica caves and their role in the conservation of the actual caves themselves. I gather the tradition of making such replica caves began in Dunhuang in 1941 under the direction of the Chinese painter Zhang Daqian. This was a complicated moment in the history of China. The Japanese had invaded and were occupying much of the eastern part of China. And in five years, a civil war would break out across China. I suppose Zhang Daqian benefitted from his isolation in Dunhuang. Did he undertake this initiative on his own, or was he invited to Dunhuang by the government itself? And if the latter, if by the government and the authorities there, was this part of a nationalist agenda of the government, which was still struggling to form and strengthen itself, this celebration of a distinguished and ancient past? What was the motivation for sending him to Dunhuang?

AGNEW:  Well, Zhang Daqian was a very famous artist. And it’s understood that he took it on his own initiative to go to Dunhuang, having heard about the wonderful paintings there. And in fact, he did spend three years there, doing, I think, about 200 paintings. He had his family with him and he had a group of followers, as well. In those days, it was, of course, very difficult to get to Dunhuang. Dunhuang is about a thousand miles due west, as the crow flies, from Beijing. So he would’ve traveled probably via—perhaps by train to Xi’an, today’s Xi’an, and then on to Lanzhou. And from Lanzhou, motor vehicle and/or ultimately, by ox-drawn cart, into Dunhuang.

CUNO:  Going across sandy trails, as opposed to [Agnew: Right] macadam roads, I suppose.

AGNEW:  Up through what’s called the Gansu Corridor, or the Hexi Corridor, the space, the conduit between China proper and the Far West, bounded on the south by the Qilian Mountains, snow-clad, and to the north by the Gobi.

CUNO:  And did he bring a lot of equipment with? He had to bring everything with him, I suppose.

AGNEW:  [over Cuno] I think he brought everything with him.

CUNO:  He couldn’t have acquired something at Dunhuang, for example, ’cause it had declined in population considerably, by the time he got there.

AGNEW:  There would’ve been nothing in Dunhuang in those times.

CUNO:  Now, with the defeat of the Japanese, the Nationalist Government of China established the Dunhuang Art Research Institute, which is the predecessor of the Dunhuang Academy, with which you had worked for so long. And they point at another painter, a man named Chang Shuhong, as its first director, this tradition of appointing painters to important cultural institutions as the directors of them. What was the task of this new research institute when it was formed?

AGNEW:  Well, the task, under—the first director, Chang Shuhong, as you mentioned, was a painter himself. He’d had, incidentally, seven years of training in Paris, in France, in the style of oil painting. And a beautiful painter he was. But he went back to China and— He was from the south of China and he heard of the beauty of the wall paintings. He went there and he became the first director. He was appointed by the Nationalist Government then to be the first director. His first task was really to secure the site, to ensure that it was secure against the kinds of activities that had occurred previously. One has to remember that after Stein and Pelliot had taken documents from—

CUNO:  The archeologists who came [Agnew: The archeologists] in the early part of the twentieth century.

AGNEW:  Yeah, in 1907, 1908, and others after him. Right through until as late as 1935, there was a Western journalist who attempted to walk off with a piece of art from—but he was apprehended and stopped, so— They were very hypersensitive at this point. It was well known that the loss had occurred to the west, of artifacts. So his job was to secure the site, which he did. He built a big adobe wall in front of it to keep animals out and to declare, in a way, that this was now a protected site. And then, of course, he began the process of copying the paintings.

CUNO:  So in the tradition of his predecessor.

AGNEW:  Very much so, [Cuno: Yeah] yeah.

CUNO:  And the purpose of copying was to transmit the quality of and the iconography of the paintings themselves, for reasons of study, let’s say back in the capital, Beijing? Or what was exactly the purpose of copying these wall paintings?

AGNEW:  I think that the copying practice in China is very much a part of the whole tradition in China. Of emulation. Study through copying. Understanding better, through close examination and copying. And probably originally, it got you karmic merit, as well.

CUNO:  Ah, yeah, yeah. But did it—was it meant to then instruct painters in how to become painters? Or was it to instruct, as it were, artist historians in the history of the painting itself?

AGNEW:  [over Cuno] I think it was probably both. Undoubtedly, through copying, the painters learnt the craft of copying and learnt the art of copying. But it also allowed a documentation of the original condition of the paintings as they were at that time, which is very, very valuable.

CUNO:  So at the start of this institute, we understand the conditions were rough and tough and they had to be stabilized and so on. I gather that there was no electricity in the caves until 1960. And given that the caves were, as caves are, cut deep into the rock, there was very little light with which to see the paintings they were then charged with copying. How did they illuminate the walls of the cave in order to copy what they were painting?

AGNEW:  They used mirrors. The caves are east-facing, so at least until midday, they could reflect light [Cuno: Some sun] through mirrors, or large pieces of white paper. In the deeper caves, where the light couldn’t penetrate, or in the afternoons, they’d use kerosene lamps.

CUNO:  I next asked Neville to tell me a bit about the conditions of the caves when he first arrived on the site some thirty years ago, and about how the work got started there.

AGNEW:  The façade of the cliff had to be stabilized. That cliff is composed of—it’s  a natural cliff, into which the caves are cut. And the cliff itself—

CUNO:  It’s a kind of soft stone, as opposed to hard stone.

