ShanghaiDaily.com, 11 november 2011
A young woman with short-cropped hair looks up at the sky and places her left fist over her heart. A travel bag on her shoulder and cap trailing in her hand, she's ready for whatever comes.
She is the statue titled "Youth" standing at the entrance to the Dunhuang Academy, the institution in charge of protecting and researching the famous Mogao grottoes in the deserts of Gansu Province in northwest China.
The model for the sculpture - in her younger days - is the academy's president, 73-year-old Fan Jinshi, who arrived at Dunhuang at the age of 25. That was in 1963. She was ready for the daunting task of protecting the ancient, fading, crumbling, even looted grottoes, and ready for the harsh living conditions in the desert.
But the young archeologist didn't expect to stay there for 48 years.
Fan grew up in Shanghai and had no idea she would one day wish to spend the rest of her life in Dunhuang, like many of the academy's archeologists and artists from an older generation.
Dunhuang was an important stop on the Silk Road that connected ancient China with Central Asia and Europe and it gradually became a political, economic and cultural center of the region in the ancient times.
According to records, a Buddhist monk built the first cave in the fourth century AD after receiving a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light. At the time, people called them the Mogao caves in Chinese, meaning the high spot in the desert. Over the years hundreds of caves, many filled with frescoes and statuary, were carved by monks and artisans in the sandstone mountains, reflecting different cultures through the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271-1368).
To date, 812 caves have been discovered; they contain more than 2,000 colored works of sculpture and 45,000 square meters of preserved frescoes on walls and ceilings. Some of the most famous are the spectacular apsaras and celestial spirits.
For Fan, it is more than just labor of love.
"She (the caves) is like an old person, who needs to be taken care of constantly. Protecting the caves is an endless project, since you can never say how healthy an old person is. She can get out of the hospital today and go right back in tomorrow," Fan told Shanghai Daily.
"But it's very much worth the expense and difficulty because it is such an amazing collection of arts, where diverse cultures have come together and merged. It is priceless both in terms of its archive and artistic value."
Fan visited Shanghai for the opening of "The Highlights from Mogao Grottoes" exhibition, which features exact replicas of caves, frescoes and statuary; visitors can enter the caves, study the art and feel the ambience.
She spoke with Shanghai Daily and a few reporters about the past, present and future of Dunhuang and herself.
Past - Passion and legends
Gray-haired, diminutive Fan was energized, expansive and eloquent when talking about protection, archeology, artistry, religion and culture.
At times she would abruptly stand up and gesture to illustrate the size of the caves, or pace off distances and explain certain perspectives.
But she ran short on words when describing her own remarkable life.
"Hangzhou native (her father's family), childhood in Shanghai, college years in Beijing, stayed in Dunhuang thereafter. That is it – simple," Fan summed it up.
The Dunhuang expert was born in Beijing and spent the first 18 years of her life in Shanghai. She studied archeology at Beijing University and after graduation was assigned to the academy.
Fan's parents strongly opposed the assignment in the remote, desolate area without running water or electricity. Newspapers were often 10 days late. Dunhuang was virtually cut off from the outside world.
Her parents wrote to the university, pleading for reconsideration, citing Fan's health, which they described as frail.
But young and idealistic Fan tore up the letter. "I would go where the nation called me," she recalled in the interview.
"Some people call me an idealist. When I arrived at the academy, I was a naive 25-year-old woman, and now I have become a naive old lady, which is not bad," she said.
Fan was straightforward in expressing her dissatisfaction with Shanghai before local journalists. "No offense. But I'm aware that Shanghai people usually prefer Western culture than our own ancient culture and arts," Fan told surprised reporters, some of whom considered her impolite.
"I probably have stayed in the desert so long that I have become accustomed to the remote location. I hope to stay near the caves as long as I'm healthy and spend the rest of my life there if possible."
When she arrived, she didn't expect to stay so long - the university had promised to send a replacement in three years. But by that time, Fan had became engrossed with her work and decided to stay on. She was fascinated by the caves and touched by the total devotion and persistence of scholars and artists of the older generation. Many were producing superb reproductions of frescoes and sculptures so that more people could appreciate the treasures and scholars could study them.
Many excellent artists and archeologists went to the desert when they were very young, determined to do their part in protecting heritage.
"These masters could make millions if they went somewhere else, but they chose to stay on in a remote place, working anonymously with the academy. Thanks to archeologists and artists, more caves were protected from natural erosion and more people were able to see great reproductions that are nearly identical to the originals," Fan said.
Many of these artists from all over China continue to work, even after official retirement, and still live near the caves until they can no longer work. The oldest is 89 years old.
"I was moved by their passion, which was passed on to my generation at the academy," she said.
Some people called Fan a cold-blooded woman for choosing to stay with the caves, even at the price of separation from her family.
