The Cave Temples

Scholar and author, BASIL GRAY has been in charge of oriental antiquities in the British Museum since 1938. His illustrations are from unpublished negatives belonging to the Tun-huang Institute and from the book about Mai Chi Shan which he mentions in his article.


WHEN Langdon Warner visited the Tun-huang Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (Ch’ien Fo Tung) in 1924, he found the place all but deserted and a prey to any hazard of passing soldiers or curio hunters. He thought that he must salvage what he could. In 1942, an institute was founded by the Kuomintang Government to look after this wonderful series of painted shrines, and its work of conservation still continues. A good deal of clearing up and some rather drastic restoration were done under the directorship of Chang Ta-ch’ien, the well-known painter. At this time, also, access was made possible to a number of caves which had been previously inaccessible, by construction of new staircases and by cutting through the walls separating some of the upper caves.

The present director, Mr. Chang Su-hung, is fully aware of the problems created by the condition of the conglomerate cliff and of the caves hollowed out of it from fifteen hundred to six hundred years ago. The greatest threat is from the collapse of sections of the cliff; more certain and relentless is the erosion caused by loose sand falling down the face of the cliff from the top of the escarpment. An attempt has been made to plant scrub to hold the drifts, but not with much effect. Meanwhile, buttresses of brick have been built against the face of the cliff, and I saw excavations for foundations of stone buttresses on a larger scale.

The wall paintings are also suffering from exposure to the sun; rain is a lesser risk, for none has fallen at Tun-huang for twenty years, I was told. Originally, the shrines were approached through corridors leading from galleries cantilevered into the face of the cliff. The interiors were therefore dimly lit. Now that, in many cases, the face has fallen away, the sun streams into the shrines and onto the paintings which cover the walls. The pigments used were partly earth colors — yellows and browns — and they fade unevenly.

Most distressing is the effect of sunlight on the red and white leads, which were used for flesh tints, especially in the early caves under the northern Wei (fifth to sixth century A.D.). Grotesque discoloration has distorted the expressions and the figures of these once gracious and smiling Buddhist beings. I was shown an area in Cave 263 where a Sung layer of paint had been removed to reveal in its primitive beauty of azure blue the Wei level, with outline like wire and highlights skillfully applied without the least trace of exaggeration. The stance of figures is the elegant sway of the Indochinese style, which was dominant in the sixth century. The gold-enhanced jewelry and floating drapery reveal a strong wave of influence from Sassanian Iran that was soon to be felt as far east as Japan.

But action of this kind is taken only when the later painted surface has fallen away, and I was told that the minimum of treatment was the rule until scientific study of the pigments and the wall surface had established the best method of conservation. This would prevent the hasty and ill-judged action which has been so fatal at Ajanta. Hand copying of the wall paintings was still continuing, and the director reminded me how successful the exhibition in Peking in 1951 had been, even in high official quarters. It was really this activity which has made Tun-huang one of the show places of the new China. Although lack of facilities for more than two or three guests to stay there at a time limits access at present, a hotel is planned. Soon color photography will have supplemented, if not superseded, hand copies. A photographer was working full time on the recording of the cave paintings and sculpture, using the best cameras, equipped with wide-angle lenses and color film; he is no longer dependent on flash bulbs, but is able to move his arc lights from cave to cave now that electricity is generated in the Institute’s compound. This is enclosed by a wall with a single gate, closed at night. Moreover, all the major caves have wooden doors kept padlocked for security.

There is work for many specialists to do at the caves. Not all the painted inscriptions have been copied and read; the close study of the clay figures has begun, and a volume was said to be almost ready for publication which will reproduce a good many. Even more than the wall paintings, these have been renewed and repainted down the centuries, and some of the most conspicuous renewals date from the past thirty or forty years. Cave 450 has become a sculpture museum. The succession of sculpture styles can be studied through many centuries at this place, continuously except for the almost complete gap caused by the Tibetan occupation from 750 to 848.

It was moving for me to see the empty chamber in which was found the famous cache of many hundreds of paintings and texts, now preserved in Paris, London, and Delhi, and to note how it had escaped detection for centuries because, after it had been bricked up, the whole wall had been covered with a painting in the style of the early Sung period. Mr. Chang has good reason to think that the chamber was not made at this time, but had been prepared as the tomb chamber of the local hero, Chang I-ch’ao, who had driven out the Tibetans in 848 and resumed relations with the Chinese Empire. But it now holds no secrets.

Mr. Chang is an experienced painter, and he is much interested in the practice of his predecessors in the oasis. He believes that the relief lines found on some Sui and early T’ang paintings were made with a preparation of goat’s gall, applied to the wall by squirting it from the mouth of the goat’s intestine. The relief work was gilded, as gesso was in quattrocento Italy. Mr. Chang hopes to remove the blackening from cooking fires lit by the White Russians which so disfigures several caves, especially the fine early T’ang paintings in Cave 445, but this problem also awaits technical advice.

A series of Buddhist cave shrines, previously unknown to students, has been opened up at another site in western Kansu, hollowed out high on the cliff face at the great sugar-loaf crag of Mai Chi Shan and, with the decay of the wooden galleries and stairs, become quite inaccessible. The stone here is harder, and there are stone figures outside the caves but only clay figures within.

The Wei dynasty figures and wall paintings are not different from those at Tun-huang, but there is far more sculpture of the Sung period, and it is more metropolitan in style and quality. The figures are more naturalistic, and expression and movement more lively, than anything at Tunhuang. A useful publication, reproducing many of these figures and including some color plates of wall paintings, was published in Peking in 1954 under the title Mai Chi Shan Shih Ku, but much remains unstudied at this site also.

The well-known rock-cut shrines at Lung-mên, near Loyang in Honan, and at Yun-kang, near the steel city of Ta-tung, were subject in the twenties and thirties to vandalism, which ruined or decapitated many of the finest sculptures; they now are well protected within their enclosures. I found Lung-mên cleaned and tended, and rubbings from the smaller reliefs on sale. But there are more than thirteen hundred caves on the west side of the I River and four hundred on the east, containing, originally, ninety thousand figures. Some of the vanished carvings have been replaced by copies, as in the earliest cave, of 495 A.D., where the central Buddha is a poor imitation. It is clear that, under their present control by the Provincial Monuments Commissions, the standing Buddhist monuments of China are safer than they have been for a very long time.