AGNEW:  [over Cuno] Soft conglomerate, as we call it. It’s a coarse, geologically very young rock. It’s about 100,000 years old. It’s alluvium that came off the mountains to the south, washed down and deposited, eons of deposition, and the poorly consolidated, which means strengthened. It’s got no capacity, really. And it’s not suitable for carving, it’s not suitable for anything, really, other than cutting a hole into the cliff. So they— It’s very weak, as I say. And if you look at areas where there is not a façade now, you can see clearly, big slabs of rock that are separating from the cliff face. These are ones that have fallen in the past, during the period of abandonment. And very often, those slabs fell away, and they transected right through the middle of a cave. So you look at a1907 photograph from Aurel Stein, the earliest photographs we have, you can see caves that have been cut right across the middle. Collapsed. So this was the major technical intervention that was done.

CUNO:  Could you give us a sense of how deep this break was? In other words, the caves themselves can go in, say, fifteen, twenty meters, or even deeper into the caves. But when something was cleaved off the surface, was that five, ten feet?

AGNEW:  It would be about a meter to two meters. Six to ten feet, say. A big slab. And these cracks can run for thirty, forty feet. They’ve been mapped. They’ve mapped by the Dunhuang Academy. So they had to build a façade there. But the two purposes of this concrete façade, which was built in the 1960s— So by the time I arrived there and the GCI started working there, that had been completed. That engineering intervention had happened. Plus security doors in that concrete façade.

CUNO:  And those doors were to keep people from coming in [Agnew: Yeah] and doing damage. But they—also to keep sand from blowing in? Was that part of it, or—?

AGNEW:  [over Cuno] To some extent, yeah. Although they’re louvered doors, and they’re not totally effective in keeping sand away.

CUNO:  [over Agnew] So with the sand migration, because of the location of these caves, with sand dunes above and beyond them and so forth, tell us about the sand problems and what was done to mitigate the effects of the sand blowing into the caves or the damage the sand can make

AGNEW:  Sand is very damaging, because it abrades the soft rock. Ceaseless flow of sand over the edge of the cliff not only accumulates sand at the bottom and buries the entrances of the caves— Which had two effects. One was to protect the entrance, to some extent. But the worse effect was it allowed the wicking of water into the caves, when the sand got wet either through flood—

CUNO:  [over Agnew] And by wicking, you mean water going—

AGNEW:  Seeping through the sand.

CUNO:  Yeah.

AGNEW:  Yeah, into the caves. So that was damaging.

CUNO:  [over Agnew] And then being trapped by the sand itself, [Agnew: That’s correct, yeah] so it was moist inside.

AGNEW:  In fact, you can see very often, in the ground-level caves—you walk in, all the wall paintings are lost, from the entrance nearly to the height, full height of the entrance, in a sloping angle into the cave, where the sand had flowed in. And then it had become wetted over time, many, many times over the centuries, and the wall paintings totally destroyed. When it was cleared, all those wall paintings were lost. You just have the evidence, then, of where the sand had been. But it protected the caves, too, in many ways. The inner sanctum, if you like, the main chambers of the caves, were protected by that fact.

CUNO:  So one of the first things that had to be done was to remove the sand, I suppose. It must’ve been almost as difficult as carving the caves originally.

AGNEW:  Well, the first director, Chang Shuhong, did a lot of that work. He removed the sand, and then built the façade, as well. Our role was really to control the flow of sand, ’cause they didn’t know how to do that. They put up brush fences as sand breaks.

CUNO:  Up above the caves?

AGNEW:  Yeah, on top, above, on the plateau above the caves.

CUNO:  Where the sand was building up and blowing across and down and into the caves. So they could keep the sand from blowing—they could direct it blowing elsewhere, I suppose.

AGNEW:  Well, no, you can’t direct it elsewhere, but the brush sand fences didn’t work. What we did was introduce a synthetic woven fabric. In fact, I’m fond of telling them that you can buy now in the Home Depot. It’s the shade fabric that’s used horticulturally. I had used it in Australia, for that very reason, to protect a dinosaur trackway from accumulation of sand in the footprints. And it worked very well, so I knew. When the wind blows through this fabric, it slows the speed by 50%, the sand drops. So you can actually mitigate the sand flow by 60%, which was the immediate reduction in sand accumulation at the bottom of the cliff.

CUNO:  And over the course of the time—over the twentieth century, certainly, but over the course of the thirty years you worked there—has there been increasing, I don’t know what term to use, but desertification? I mean, increasing amount of desert because of the sort of climate change or the drying up of the desert, sort of?

AGNEW:  We don’t see that evidence yet. But who knows what the future may hold? Because on the southern Silk Road 2,000 years ago, some of the sites dried up and were abandoned, Buddhist sites. Niya, for example. Aurel Stein excavated there. They were lost. And you know, it’s really important, I think, for the Chinese authorities to begin to conserve water and to realize that they’re extremely vulnerable. Dunhuang is an oasis. It depends on melt water from the Qilian Mountains to the south.

CUNO:  So tell us about that, because we’ve been talking about the dryness and talking about the desert and talking about sand and so on, which would give the listener the impression that there is no water around. But yet at the base of these caves, there’s, much of the year, a stream. But sometimes during the year, there’s a raging torrent of water.

AGNEW:  Yeah. Yes, yes. That’s the Dachuan River. That’s the river that provided the water for Chang Shuhong and all of the early monks that lived there and so on. It’s much of the time a little trickled stream. But then with the spring thaw, if it’s complemented by rain, usually around early June, it can rise, oh, fifteen, twenty feet in a matter of hours.

CUNO:  Which would take it up to the level of the first level. For our listeners’ sake, who haven’t seen the photographs of the site, we should say that they are three and four levels of caves. So this water that might be rising up, would it enter actually into the first level of caves?


