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Conservation and Copying of Cultural Relics at Dunhuang

Appendix 2

The Cultural Relics of Dunhuang Caves are the national treasure of China, and are also a part of the cultural heritage of all mankind. The UNESCO has already issued the certificate of world cultural heritage to the Dunhuang Academy, thus declaring the Dunhuang Grottoes as specially protected monuments.

The Dunhuang Grottoes came under State protection and administration in 1943. Although the Dunhuang Research Institute had already been established, owing to a shortage of human and monetary resources, it could not perform the duty of protecting the caves from rampant plundering by foreign antique thieves. Real conservation work of the caves began only after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Sibi Jataka, Cave No. 254, Northern Wei (Copied by Duan Wenjie)

Sibi Jataka, Cave No. 254, Northern Wei (Copied by Duan Wenjie)

In 1950, the Ministry of Culture took over the monuments and renamed the Institute as Dunhuang Research Institute of Cultural Relics. It came directly under the jurisdiction of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics of the Ministry of Culture in the Central Government.

In 1951, the Bureau of Cultural Relics sent an inspection team to Dunhuang, and allocated special funds to repair the wooden caves dating from the Tang and Song dynasties. In 1956, the Bureau sent another inspection team to strengthen the early caves. In 1962, Premier Zhou Enlai allocated a sum of 1,000,000 yuan (approximately one million rupees) to give a facelift to the entire complex of grottoes in accordance with the suggestion of Liang Sicheng, an expert on ancient Chinese architecture, who said that the Grottoes should be "something in the appearance of nothing, reality in the appearance of illusion, sagacity in the appearance of ignorance." The Grottoes were ultimately saved from the threat of collapse that seemed imminent prior to these measures. Today, we have an entirely new look with neatly gravelled conglomerate surfaces and convenient passages leading to all the caves, thanks to Premier Zhou Enlai's mobilizing the required resources at a time when the country was still facing a financial crunch. During the turmoil of the Great Cultural Revolution, Premier Zhou gave instructions that the safety of the monuments should be ensured at all costs. We, at the Academy, issued circulars and explained to Red Guards about the historic and artistic value of the monuments. Although the turmoil lasted for ten long years the Mogao Grottoes have remained unscathed. We who have worked for a long time in the Grottoes have always felt grateful to Premier Zhou and cherish fond memories of him.

For the past twelve years the Government of China has been pursuing a policy of Open Door and Reform. Consequently, the conservation work at Dunhuang has been developing with vigour with various conservation methods being carried on simultaneously. The first of these entailed the recruitment of people for conservation purposes. At present there are thirty security guards on a twenty-four hour patrol guarding against vandalism and theft. Secondly, there is legal protection: inside the complex of the Academy a police station has been set up to enforce the laws for the protection of the historical monuments and ensure the tranquillity of the protected area. We have installed modern gadgets for conservation with a monitoring system to keep a watch on the activities of intruders.

Scientific measures are a very important aspect of conservation work. It is directly connected with the safety of the mural and the stucco statues. We have restored more than 2,000 square metres of murals which were about to peel off and repaired 40 to 50 damaged stucco statues. In recent years we have shifted our focus from conservation to scientific research. Alongside our own efforts we have established collaborative links with other scientific research institutions in the country. At the same time international organisations have offered cooperation. Together with the Paul Getty Foundation (U.S.A.) and the Research Institute on Cultural Treasures (Japan), we have a scientific conservation programme combating desertification and focussing on meteorological observation, atmosphere analysis, temperature and moisture testing, research in discoloration, disease of historical monuments, etc. We have obtained encouraging results from these activities. Our own scientific research team has gained much expertise in the course of such cooperation and external help has played a positive role in scientific research and conservation.

Specific Measures for Viewing the Grottoes

The Mogao Grottoes are a state-level enterprise to open up to foreign countries. There are strict rules about its management. The murals in the caves have been fitted with protective glass screens and doors and windows made of an aluminium alloy with specially appointed key-keepers. An account of visitors entering and leaving the caves is maintained for the safety of the monuments. The caves are opened in rotation in a restrictive manner. Only ten caves are opened to the general tourists along with general introduction of the main features by guides. For the foreign guests, we open 30 caves representing all periods, they are provided with guides who explain in foreign languages. For Chinese and foreign experts we open fifty or even more caves. The caves were open to many hazards in the course of more than a millennium of exposure to sandy wind and sunlight, and corrosion by carbon dioxide, leaving the murals in an extremely fragile condition. Hence, we have to restrict the number of visitors inside a cave, and the duration of their stay inside as well as the gadgets taken by them to ensure the protection of these historical relics of universal value.