When she was assigned to Dunhuang in 1963, she said good-bye to her lover. The couple married a few years later but lived in different provinces, only seeing each other occasionally. Fan later sent her two children to live with her parents and in-laws because she had no time to care for them. There was no child care at the academy.
The family of four was separated for 23 years.
"I don't like talking about sacrificing something for something. It is simply a matter of choice, and I made my choice. Many employees with the academy today still face similar difficult choices, and many choose to stay," Fan said.
Present - Problems and solutions
As president of the academy, Fan promotes the caves wherever she goes and never tires of describing the spectacular culture. She recognizes the paradox between the need to protect and the need to promote.
"The grottoes are the cultural heritage that belongs to all people and we would love to share it with all visitors. But in terms of the protection, the increasing number of visitors poses a huge challenge," explained Fan.
The sculptures in the caves are made of earth, clay, grass and wood, and the colors of the frescoes and sculptures come mainly from minerals. Colors fade over the years and works crumble. The dry desert climate has helped preserve the artwork, but bad weather, such as sandstorms, damages the art.
Some experts predict that without intervention all frescoes and sculptures would disappear within 1,000 years. The tourism boom has also accelerated the deterioration of the sculptures and frescoes because people increase the warmth and humidity in the caves, not to mention the tramping of feet and vibrations. Touching and flash photography are banned, but occasionally, some visitors still do.
Since the caves were opened to tourists in 1979, the number of visitors has steadily increased; in recent years more than half a million people visit annually.
Studies show that the temperature inside a cave increases by five degrees Celsius if 15 people remain for 10 minutes.
"We are using more advanced technologies to protect the caves and we have achieved a lot. But the natural process is irreversible and we continue to face new challenges from the environment and crowds," she said.
Fan said the erosion is very apparent when one compares a photo of a fresco taken in 1908 with a photo of the same painting today. She cited the example of the carved inscription in cave 156, which was clearly recognizable in the 1960s, but has disappeared today. A lion sculpture that was intact in cave 61 in the 1960s today is only a lion's tail.
Fan's "solution" - still a work in progress - was to create a digital database and a multimedia presentation center. She hopes to complete a three-dimensional database of all caves for future studies and archives - and to allow visitors to take a virtual trip, rather than walking into the caves. To date, 43 of more than 800 caves have been completely photographed and digitalized. They are the most spectacular.
The multimedia presentation center provides 3D tour of selected caves "so we can share the amazing arts with visitors while limiting the damage."
In the early 1990s Fan initiated research into digitalizing the caves and worked with both domestic and international experts on dealing with the special, dark cave environment. The cave interiors are very complicated in shape, many containing niches, and there is little or no light - originally there were candles or oil lamps. It's virtually impossible for standard still and video cameras to capture interiors.
Experts took thousands of photos of each cave and put them together to recreate the images, then pasted them onto walls and ceilings of recreated grottoes. For example, a cave as large as 300 square meters would require more than 45,000 photos.
Fan is a perfectionist, insisting that the images are precisely reproduced.
Future – Talent
Fan does not hesitate when asked what the academy needs most.
"Talent," she said. "We are in urgent demand of talented people from all fields."
When Fan arrived, she was one of 48 employees. Today, the academy has more than 500 employees. In the past, most staff members were graduates of the prestigious Beijing University or Qinghua University. Some came from overseas universities and are well-established artists.
Fan, the academy's third president, cited the example of the academy's founder and first president Chang Shuhong (1904-94), a well-established oil painter who studied in France. In 1942 he was invited by the Kuomintang to establish the academy. Traveling thousands of miles, he arrived at the caves in March 1943 but authorities stopped funding less than one year later. Many people, including his first wife, left, but he stayed on and managed basic operation of the academy by selling his paintings.
In 1948, the KMT ordered Chang to retreat with them to Taiwan and take a selection of art. He refused and stayed on.
"It was the rare talents like Mr Chang who established the base for the academy when I was a girl. But today, it's difficult to attract graduates from prestigious schools - their salary demands are too high and we are too remote," Fan said.
She was also disappointed that some young artists went to the caves and painted for a few months and then left, rushing to sell their work.
"How can you encapsulate the essence of Dunhuang art if you lack the patience to wait for more than a few months?" she asked.
"Excellent graduates don't come. It's okay. We will train our own talents."
Fan spends around one-fifth of the government's annual funding on training. Most tour guides have only high school diplomas but they have been trained by experts from many fields and are familiar with archeology, history, art and culture and stories of the caves.
They were sent overseas to study languages, including English, French, German, Japanese, Korean and many others. Their in-depth knowledge and language skills impress visitors.
"Talent is key to protecting Dunhuang, more than equipment, money or academic levels," Fan concluded.
"But first of all, they must love Dunhuang. One will only stay at such a remote place if he or she truly loves it.