AGNEW:  It did flow into the first level caves, and filled some of them to a height of about three or four feet.

CUNO:  Wow.

AGNEW:  So in Cave 85, which is one of the caves that we worked in intensively for ten years to develop a methodology for treatment for the wall paintings, all of the wall paintings are lost to that height. There’s just bare rock.

CUNO:  Oh, right. To what height? A couple of feet, you say?

AGNEW:  Four feet, three to four feet. Yeah.

CUNO:  [over Agnew] And when the water comes in, it—and even when it leaves, for example, but there’s—it leaves behind things, residue of some kind. But doesn’t it also bring salt up from—and up through the walls themselves, as you called it earlier, wicked its way up? Did you have to deal with that, as well?

AGNEW:  Yeah, this is a very intractable problem. And not only is the Dachuan River salt-containing. Salts, I should say. The magnesium and sodium salts and so on. But the soil itself and the rock has salt in it. And so when the water recedes, as it dries up, it sucks salt to the surface. And that’s so damaging and this is what you see in the caves. This is wicking, as well.

CUNO:  So over the course of many years, this would’ve happened, say, and would’ve blown in. Water would’ve come in, water would come up the walls and so forth. And there was a period of, let’s say, 4- or 500 years of abandonment, when the Silk Road, as I understand it, the gate, the Jade Gate on the Silk Road by Dunhuang, was closed off. Trade stopped, populations kept—discontinued in their migration along the Silk Road. And over the course of that abandonment, one would think that then maybe there was some stability. But of course, it was subject to the natural disasters that… But then when it was rediscovered, shall we say, by Europeans, it was not only archeologists who came. I gather there were, at the time of the Russian Revolution, White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, who came and took up residence in some of the caves, and lived there and cooked there. So there’s smoke damage, too. So how much did human abuse, over that abandoned period of time, contribute to the elements.

AGNEW:  I think human abuse over that abandonment, hundreds of years of abandonment, from about the mid-Ming Dynasty to the mid-Qing Dynasty, when Dunhuang was reincorporated into China, about eight—1750, 1760, then it became China again, and then it began to be protected almost all very far away and still extremely isolated and neglected. But the period of abandonment led to the loss of all the temple fronts, the collapse of the rock, periodic flooding, sand abrasion. So it was just, you know, a chaotic situation that developed, [in] which natural processes reinserted themselves. Probably though, as a site of local veneration, it was used by the few remaining Buddhists. But mainly, it was an area of pastoral grazing lands for Uyghurs and their goats and flocks and so on.

CUNO:  And we’ve made mention of a couple of archaeologists, Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot. Stein being Hungarian but working for the British, and Pelliot being French and working for the French. And then these Chinese painters are appointed to come to copy. So now the Chinese are taking some sort of control over the situation, shall we say. Forty years later, the Getty Conservation Institute is invited to Dunhuang and to work there with Dunhuang Academy. Tell us how that happened, how the Getty got involved.

AGNEW:  We got involved through—actually, through UNESCO, because in 1986, China signed on to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as a nation. And therefore, it had a representative from UNESCO in Beijing. And his name was Leo Tella. He’s actually an Austrian, but a naturalized Australian. Very charming man, great guy. He was friends with Luis Monreal, our first director of the GCI. And Leo contacted Luis Monreal and said, “China is in need of help in conservation, and your fledgling organization, the Getty Conservation Institute, might be able to give some help.

CUNO:  [over Agnew] ’Cause it had just been founded in the early 1980s, huh?

AGNEW:  Yeah.


AGNEW:  Yes, in the mid-1980s. So Luis took a trip to China. In fact, he didn’t go to Dunhuang, but he went to Yungang, another World Heritage Site. And ultimately, we worked there, as well, for five years. But that’s another story. However, he came back and said, “This is a good thing.” Already, we were working in Egypt, in the tomb of Nefertari. And I went then, in 1988, to Dunhuang. And to Yungang, as well. But Dunhuang was the place I really thought we should world, and turned out to be right, because of the partnership and just because of the fantastic site it was. So we began in that way. And it’s just gone on year after year after year.

CUNO:  Yeah. How surprising was it to you or to the field at large, that the Chinese would open up to a foreign agency, the Getty Conservation Institute, to work on such an important site?

AGNEW:  It was a bit of a surprise, really. And there was a period in which we were establishing our credentials, shall we say, and we weren’t necessarily being regarded as anything other than a rich American organization that might be coming in, who might be able to provide some sort of both technical and, who knows, perhaps financial assistance to them. And Director Fan has said this to me bluntly. She said, “When you first came, we thought this is a rich American organization. But, she said, “we started to see value in what you could bring.” And so, you know, we realized that we had a lot to learn.

CUNO:  What were some of the first things that you had to do?

AGNEW:  Well, we looked at the site first. What were the problems? In the same way as Chang Shuhong had addressed the site issues, the big issues of the whole site, we looked at this. So it was sand control we had to do. It was rock monitoring for the cliff stability. Are the slabs of rock moving, now that the façade his built, it is, are the pigment colors stable, or are they continuing to change? So we did pigment color monitoring. We did investigations of the pigments themselves, the binding media. So there was both, site-wide activities and laboratory-based scientific investigations.

CUNO:  Was there any actual direct treatment of the surface of the caves, the painted surfaces of the caves? Or was it still analyzing the conditions of the caves?

AGNEW:  In the first six, seven years, eight years, we did no treatment of the wall paintings at all. None at all. We did documentation, we taught them scientific methodology, we did photography of the caves and—really, for condition assessment and so on. So all of that. But basically, it was looking at the site as a whole.