Copying the paintings means reproduction for the custodians of the monuments. After copying not only can the paintings be preserved, but these reproductions can be exhibited so as to introduce them to both national and international viewers.

The Academy has been engaged in this important task for over fifty years now. Through the assiduous labour of 50 to 60 artists we have accumulated a wealth of reproductions. More than 30 exhibitions have been held both inside and outside the country. During the exhibitions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Burma, Japan and France, seminars were convened simultaneously. During the 1950s two such exhibitions had been held in India which have played a positive role in promoting cultural exchanges between China and India.

Copying work has often been looked down upon. But copying is also learning. During the process of copying, one has to give inputs of research, grasp the laws and rhythms of the painting in question and perfect the technique. Only then can the reproduction capture the spirit of the original. Therefore the copiers should have a rich knowledge of the tradition as well as profound expertise and skill; otherwise the reproduction will not transpose both the visual and spiritual excellence of the originals. A good number of our reproductions are the crystallization of collective wisdom and outcome of research.

As professional copiers, we have evolved a standard copying procedure. The first step is to sketch. Three methods of sketching can be employed: one is to directly sketch out the contours in front of the wall by reducing the size of the figures. We did not adopt this method at Dunhuang. The second method is to use tracing paper and sketch out the mural from the wall. While this ensures an accurate sketch it will damage the monument and that we consider quite unacceptable. The third method is by using the slide projector. A slide of the mural is first taken and the sketching is done by projecting the slide on the wall to be traced out on a paper. The painter then makes corrections on the sketch by checking it with the mural on the wall. After the correction, the painter then draws out the contours with thick black ink in the cave to get the essence of the wall painting. Then, the contours are transferred in colour on to the painting paper in colour according to the details of the mural. This marks the end of the first step in the process.

The second step is to apply colour. The paper with coloured contours is mounted on the drawing board and colours are applied in front of the original mural. First, apply the basic colour, then the background colours which are vital to the tonal quality and decorative beauty of the copy. We know that after colouring, the ancient painters labelled signs on the mural sketch, such as "x" (for red), "y" (for green) and "z" (for blue) and so on. According to the aesthetic rules of symmetry, harmony, contrast, unity in diversity, the artists applied the colour following the signs in a streamlined manner.

The Great Miracle of Sravasti, Cave No. 263, Northern Wei (Copied by Dong Xiwen)

The Great Miracle of Sravasti, Cave No. 263, Northern Wei (Copied by Dong Xiwen)

Most of the murals in the early periods used the free method (tuse): colouring with spontaneity with vigour and vividness. From the Tang Dynasty onwards, most of the murals used the contour-controlled method (tianse): filling colours into the contours which acted as a constraint to the free flow of the colour. The style was rigid but very decorative. The copiers have to grasp such characteristics and copy them faithfully.

The third step provides the finishing touch. In the process of mural creation, the contours were often covered by colouring. The early murals, in particular, were done without elaborate sketching and hence could not produce wholesome images/dunhuang. Colouring also underwent repeated transformations. Thus, the painter had to emphasise on the finishing line drawing to give stability to the image. Such a finishing line is also a challenge for the skill of the copier.

There are three techniques of copying. The first is objective copying, i.e., reproducing the murals according to their present condition without any alteration to the faded or damaged spots. As custodians of historical relics, this is the method we mainly adopt. Since the copies are the reproductions of ancient art the greater the resemblance to the original the higher its value for purpose of preservation. Many reproductions bear the aim of attaining this ideal standard, i.e., to confuse the viewer as to whether they are reproductions or the originals.

The second technique involves the use of a whole set of old colours to reproduce the originals. For instance, when we copy the historical ships and vehicles, dance and music, costumes and decorations, we repair on our canvas the damaged portion of the mural by the application of old and faded colours to leave no trace of the repair. We do this after proper research and the reproduction is to facilitate historical research work.

The third technique is restoration copying, i.e. by the process of copying we try to restore the magnificent looks of the murals as if they were freshly painted. Artist Zhang Daqian has adopted this technique to copy the Dunhuang murals. An artist is permitted to reveal the original looks of the murals only if such a restoration is based on research with reliable scientific basis. This technique deserves to be tried out, but it is improper to use such reproductions as propaganda materials for introducing the relics to the wider public. If we can exhibit an objective reproduction and a copy according to the restoration technique of the same mural, side by side, it will create an interest among the viewers in comparative studies, and serve the greater purpose of the exhibition. But because of the complicated colour changes, without an enormous scientific data and a continuous process of artistic trial and error it is very difficult to restore with any degree of precision the original appearance of the mural. We have tried this technique only selectively in a few cases.

