The Buddhist gods, meditating in their sequestered shrines which peep out over the cliffs of Dunhuang, in what is known as Jiuquan City in northwest China's Gansu Province, have witnessed the desert change over a millennium. Although this pivotal oasis along the ancient Silk Road may appear a small sandpile without any unique characteristics, for the trading and cultural exchanges of the East and the West, this couldn't be further from the truth.
Photos: People's Daily online
Over 700 years ago, when Italian Marco Polo first visited Dunhuang, a city surrounded by a myriad of Buddhist grottoes, he was spellbound by the fusion of thriving international trade and vibrant culture. In his well-known book "The Travels of Marco Polo," the Venetian adventurer detailed the city as an international economic and cultural hub, for it created an unprecedented connection between the East and the West.
Centuries later, following the reinvigoration of the ancient Silk Road into the new Belt and Road Initiative, Dunhuang has once again caught the world's attention. In February, scholars from China and Italy launched the first ever exhibition of Buddhist Art from Dunhuang in Polo's hometown of Venice, to commemorate the dust-laden trading and cultural exchanges between the two furthest reaches of the ancient Eurasian route.
"Dunhuang, a city that boasts openness and respect to other cultures, preserves its ancient allure in the modern era, as international cooperation and mutual understanding between countries are highly desirable today. These core values are imprinted in the history of Dunhuang," said Zhao Shengliang, Deputy Director of Dunhuang Academy.
Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Photo: VCG)
"The craving for global cooperation and respect to different cultures are part of the reason for China's rise as an ancient superpower. We can find evidence for this in the Mogao Caves," said Zhao.
Rediscovered in 1900, the 1,652-year-old Mogao Caves are home to more than 2,000 exquisite sculptures and 45,000 square meters of frescos, featuring many different cultural elements. Here you can find Greek-style columns, abstruse manuscripts written in ancient Hindu, and decorative patterns originating from Persia.
According to Zhao, in 2017, a Hungarian researcher proposed a scientific hypothesis, noting that the ancient cultural exchanges between the East and West may be more frequent than first thought, after he discovered traditional Hungarian decorative patterns on a mural within the Mogao Caves.
As a well-preserved global cultural vault, the Mogao Caves have provided valuable materials for the restoration of some cultural relics along the Belt and Road. In 2018, 17 years after the Taliban destroyed the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan, the government of Afghanistan reached out to Dunhuang for help with the restoration, as the lost relics' prototype and cultural roots appeared in the Mogao Caves.
"For many centuries, the Mogao Caves had been absorbing ideas and culture from Central and Western Asia, as well as Europe. People from these regions can easily find traces of their aboriginal culture here, showcasing the cultural fusion between China and its foreign counterparts," added Zhao.
The apsaras in the Mogao Caves are the best example of such cultural fusion. Originating from Hindu Buddhist culture, apsaras are female spirits of the clouds and water, but in the Mogao Caves, the Hindu goddesses have developed a Chinese style, including both genders and connotations of Chinese mythology.
"The reverence for different culture has benefited both countries along the Belt and Road and China itself. Thanks to the cultural fusion, Chinese people have learned to absorb the essence of other cultures and to make it their own, making us even more culturally confident," noted Zhao.
In the digital center of the Dunhuang Research Academy, seven graphic designers work on a digitization project to create a database to catalog high-definition copies of the ethereal statues and murals, so that the dust-laden cultural relics can be turned into online-entertainment products, including games, cartoons and music in multiple languages.
"In addition to preserving the historical site, the culture of Dunhuang needs modern content to thrive. By using advanced technologies, we want to promote the ancient Dunhuang spirit of harmonious coexistence and mutual understanding, as well as deepening cooperation with countries along the Belt and Road," said Wu Jian, director of the digital department of the Dunhuang Research Academy.
Sharing the same thought as Wu, Jenny Chan Tin Chi, the orchestra manager of Hong Kong-based Gaudeamus Dunhuang Ensemble, a group of young musicians promoting ancient Dunhuang music worldwide, noted that they have added their understanding of ancient Chinese culture and new elements to the melodies.
"Our music is not only a formalist copy of the ancient music, but also a modern innovation of Chinese culture. Music is a universal language, by injecting new energy to the old music pieces, I hope our work will strike a chord with foreign audiences along the Belt and Road," she added.
The international community has welcomed the efforts to promote the ancient Dunhuang spirit, as well as the modern Belt and Road. In September, 150 delegates, including political figures, scholars, and entrepreneurs from 32 countries came to Dunhuang to participate in the Belt and Road International Think Tank Forum, sharing their wisdom on the prospects of strengthening economic and trade cooperation, and people to people ties.
"Over thousands of years, the thought of mutually beneficial trade and communication led Dunhuang to become an international hub, now the Belt and Road Initiative will further promote such ideas, benefiting the whole world," said Zhao.