CUNO:  I guess this exhibition in which we’re standing is a kind of capstone for your thirty-some-odd years of working at Dunhuang. What did you expect the exhibition would do for the work that you have done? Introduce it to a large public, I assume. And we can hear the public coming and we’re about to have to leave the caves themselves. But tell us about the importance of the exhibition for your work.

AGNEW:  Well, it’s been wonderful to have the exhibition here in Los Angeles, at the Getty, because it is something that I personally have dreamt about for a long time, because I don’t think it’s easy to communicate to our Getty colleagues and to the L.A. public, of course, the marvels of this wonderful site on the other side of the world, so to speak. The other side of the Pacific, anyway, in Central Asia. It’s just not easily communicable. But to have it come here I think has really been an eye opener, not only for colleagues at the Getty, but also for the public. And I’ve been very struck and touched by some of the comments we’ve had from the public coming in here. The Chinese themselves are very proud of their cultural heritage. A woman came out, a Chinese woman, Chinese-American, with tears in her eyes, saying she just was amazed at the marvels of her motherland, so to speak, her fatherland or whatever. [chuckles]

CUNO:  We have many more that want to come in. We can hear them outside. So thank you for your time this morning, and thank you for the work that you’ve been doing for the Getty, for Dunhuang, and for the world.

AGNEW:  Well, it’s been my pleasure and privilege, Jim.

CUNO:  Next, I spoke with Lori Wong, a wall painting conservator at the Getty Conservation Institute, who first worked at Dunhuang in 2002. We talked about the Late-Tang dynasty Cave 85, which for thirteen years has been a case study for developing a methodology to stabilize deteriorating wall paintings at Dunhuang.

Lori, I gather that we know from documents precisely when Cave 85, the cave that you’ve been talking about, that we’ve spent so much time conserving, when it was actually painted, we know who commissioned it, and we know that the portrait of the man who commissioned it is actually included in the painting, together with portraits of his brothers and nephews, one of his nephews being the highest administrative official in the area. So we know quite a lot about the commissioning and making of the painting. Why would one commission a painting like this? Or why would one commission painting a cave like this?

WONG:  So this is—it’s a Buddhist site. And in Buddhism, it’s important to gain merit through the commissioning of an object, or through the sponsoring of an object. So the caves, the caves themselves, were something that people could gain merit through the construction of a cave. So Cave 85 was a cave that—and I should say that we know this from a document that is in France, in the National Library in France. And this document actually records who the patron was, so who the donor was, of this cave, in it.

CUNO:  [over Wong] And the document came from Dunhuang, came out of the library here, [Wong: Exactly] is that right?

WONG:  Exactly. So everything we know about the site comes from information, from manuscripts, ancient manuscripts that were found in this one small library cave, Cave 17. So without that, we would have really very little information about this site and who the people were that created such a magnificent site.

CUNO:  So this was commissioned to honor the family or honor the patron? And not only just honor in the way that we might think of honoring now, but actually investing in the future karmic good relations of the family?

WONG:  Exactly. So Cave 85 was commissioned for a monk. His name was Zhai Farong. And he was an important monk in the region. This document describes him being promoted to the highest monk official. And this cave was commissioned, basically, to honor this promotion. And Cave 85 is unusual because it’s actually a family cave. So it really shows the wealth of this one family, to be able to afford the high price that was needed to construct a cave. And it was also constructed in a relatively short period of time, only six years. And this is a really—this is a large cave. It would’ve taken a substantial amount of time to carve it, to plaster it, to paint it.

CUNO:  Yeah. I don’t wanna give our listeners the impression that these—this family was living in the cave. [Wong: (laughs) Yes] This is the cave to which they would come for ceremonies, irregularly, or infrequently, is that right?

WONG:  Right. I mean, a lot of scholars have debated how these caves were used. So I mean, Professor Robert Sharf at the University of California Berkeley—he has spoken a lot about that these caves were commissioned primary for building karmic merit; but that he is also arguing that there was not a practice of worshipping in these caves that followed after. And I think that’s hard for us to get our head around, ’cause we think of these as maybe like a church or something, where people would go to pray or to learn about the stories of the Buddha. And in fact, we don’t actually know how these caves were used.

CUNO:  We next discussed the process for creating the wall drawings by looking at examples of freehand sketches that were found in the library cave and may have been used as preparatory drawings. These drawings were then transferred to the cave walls. I asked how the walls themselves were prepared because when the caves were initially dug, the walls would have been quite rough.

WONG: Right, so the rock that was carved out is this conglomerate. And we have examples of the conglomerate in the case. So you’ll see that it’s pebbles that are essentially fused together in this matrix, but it has a very rough surface. So you can’t hang it directly onto this rock. So they had to use a plaster. They took mud from the riverbed, the mixed it with sand that was in abundance, ’cause the site is in the desert. They mixed in plant fibers like straw, hemp fiber, in order to prevent cracking, and they coated the walls and ceilings with this material. And in fact, in this case here—we’re using Cave 85 as an example—there were two different plaster layers used. So a coarse leveling plaster first applied, and then onto that, a fine, thinner finishing plaster. Fol—

CUNO:  Was it rapidly drawing? In other words, you could get from the rough coarse original surface to the first initial plastering to the second finer plastering within a matter of days?

WONG:  It would’ve been a matter of days. And this is—it’s a mud plaster. So it’s basically just whenever the mud dries. So it’s different from what you often see in European painting, which is typically a lime-based plaster. That technique is totally different. There’s a wet plaster that’s applied to the surface, and then the paint is applied to that plaster while it’s still wet. And it’s that drying process that sets, that embeds—

CUNO:  It’s a fresco painting.