The copying process is also a process of research. Five hurdles have to be crossed in order to acquire copying expertise through investigation, comparison, analysis and research.

1. Image Making

We have to grasp the characteristics of the images/dunhuang including the facial appearance, body proportion, postures, dress, etc. which are to be copied. As in Cave No. 275 of Northern Liang, the Bodhisattva's face is egg shaped, with standing eyebrows and slanting eyes, a long nose rising almost from the forehead, thick lips, wide mouth and rounded brushwork of colouring. The nose, bejewelled crown, dhoti, etc. betray a direct influence from the Kucan murals. But there are dissimilarities in style in different caves of the same period. Hence, not only must we grasp the characteristics of a particular period but also understand the differences in the image-making in various caves of the same period. Only then, can one achieve objectivity and precision.

2. Composition

We have to grasp the layout, i.e., the sense of space and artistic conception of the mural that we wish to copy. The crux of the matter lies in the perspective. One must understand the method of perspective of Chinese tradition, i.e., "a large viewer looking at a small scene", like a person looking at a rockery, standing on top looking at the view below. This is the "bird's-eye view" style with a "radiant perspective", thus creating boundless space in the limited space of the mural and a magnificent paradise --- an effect which cannot be obtained by the focus perspective method of Western art.

3. Line Drawing

In painting, lines constitute the main language in China's image-making with a long history of more than 5000 years. The art of Dunhuang has inherited this excellent tradition. Lines include draft lines, final lines, decorative lines and others devised according to their respective functions which include the brush lines, iron-hard lines, orchid-leaf lines, twisted-reed lines, free-thread lines of the gossamer style, broad-top and thin-end lines and so on according to their shapes and brush movements. Different lines perform different duties. The images/dunhuang are variedly created by different lines during different periods. In the murals of the early periods the artists made draft sketches with ochre-red in fine brush lines, but finalised the contours with iron-hard lines, while resorting to iron-hard line with white powder to highlight the mood of the figures. During the Tang Dynasty, drafting was done with orchid-leaf lines in light black ink and the contours finalised with orchid-leaf lines printed with thick black ink. The copier is required to grasp the peculiar features of a period in line drawing in general and in the employment of lines in the characterization in every image. Meanwhile, the thickness of the black ink, the beginning, ending, turning and the stopping of the brush on the part of mural painters as well as the experience and skill of the copier are the essential ingredients for good reproduction.

4. Colouring

This is an important stage in the copying process. The basic principle of impressionist painting is to apply colouring according to the objects. Sometimes, the method of symbolic colouring to highlight different objects is also resorted to create a deep supernatural mood, such as using mineral green to colour the horses and vermilion to colour men. There were two traditional Chinese methods of colouring. Most of the painters of early period applied colour in the free method exhibiting a forceful brush work, creating spontaneity and vividness. From the Tang Dynasty onwards, most of the paintings used the contour-control method in colouring, neatly creating an impression of rigidity and regularity and a strong decorative quality. There were also the "over- colouring" method (chense) and "colour-blowing" method (chuise). The most important was the three-dimensional method (kaya-vriddhi) which had been introduced to China from India. The three-dimensional method with the effect of light and shade is known in Chinese history as "Tianzhu yifa" (traditional method of Heavenly India). Meanwhile, we have another traditional Chinese three-dimensional method which contrasts the Indian light-and-shade method, i.e., using red colour for the bright side, and leaving the shaded parts colourless. Not until the Sui Dynasty was there a synthesis of the Chinese and Indian styles and a new three-dimensional method of colouring in the making.

5. Delineating the Mood

This is the facial expression, with eyes playing the crucial role. More than 2000 years ago Mencius had said, "The eye is the window of the mind." The Dunhuang murals have made full use of the five organs particularly the eyes, showing the changing moods of happiness, anger. Grasping the spirit in representations of the mouth, eyebrows and specially the eyes is the highest achievement of reproduction. But this is not merely a point of technique. Even more important is the aesthetic accomplishment of the copier himself.


Cave No. 112, Mid Tang

Cave No. 112, Mid Tang

The Dunhuang Academy believed that copying murals is a solemn task for the art world. Among other activities, the Academy disseminates the art of Dunhuang through exhibitions, seminars and publications, preserves the culture of China and promotes international cultural exchanges. These form a part of the construction of the spiritual civilization of Socialism. We, who have been copying the murals of Dunhuang all our lives, cherish a sense of pride and honour.


Translated by Bagyalakshmi

This was a paper presented by Prof. Duan Wenjie at the international seminar on "Cave Art of India and China",

held in New Delhi, on November 25-27, 1991. --- Editor

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