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Dunhuang Engraving Research Advancing
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The director of the Dunhuang Academy told China News Service last week that the engravings at Dunhuang are less researched than the cave art found there, despite being as important -- something the academy's engraving research program, begun in 2002, is trying to redress.

"The Dunhuang engravings are, in a certain sense, the culmination of Buddhist cave art," said Ma De. "Their historical significance is equal to that of the Dunhuang cave art, painted sculptures and silk painting."

Speaking of the significant progress his academy has made, Ma said it was only the beginning of a Herculean job, but that the study of the engravings is now attracting growing attention both at home and abroad.

Ma said since their discovery in 1900 in the Sutra Cave, very few academics have done research into the engravings. In 2004, Japanese scholar Junichi Kikutake published a paper entitled "Fragments of Dunhuang Painting in the Collection of the British Museum," but this was only an introduction. Chinese research has until now only covered several of the engravings. Neither Chinese nor international scholars have conducted a systematic study.

The earliest engravings date from the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), and they developed considerably during the Five Dynasties (907-960) and flourished in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During the transition between the last two periods, the area was mostly ruled by the Cao family, in command of the Guiyi Army that maintained stability and prosperity in the Gansu Corridor region.

Cao Yijin, who took over the Guiyi Army in 924, regarded Buddhism a "sacred power" and believed that developing "devotion for Buddhist reasoning and admiration for the Compassionate One" was necessary for law and order. It was under his patronage that Buddhism and Buddhist activities thrived.

In the 10th century, Buddhism had been preached in the area of Dunhuang for nearly 800 years and widely incorporated as part of people's daily lives. Cave art already had a history of 600 years there and there were now over 600 caves, leaving scarcely any room for more. Under these circumstances engravings became increasingly popular.

Ma said initial studies had found 235 Dunhuang engravings in museums and libraries of over ten countries including China, the UK, France and Russia. They have been categorized into 109 types and are still well preserved.

Ma said the Dunhuang engravings contributed greatly to the development of China's color engraving art, an immediate antecedent of Japanese color printing, which in turn had significant bearing Western fine art. This gives the Dunhuang engravings a unique position in world art history.

(China.org.cn by Wind Gu November 15, 2005)

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