WONG:  [over Cuno] It’s a fresco painting, exactly. This is— [Cuno: But this is not] this is not a fresco painting.

CUNO:  Yeah. So in this case, the plaster has dried before the drawings are put onto the plaster, before the paint is put onto the drawings, is that right?

WONG:  [over Cuno] Correct. Exactly.

CUNO:  And what is the—what are the materials with which the paint is made? And do those materials tell us anything interesting about the trade in materials along the Silk Road in which Dunhuang was a party?

WONG:  They really do. I mean, the pigments are so interesting. And they would use both locally available pigments, as well as pigments that traded along the Silk Road. And in this case, we see mineral pigments like orpiment. Atacamite is a really beautiful green that’s very characteristic of the Tang period. And—

CUNO:  [over Wong] But does it come locally, or where does it come from?

WONG:  So these are—these are local pigments. And what’s interesting in particular is the choice of blue pigment. So they used azurite. But a lot of times you hear people talk about lapis lazuli.

CUNO:  Right.

WONG:  And lapis lazuli was actually used frequently at the site, except it was used prior to the Tang Dynasty. [Cuno: Yeah] So—

CUNO:  But we think of it as coming from Afghanistan, is that right?

WONG:  [over Cuno] Yeah. So probably was obtained through trade routes. So the fact that we see, in the Tang period, no longer the use of lapis signals something. It tells us something. That either trade routes were cut off. For some reason, there was a decision made to change the use of blue pigments here. So it could mean that trade routes were cut off.

CUNO:  [over Wong] We always think of lapis lazuli as being very expensive. And when you get to the Renaissance paintings and you see evidence of lapis lazuli, you say to yourself, well, that was a rich painting. That was a rich patron who was able to patronize that painting. Could it have been just simply that it became too expensive to get and they had to turn to a less expensive alternative?

WONG:  It’s possible. It’s certainly possible.

CUNO:  We’re looking at a case in which there are chunks of the actual materials, and then there’s the refined powdered version of them as  the artist would have them on— in his lap, I suppose, or on his table, prior to the mixing of the paint with something that would bind the pigments together to make the paint that one could put on the wall. What is the process to go from rock to powder to paint?

WONG:  So if we take a mineral pigment like Atacamite, this is a mineral that would then be ground. And because the artisans were so skilled, they knew that they could grind this pigment to varying degrees of fineness. So by changing the particle size, they could extend one pigment into ten different shades of green.

CUNO:  Now, I know that we are looking at caves that have been decorated over hundreds and hundreds of years, because the range of the caves dates from the fifth century to the fifteenth century, let’s say. Have you seen dramatic technological changes in the production of paint and paint put on walls or is it all pretty much done as it was once done?

WONG: I think what you do see is you see change in color from dynasty to dynasty. So you see, for instance, the Tang painting, very characteristic with this green Atacamite pigment. So it’s either just changing tastes that would prefer certain pigments, or it was something that was indicative of availability of pigments during certain time periods.

CUNO:  But what was it about Cave 85 that drew your attention, or drew the Dunhuang Academy and the Getty Conservation Institute’s attention to it? And was it something that you were going to—did you think you would learn from treating Cave 85 that would make it possible for you to apply that same treatment to other caves?

WONG:  Right. So Cave 85—I mean, there were 492 caves. So it was difficult to select one cave to do this model conservation project on. So the GCI, with the Dunhuang Academy, really looked carefully to find the right cave. And Cave 85 was selected because not only is it a beautiful cave from the late Tang period with exquisite painting, it also suffers from a lot of serious deterioration issues. And these are problems like plaster detachment, paint flaking, salt deterioration. These are problems that the Dunhuang Academy has really struggled with. So this project really intended to study these problems, to understand them, in order to put in place recommendations that would stabilize the paintings and help preserve the caves for the future. And this project was meant to not just be a one-off project, but really to— We would carry out training. It was really about building capacity at the Dunhuang Academy and in the region, so that they can therefore undertake conservation of paintings, conservation of paintings on earthen plasters, on their own.

CUNO:  Right, in similar conditions elsewhere, not only in China, but I suppose anywhere in the world where the conditions are similar [Wong: Exactly] and the paint is similar, yeah.

WONG:  Exactly.

CUNO:  Well, Lori, thank you so much for being with us this morning. You know, it’s fascinating work that you and your colleagues have been doing in Dunhuang. It’s what you  might describe as part detective work, part medical intervention, and part art historical interpretation. So thank you for spending so much time with me this morning.

WONG:  It was a pleasure.

CUNO:  In conjunction with the replica caves, the Getty also has an exhibition that features objects found in the original caves, including the famed Library Cave. I visited the galleries with Susan Whitfield, director of the International Dunhuang Project, to talk about the world’s oldest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra. I asked her to begin by telling us about the circumstances of its discovery.

