Musical instruments in Mogao Grottoes murals come back to life

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Chen Haiqi, a 22-year-old Chinese lute player, felt as though she had traveled 1,000 years back in time when she played her instrument as part of a most unusual performance.

The young woman was invited to play the Chinese lute at the 5th Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo and the 10th Dunhuang Tour -- Silk Road International Tourism Festival, held in northwest China's Gansu Province in September.

She was shocked when standing on the stage in an exhibition hall where she saw the exquisite musical instruments hanging on the wall were the same as those she had seen in the Mogao Grottoes murals.

"When the melody drifted, in that moment I felt like I was traveling back more than 1,000 years," Chen said.

The musical instruments on display were restored based on paintings in the Mogao Grottoes, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to a vast collection of Buddhist artwork -- more than 2,000 colored sculptures and 45,000 square meters of murals.

"The grottoes were first constructed in the year 366. And experts found that more than half of the over 400 caves in the southern area of the Mogao Grottoes have images related to music, among them, more than 6,000 musical instruments appeared in the murals," said Wang Jieyuan, director of an exhibition of the restored instruments held during the expo.

Thanks to the unremitting efforts of researchers, including Zheng Ruzhong, who has led the restoration of the ancient musical instruments in the murals since the 1980s, more than 240 ancient instruments including percussion instruments, string instruments and wind instruments have been brought back to life.

Some of the well-known musical instruments restored were displayed in the exhibition, including ruans, known to Westerners as "moon guitars" or "Chinese guitars," bamboo panpipes, flutes and ancient konghou.

"Dunhuang culture should not just be limited to documents. We offered an opportunity for the public to interact with art," said Wang.

Apart from the exhibition, the replicated instruments were also played in art performances during the expo, including a large-scale folk instrumental musical drama "Xuanzang's Pilgrimage," depicting the legendary Chinese Buddhist monk's journey along the Silk Road in the 7th century.

The drama was performed online and offline to viewers at home and abroad. More than 200 representatives from Belarus, Thailand and other countries, regions and international organizations were members of the live audience.

"From silent murals to melodious music played by the restored instruments, I witnessed a dialogue between history and art," said Chen.

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