The Mogao grottos in Gansu province in northwest China is on the list of UNESCO world cultural heritages. A complex network of caves, the Mogao grottos are also known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas. Over the years, countless articles have been written on the marvelous arts and culture featured in the grottos, but famous scholar Yu Qiuyu’s prose work is somewhat unique. In his eyes, the Mogao grottos are a clue to discovering China’s ancient history.
Yu Qiuyu, a renowned contemporary Chinese prose writer, was born in Yuyao in east China’s Zhejiang Province in 1946. He enrolled in the Shanghai Drama Institute in 1968, and returned to teach there in 1970. Yu Qiuyu has published collections of essays and books on art theory and many travel journals. The piece of prose you are going to read is one of them, which is entitled “Mogao Grottos”.
The grottoes are still a long distance away from any densely populated cities, and will remain so in the near future. Their beauty endows them with hauteur, so they keep their treasure hidden. They demand lengthy, hard journeys from every pilgrim.
I arrived here in mid-autumn when the wind was already blotting out the sky and earth. The whole way, I saw foreigners, their noses red with cold, crying “Mogao” repeatedly to ask the way, in warm, friendly voices as if calling for a dear one. More visitors came from within the country,
My stay lasted several days. On the first day, by dusk, when all the tourists were gone, I wandered in the foothills below the caves, trying to put into some order all my feelings of that day. That proved to be very difficult. I gazed at the slope in stupefied wonderment: What kind of phenomenon was it anyway?
The historical sites of other countries were built at certain times, enjoyed their prosperity and then became preserved as relics for people to visit, but China’s Great Wall is different. It was rebuilt and extended dynasty after dynasty. The Great Wall grew in length as time went on. China has too long a history of too much war and suffering for any ancient monument to remain forever, unless it is buried underground in tombs, or hidden in places unfrequented by people.
The Mogao Grottoes stand out among international historical sites for their continued cumulation over a thousand years. One doesn’t look at Mogao as a specimen that has been dead for a thousand years. On the contrary, Mogao has been alive and breathing for a thousand years! How exceptional! We are faced with generation after generation of artists who parade before us, each linked to a glamorous setting, spanning a thousand years. A kaleidoscope of costumes and ornaments dazzles our eyes; the fluttering of flags fills our ears. In another place, one might scrutinize a stone fragment or an earth embankment. Here, one’s senses are inadequate. So forget yourself, let yourself become putty in countless artistic hands.
And so, I could not but wander among the foothills in the deepening dusk, to gather myself bit by bit, and calm my shaken soul. A wind blew up, laden with fine sand, stinging my cheeks. The desert moon was exceptionally cold. A spring gurgled nearby. Looking up and listening carefully I began to sort out my feelings.
At the beginning I saw deep colors, which were bold and vibrant—they must have dated back to the Northern Wei Denasty (AD 386-534). The colors are three-dimensionally rich and solid; the brushwork is as free and unrestrained as sabers and halberds. Those were warring years when stalwart northern warriors fought on battlefields. Their strength merges with their suffering upon the cave walls.
The stream of colors then became freer and softer. This must be after Emperor Wendi of Sui (AD 581 to 618) had unified China. The costumes and patterns are gorgeous. The air becomes fragrant and warm and full of laughter. That is only natural, since the happy Emperor Yangdi of Sui was going down south in his imperial boat on a new canal leading to Yangzhou where there were exotic flowers. Emperor Yangdi was too fiery---the artists would not copy his laughter. But they had more magnanimity, and were more meticulous, promising the constant possibility of surprise.
The stream of colors suddenly turned into rolling whorls. This has to be the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to 907) when all the colors in the world burst forth, not wildly, but unraveling into smooth threads, evolving into a majestic symphony. Here early spring is making way for temperate breezes. Everything upon the earth is awakening, every muscle of the human body crying for action. Even birds and animals are singing and dancing, even flowers are weaving into patterns and rejoicing. The sculptures seem to be pulsating and breathing, displaying a thousand-year-old caprice. Every scene and every corner has warrants long lingering. There is no repetition. True joy does not repeat itself. Here is no sign of any stiffness, which accommodates no humanity. Only life bubbles over here. One pondered in other caves. Here one becomes eager and forgets oneself—the only wish being to jump up. Whatever was painted only made the single self-exclamation: “Humanity! Life!” The greatest attraction in life was none other than the expression of life of a group of carefree people. It is like honey or a magnet in its magical lure. No one is free from the spell. No one could remain calm before it. This was the Tang Dynasty. Our nation can be proud to have possessed such a dynasty, such a time, a time that mastered such resplendent colors.
The stream of colors became more refined. This must be the period of the Five Dynasties (AD 907-960). The majesty of the Tang is still there, only it is tempered, its exuberance more composed. The blue sky seems to have shrunk, the breezes in the wilderness no longer stirring.
Then grimness finally set in. Affected by the altered sky, the movements of the dancers become restrained. Elegant glamour is still visible, with striking touches too—but any mood of lightheartedness is hard to find. Outside the caves, the land of the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279) fell under the gloom of decline.
Then the color red was hardly to be seen. This must be the Yuan Dynasty (from 1279 to 1368)
Sifting through these hazy impressions tired me out like a long journey. I was told that if strung together, the murals would stretch 30 kilometers. I doubt it is only that, since I could make 30 kilometers easily without tiring like this.
The night deepened. The Mogao Grottoes had fallen into a deep slumber, like a sleeping person, nothing special—low, quiet, and bald, just like any hill.
Early the following morning, I joined the flow again to dig once more into Mogao’s buried secrets. Visitors had come with different purposes. Some stood in lines, listening carefully to Buddhist stories. Others, carrying artists’ paraphernalia, copied the paintings. Still others scribbled in their notebooks occasionally, or discussed academic problems with their companions in low voices. They were like cameras differently framing the same subject, each aimed directly at some aspect, and obliquely at others.
The Mogao Grottoes offer rich depths of field for all visitors who are willing to listen to the stories and absorb art, history or culture. All great art does not display just a single aspect of its being. It exists for the eyes. Two galleries rose up before my eyes—the gallery of art and the gallery of the viewers’ hearts. Two depths of field rose before me too—the history and the psyche of a nation.
If visitors have come solely for Buddhist mythology, the rich paintings and colors would have been wasted. If they have come merely to learn painting not so many would come. If the paintings served only a historical and cultural purpose, they could have been no more than illustrations in thick books. The paintings themselves seem to possess greater depths. They are more complex and miraculous.
They are a kind of congregation of faith, a summons to wonder. They make idols out of humanity, presenting us with images, which in turn inspire our humanity. Thus they become dreams in color in the hearts of a nation. A sacred sediment, a perpetual longing…
(CRI November 25, 2002)