WHITFIELD:  Its finding is a very interesting story. We know that it was produced in 868. It was printed on the order of this man, Wong Jie for his parents. We don’t know why and we don’t know when, but at some point, it made its way to this frontier town of China, Dunhuang, far, far in the northwest of China, right on the borders, on the edges of the Lop Desert. And this was a great center of Buddhism. At some point in the ninth century or early tenth century, a cave that was in [a] Buddhist cave complex just outside the town of Dunhuang was filled with ancient manuscripts, early printed documents like this, and many, many paintings, Buddhist paintings. We don’t know why these paintings and manuscripts and printed documents were put inside the cave, but maybe they were sacred waste, maybe they were ex-library copies that were no longer in use, maybe they were personal copies of monks who had died. All these are viable theories. But at some point, they were put in the cave, and the cave was then sealed, probably about a thousand AD, because the last dated document we have is from about that time. The cave was sealed and its doorway was plastered over and painted. And then it became forgotten to history, to later generations. And so this cache of wonderful material—perhaps 50,000 items in total, 40- to 50,000 items, so a considerable store—was just left there in the dry desert heat. And there it remained until  1900, when a local monk who had set himself up as the sort of informal custodian of this Buddhist cave temple site happened accidentally upon this hidden doorway. And he opened it up, he got his workmen to break away the plaster and open it up, open the little wooden door, and inside was this cache of material. Well, as you can imagine, it must’ve been a big surprise to him. He was very concerned with conservation of the Buddhist cave temple. And so what he did was he showed the manuscripts and the paintings from this library cave to local officials, in the hope of getting support for his work. And he gave a few away to the local officials. He was told just to put them back in the cave, so he did that. He took them out occasionally and looked at them and, you know, over the following years. And then in 1907, a British explorer, a Hungarian-born British archaeologist and explorer who was living in and working in British India at the time, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, made his way, on his second Central Asian expedition, archaeological expedition to Dunhuang. And he heard about this find. And he negotiated with the monk who was looking after the material, and after some negotiations and a transfer of money, he managed to acquire thousands of manuscripts and printed documents and paintings, which were then packed up and sent on crates to London, where they were put into the British Museum. The Diamond Sutra was among them. And it was brought into the British Museum collections, and then the British Library, the national library of Britain, actually became an independent institution in ’73, so it became part of the British Library collections then.

CUNO:  Do we know anything about the man, Wong Jie, who is identified in the colophon as having dedicated it to his parents? Is he the one who commissioned it? Or anything about his background.

WHITFIELD:  We know nothing of Wong Jie. He’s just a name in history, known only to us from the colophon on this document. It was very common. This is why we have so many Buddhist manuscripts, paintings, and printed material. It was an act of merit to replicate the words or the images of the Buddha. So many people paid for scribes to do this on the occasion of their parents’ death or on a promotion to a new post in government, to give thanks and to send merit out into the world. And so Wong Jie was one of these people. He presumably paid for the paper, the woodblock carver, the ink, the printer, and had, most probably, many copies of this sutra made. So increasing the merit, because every time you replicate the words, you increase merit. So obviously, printing is a great way of making more replications of the words of Buddha. But other than that, we know nothing. Just this one.

CUNO:  I gather that we think we know that it was produced in Sichuan Province, some hundreds of miles away in the southeast, or to the southeast of Dunhuang; and that the woodblock into which the script was cut is from a pear tree; and that the paper on which the book was printed was made from mulberry fiber. Is there anything especially interesting about these facts? Do we know these to be the case? And does it tell us anything about the cultural economy within which Dunhuang functioned along the Silk Road in the west of China?

WHITFIELD:  Well, these are all hypothetical. We don’t know where it was produced. We have a certain amount of evidence that it was produced in Sichuan, which we know was an area of printing. I’m saying this was produced in 868. Printing was already a mature industry in China by that time. Printing had probably been invented about 700. And we have fragmentary and undated material which probably dates to then, so this is known for being the earliest dated and complete printed book.

So that I think evidence for it being produced in Sichuan is quite strong, but it’s not certain. Woodblock, we only know from later woodblocks. We don’t have the woodblock from which this item was made, but they usually were made from—often were made from fruit tree wood, such as pear, as you mentioned. So that’s just hypothetical.

The paper is very interesting. It’s often called mulberry paper, but in fact, most paper we find at this time is a mixture of fibers. Some of the fibers of the finest paper come from the bark of the paper mulberry, and sometimes the silk mulberry tree. These are two different species. But they also might include fibers from hemp, from ramie, from other plants. And it depends on the locality. So sometimes we can tell where the paper was made from the fibers, because they only are found in certain places. Like paper made on the Tibetan Plateau often has daphne, which doesn’t appear down in the Lop Desert where we find this manuscript. So we can tell something. We know from other documents in the cave, that Dunhuang was a thriving market, Silk Road, and garrison town. It was a military town, because it was right on the borders of China. As I said, we don’t know why this particular document came to Dunhuang.

CUNO:  Now, it’s interesting that it’s printed and not written by hand, like other sutras found at Dunhuang. What do you make of that?

WHITFIELD:  Well, it’s very interesting, because printing said was developed in China, and also Japan and Korea, what is now Japan and Korea, about 700, we think. Certainly, in the eighth century. And it was an obvious way for Buddhists to go, because Buddhists, as I mentioned, believed that replication of the words or the images of the Buddha was an act of merit.

So you have prayer wheels. It’s the same idea. You turn a prayer wheel and it sends round the words of the Buddha. So it’s replicating, it’s sending them out into the world. Printing is a very good way of making multiple copies of sutras. Sutras themselves are meant to be the lectures of the Buddha, the historical Buddha, who lived about 500 BC. And his lectures were passed down and eventually transcribed by later generations of disciples.

So these are very much—sutras are very much the words of the Buddha. So for many hundreds of years, scribes were paid to copy them by hand to create manuscripts. But when the idea of printing was developed, Buddhists were very quick to realize its potential. And the earliest printed documents we have are, therefore, Buddhist documents. And they produced— The earliest things we have are Buddhist.

