A half century of protecting China’s desert cultural treasure

2017-03-20 23:30:32 GMT2017-03-21 07:30:32(Beijing Time) Global Times

Fan Jinshi, former director of the Dunhuang Academy Photo: CFP

A 13-meter Buddha figure from the Mogao Grottoes that was created during the 8-9th century in the Tubo Period Photo: CFP

The Mogao Grottoes, also called the Thousand-Buddhist Caves, in Jiuquan, Northwest China's Gansu Province Photo: CFP

If it had not been for Fan Jinshi and her team, the world cultural heritage site Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes in a remote Chinese desert might have long ago been destroyed by sand, weather or humans.

Born and raised in Shanghai, Fan has spent half a century fighting an uphill battle to preserve the ancient Buddhist murals at Dunhuang, in Northwest China's Gansu Province.

"It was not that I favored my job over my family, I just could not bear the guilt of having our ancestors' legacy destroyed," she told Xinhua in Beijing while attending the just-concluded annual session of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

The 1,600-year-old Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes are a huge collection of Buddhist art - more than 2,000 Buddha figures and 45,000 square meters of paintings spread among 735 caves.

It is China's first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Desert warfare

Archaeologist Fan was sent to Dunhuang after graduating from Peking University in 1963. Her college sweetheart was assigned a teaching job in Wuhan, thousands of miles away.

While in Dunhuang, a desert outpost then, Fan lived in an abandoned temple. At first, she did not even dare go out to the toilet at night.

"I saw a pair of shining eyes in the dark. I thought it was a wolf," she said, before finding out that the eyes belonged to a donkey.

To protect the treasures from sand and dampness, Fan and other workers put doors on the caves, planted trees and started monitoring temperature and humidity in the caves. They also control the number of visitors.

"The carbon dioxide people exhale in the caves accumulates and will damage the paintings, so we allow a maximum of 3,000 tourists each day," Fan said.

In the late 1990s, with tourism booming nationwide after national holidays were extended, the local government planned to go public with Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, but found Fan firmly in their way.

"The legacy would have been destroyed if it had been listed," she said.

The Dunhuang Research Academy has now photographed and cataloged online all the sculptures and paintings.

"Despite our efforts to minimize damage, we can't completely stop them from being eroded. But the digital database will last," Fan noted.

Fan was grateful when her husband, Peng Jinzhang, joined her in Dunhuang in 1986 after 19 years of separation. Her two sons grew up in Shanghai with their aunt.

"I have not been a good mother or wife. With regard to my family, I'm full of guilt," she said.

Never giving up

Fan, 79, retired two years ago as the director of the Dunhuang Research Academy but continues her efforts as a national political advisor.

She has spent International Women's Day in Beijing for the past 25 years, because CPPCC typically convened for its annual sessions in early March.

As one of the longest-serving CPPCC members, Fan has raised many proposals for protecting China's heritage. Some have been accepted and led to changes in policy.

Fan recalls the proposal she made in 2003 which led to the establishment of the Dunhuang Tourism Information Center. The digital center opened to public in 2014 after 11 years of research, verification, planning and construction.

"The center helps tourists have a better understanding of what we do here, and doubles our tourist capacity," said Fan.

Another proposal resulted in changes to a planned railway line, which she thought would damage the grottoes.

For the past two years, she has been working on a proposal to use technology to protect heritage sites across the country.

She proposed the Ministry of Science and Technology prioritize cultural heritage protection, have more sites digitized, and combine traditional antique repairs with modern technology.

"Dunhuang has benefited from digital technology and I hope our experience can be replicated in the whole country," she said.

Fan has decided to retire from the CPPCC this year but said she would keep on working for heritage protection.

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