Caves into the past

Caves into the past

A visit to Mogao's relics gave some students a new perspective on history

Some brush off the Mogao Caves - also known as Thousand Buddha Caves - in Dunhuang, Gansu province , as a site of nothing more than fading wall paintings. Three Hong Kong students disagree. They see the murals as a legacy of a fascinating bygone era.

The trio was among 30 students from the University of Hong Kong who learned to appreciate this treasure house of Buddhist art from multiple perspectives during a nine-day tour.

Through the fourth to 14th centuries, Chinese emperors built a total of 492 grottoes in Mogao. The caves contain 2,100 coloured Buddhist statues and 45,000 square metres of murals. The earliest frescoes tell religious stories and Chinese legends, while later ones depict scenes from the lives of ordinary Buddhists.

The Mogao Caves are situated at the commercial crossroads on the ancient Silk Road, where caravans brought not just goods from India, the Middle East, and even Europe, but also foreign ideas and beliefs. They are all reflected on the grottos' walls.

Ruby Wu Chau-ha, a fine arts student, spotted Tang Dynasty ladies in leggings, miniskirts and see-through dresses. Elsewhere were images of people dressed in more modern clothes.

"I used to think Chinese women were very conservative in those days," Wu says. "But they looked in tune with the latest fashion trends."

Local mural painters also adopted Western art echniques. Wu saw examples of images with depth and perception to make them look more lifelike. In one painting, a terrace was drawn from different perspectives, from bird's eye-view, to down-to-up and linear.

"It looked as if you were floating in the air," Wu says.

Grottoes also feature a mixture of deities, from the Taoist Thunder God to the ancient Greek god Apollo.

Kwok Hoi-hang, a social science student, also found the exhibits to be a true eye-opener. "In Mogao, artists absorbed a mishmash of elements and fine artistic skills from other cultures, which gave a new dimension to their creativity," Kwok says. "Instead of presenting a story [in sequence] from right to left, drawings ask visitors to follow it in the direction of where the Buddha's many hands point."

The wall paintings also reveal how the pace of life and entertainment changed over time. Tang Dynasty angels look at ease in billowing dresses, but Wei and Jin Dynasty ones travel hurriedly in big groups.

As trade moved from land to sea during the Ming dynasty, Dunhuang slowly lost its importance. The Mogao Caves were left to the encroaching Gobi Desert until a Taoist priest cleared the debris from them about 100 years ago.

Education student Charles Mak Cheong-yuen says Dunhuang should serve as a warning to Hong Kong, which was once the world's greatest gateway to China.

"Now Shanghai and other coastal ports are speedily catching up," Mak says. "We have to adapt to this new world so we won't follow in Dunhuang's footsteps."

Photo: Jasper Becker/SCMP



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