CUNO:  I gather that the sutra itself, what we call the Diamond Sutra—it could be translated differently, I guess, and you can tell us about the translation of the title—is one of the most famous and widely read and commented upon sutras in Mahayana Buddhism, and that it was first translated into Chinese by an Indian scholar-monk around 400. So some 400 years before this was, itself, printed. What is the importance of this sutra within Buddhism or within Mahayana Buddhism?

WHITFIELD:  As Buddhism—as I said, the sutras are the lectures of the historical Buddha. And there are many thousands of sutras. The Diamond Sutra is one of these lectures. Diamonds are [a] very important symbol in Buddhism. The Diamond Vajra, because of its hardness, is thought to cut through ignorance. And so it’s a symbol of cutting through the idea of ignorance. And we’re all living in ignorance, because we’re all living in this material world, which is an illusion. So the Diamond Sutra is helping us understand that we’re living in a world of illusion, and to get to the stage of enlightenment where we get beyond the world of duality, the world of material forms.

So in that sense, it’s very important. The translation’s very interesting. As I mentioned, sutra were passed down orally from the time of the Buddha, and then they were, probably in about the first century BC transcribed by a later generation of disciples. And so the earliest sutras we have are first century AD, in fact, from Central Asia, the earliest copies we have. This particular one was translated, possibly from Pali, possibly from Sanskrit, by a very famous translator, Kumarajiva, who lived on the northern Silk Road, to the northwest of Dunhuang.

CUNO:  So then what does it mean that this printed book of the Diamond Sutra was there in Dunhuang? What does it mean with regard to Dunhuang as a site within the history of Buddhism and of China and of the Silk Road? Is there anything particularly important about that, or just a coincidence that it happens to be in Dunhuang?

WHITFIELD:  Well, I mean, Dunhuang is immensely important in the history of Buddhism in China, because of the find of the library cave. That’s not to say that there weren’t many other such libraries throughout China. We know that all the monasteries had libraries, and there were other caches of manuscripts and printed documents. We just— They haven’t come down to us; they’ve been lost. So Dunhuang has got this importance even though it was a remote frontier town because of the library cave.

But that’s not to say—it was a very important Buddhist site, and there were—because we see in the cave temples in the town, several cave temples around the town, there would’ve been fifteen or more monasteries in the town, lots and lots of Buddhist shrines and stupas. So we know it was a very important site. But it’s just serendipity that we have this one particular cache of manuscripts and printed material.

CUNO:  Well, thank you, Susan. Thank you for all the work that you’re doing to broaden access to these cultural artifacts of Dunhuang, through the work that you’re doing with the international project, and thank you for being here at the Getty.

WHITFIELD:  Thank you for inviting me, and thank you for putting on this marvelous exhibition and giving us the opportunity to show the Diamond Sutra to a new generation of people. Thank you.

CUNO:  I also visited the exhibition with Marcia Reed, chief curator of the Getty Research Institute and co-curator of the exhibition. I asked her to tell me of a painting of a travelling monk that dates from the 9th century.

REED:  Well, it’s a wonderful picture of a type, actually. As you probably know, Jim, there are other representations of this man. And he’s very well costumed. He’s wearing a layered outfit of a sort of top, and then layers of probably silk or other kinds of fabric below. It’s patterned. He carries a fly swatter, which is in his left hand. And—

CUNO:  Is that functional, or is that symbolic, the fly swatter?

REED:  I think it’s something that you probably really needed on the Silk Road, actually. And because it was hot and there would be bug—you would be sweaty and maybe smelly, to be graphic about this. And so I think it—that was probably the case, that you used it. He’s got a shaded hat with a wide brim on it. His head is probably shaved. The hat is tied around his very large jaw. And in his right hand, he’s leading a tiger. And that’s probably more of a mythic, legendary being. I think it’s a little bit hard to think of the tiger as his companion, as he treks along the Silk Road. Up above, to his right, on the left of the painting, is an emanated Buddha. And this speaks to who he is. It verifies that he’s a monk. Probably most interesting for us, though, is the fact that on his back is a large rack, which holds his belongings, most importantly, the scrolls that he’s transmitting. And so also here, we have evidence that this isn’t just an oral culture; it’s a culture that’s writing things down in many languages, as we’re going to see in the exhibition, and transmitting them. As you probably know from the catalog to the show, there’s also an example in an Indian collection of not scrolls, but books on the backs of the monks, as well.

CUNO:  Now, his physiognomy is peculiar, often remarked upon, as indicating that he might be from Central Asia, [Reed: Yes, yes] not from East Asia.

REED:  We see in this exhibition, instances—for instance, in the guardian kings, who have a similar bulging eyes, very large jaws and large lips, not very Asian-looking eyes. And so we know that the travelers, we know that the guardian kings, and often the demons, the demons who are being suppressed by the guardian kings, are people from other places. But in this case, I also think it was that the monks themselves were traveling back and forth along the various Silk Roads. And this particular traveler is depicted in a number of cases as not actually Han Chinese but from somewhere else.

CUNO:  As we walked through the exhibition and looked at the objects, Marcia and I discussed how the artworks in the caves range from confident, freehand sketches to very formal, more resolved objects.

REED:  I think the accomplishments of the artists and how sophisticated their work was artistically, at a time when perhaps we would think of Medieval art in Europe as a comparison, is quite stunning, and I think is one of the more impressive parts of this show. I know that people do talk about the things that we’re about to talk about, and they’re amazed by how beautiful they are.

CUNO:  Yeah. So let’s go. Let’s go look at the Buddha Preaching the Law, which dates from the first half of the eighth century. First of all, it’s huge by comparison. It’s four and a half feet tall by some three feet wide. And of course, too, it’s highly finished and fully painted. What was the role of something like this, relative to the texts that we saw? How did the two fit together in the same sort of cultural center in Dunhuang?

REED:  This is interesting, because it could be portable. Probably it was just a piece of silk on which there was a painting. Now, of course, it’s mounted on board for preservation purposes. But it could be hung, it could be taken down, it could be carried. And I think the most extraordinary thing about this painting is, one, it shows a knowledge of perspective; and two, it shows levels of spiritual being. The central Buddha very still, very formal. Obviously, a very important figure. But then around him, the bodhisattvas and then the monks in the back, some of who are hidden by the columns. They’re peering out at us in an extraordinary way, almost looking at us. And so they show a kind of very sophisticated knowledge of spirituality, as well as the beautifully naturalistic plants and the canopy above the Buddha’s head.

CUNO:  Yeah, it is extremely beautiful. The Buddha’s there preaching in his red robe, with this sort of halo behind his head, underneath this canopy that is bejeweled with elements. Not just the natural beauty of the leaves, but the elements in the artificial canopy under which he’s seated. And as you say, the bodhisattvas in all of their glories regalia. It looks as if it’s something that if unrolled on occasion, that occasion might be like a spiritual occasion. [Reed: Yes] That it would be something that someone would sit in front of, of perhaps for a sutra to be read, and this would be a visual memory or visual inspiration for it was that one is seeing. Because there is, in the lower left, a portrait of, I gather, the donor. It’s staggering, the condition it’s in, given the [Reed: Yeah] location in which it was found, and thousands of years after it was painted. You can see some stress on the surface, as if that’s an indication of its having been rolled up and perhaps having been stuck in the cave and with the other scrolls putting pressure on it, weight and pressure on it. [Reed: I think—] But otherwise, it’s in very beautiful condition.

REED:  You see it in the corners, the upper left and the lower right, you see this brown backing, and then some just fragmentary small holes in the painting. But for something that dates from the beginning of the eighth century—it’s Tang Dynasty—it’s in extraordinary shape. And it’s wonderful that it was taken care of properly as much as possible to save was saved. And then the way that it’s mounted now on a very stable, flat surface. It doesn’t get unrolled and rolled up again anymore. And we have it in very low light here, so the colors won’t fade. And the extraordinary persistence of this more than 1200-year-old piece is a wonder.

CUNO:  Do we know much about the culture of Dunhuang itself as a site of production of artistic quality like this?

REED:  I think as they’re reading the documents, particularly from the library cave, and as more and more of those come out, they get examples of commissions. For instance, we know a lot about the family that commissioned cave 85, which the GCI restored. And so they’re getting more sense—

CUNO:  [over Reed] The conservation institute.

REED:  Yes. They’re getting more sense of the groups of artisans who came through. And I think if we think of it as a large cosmopolitan city, maybe on the scale of New York or Los Angeles, with a lot of different cultures coming through who have different appreciations and different artistic practices—and people see things which are different, because of course, they want distinctive art. Everybody wants highly accomplished, but something different, something that doesn’t—you know, somebody maybe doesn’t have. Replication was important. But I think particularly this High Tang culture that likes decoration and color and fabulous materials in their outfits and in their garments, and likes substances like glass and different metals—and colors are being traded there and other kinds of substances. And so I think that feeds into this artistic production that takes place there.

CUNO:  There are two things that I know that you would like to talk to us about and we’d love to hear about, as we leave the exhibition galleries. And those are the wooden sculptures at the end of the galleries.

REED:  Yes.

CUNO:  What is the role of these sculptures?

REED:  Well, they would either stand on the outside of a cohort of Buddha and his disciples, as the people who are protecting the group as we see from cave 45 on the wall. Or—

CUNO:  [over Reed] In a photographic reproduction of the cave itself that we’re looking at.

REED:  Yes. And this would be the end of the cave, so that there would be a sculptural group. And the guardian kings would stand there, or—

CUNO:  To the left and right, the far left and right?

REED:  Yes, [Cuno: Yeah] exactly. Or—


CUNO:  And then the bodhisattvas and monks, and then the Buddha. But these [Reed: Yes] would be the ones that would be in our space, these wooden figures, these guardian figures.

REED:  [over Cuno] They’re the outer—they’re the outer edge. But they’re protector guardian kings. But Paul Pelliot took these two figures, which are not from the library cave, from a small temple that was adjacent to the site. And they’re smaller figures, but they’re polychrome carved wood sculptures. And again, they show figures who are not Chinese, but they have these bulging eyes, big, heavy jaws. And the most wonderful feature of their armor is that their arms, their muscular, bulging arms, are coming out of dragon mouths. And so if you wanted to show strength, this, to me, would be the way to show a strong, muscular, and somewhat scary figure.

CUNO:  Marcia, thank you for this exhibition, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

REED:  Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure to work on, and it’s such a pleasure to give tours and talk about it.

CUNO:  If you’re interested in hearing more about Dunhuang, the Mogao Caves, and this area of Central Asia, I invite you to look up my previous podcast conversations with Peter Frankopan and Valerie Hansen, who discuss the rich and complicated history of the inter-connected trade routes across Central Asia we have come to call the Silk Road. In the age of globalization in which we now live, it is important to be reminded of the long and rich history of cultural exchange that has shaped our world.

Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

LORI WONG:  A lot of scholars have debated how these caves were used.


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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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