Constructed over a millennium from the fourth to fourteenth centuries CE near Dunhuang, an ancient border town along the Silk Road in northwest China, the Mogao Caves comprise the largest, most continuously created, and best-preserved treasure trove of Buddhist art in the world.
Previous overviews of the art of Dunhuang have traced the caves’ unilinear history. In the newly released Spatial Dunhuang, renowned Chinese art historian Wu Hung examines the caves from the perspective of space, treating them as physical and historical sites that can be approached, entered, and understood sensually. The book includes more than 100 photographs as well as diagrams that further illustrate the actual experience of the people who built and used the Mogao Caves. Here, we feature an excerpt and share a look inside the book.
The scholarship of an era must have new materials and new questions. Utilizing these materials to explore questions gives rise to new trends in the scholarship of the time. Scholars who can participate in these trends are said to be yuliu (“entering the currents,” to borrow a phrase from Buddhism). Scholars who cannot participate in these trends are said to be buyuliu (“not entering the currents”). This is a constant principle in academic history past and present. It is not something that cloistered scholars would be able to comprehend.—Chen Yinke, “Chen Yuan Dunhuang jieyu lu xu”
Written nearly a century ago, Chen Yinke’s words can still be considered a “constant principle in academic history past and present,” but they require us to rethink the relationship between “materials” and “questions” in academic research.1 It must be noted that, when we invoke this passage now, “the time” no longer refers to 1930, when he wrote that text; it is the present, ninety years later. In the intervening time, Dunhuangology, or Dunhuang studies (Dunhuang xue), has grown from an obscure sideline into a broad field of knowledge, and the art history of Dunhuang has matured out of virtually nothing into a distinct branch of scholarly research.2
When Chen wrote that passage, scholars around the world had just recognized the historical value of the hidden manuscripts discovered in the Library Cave at Dunhuang. People saw only the tip of a vast iceberg, the rest of which was still waiting to be explored and understood. The state of Dunhuang studies is decidedly different today. Most of the Dunhuang manuscripts held in institutions all over the world have been reproduced and published, and the beautiful sculptures and wall paintings of the Mogao Caves have been repeatedly presented in massive, gorgeous catalogs. Without leaving the house, people can now use the internet to enter the virtual caves that the Dunhuang Research Academy has replicated with 3-D technologies. Are these still “new materials”? My answer would be both yes and no; the key is whether there are new questions leading us to explore the unknown dimensions of this data. Chen’s idea that “the scholarship of an era must have new materials and new questions” should thus be reinterpreted: whereas the newly discovered Dunhuang manuscripts and artworks led to new research questions a century ago, today new questions compel us to re-excavate these materials. Without research there would be no new questions, but if there were no new questions, any materials, even if previously unknown, could only support the existing view.
In this book, I have chosen to re-excavate materials related to the art of Dunhuang through the perspective of space, in the hope that this perspective will help reveal new layers of meaning for these materials. I say this because, although there are countless overviews of the art of Dunhuang, the framework is generally temporal. Guided by the dynasties of China’s past, these accounts present a linear history of the Mogao Caves and the other cave complexes at Dunhuang. Of course, this is an effective, and one might say indispensable, method. But we should also note that its foundation is history, not art; the latter encompasses the synchronic presence of architecture, sculpture, and painting in actual space, not diachronic events and biographies in a history book. When people visit the Mogao Caves, the place they see is certainly not arranged in chronological order. Rather, caves of disparate sizes are laid out unevenly and often overlap, transforming a one-kilometer-long cliff face into a magnificent yet disorienting honeycomb. This “undigested” spatial experience is what conventional art historical narratives want to overcome: by classifying and dating heterogeneous caves according to content and style, and then reorganizing them into a linear historical progression, conventional art history creates a neat sequence out of the Mogao Caves. This sequence exists only in texts, however. Having “absorbed” the tangible yet chaotic caves into an orderly chronological development, this sequence supplants the actual place and hinders perceptions and explorations of space.
In an essay on the relationship between time and space, the psychologist and art theorist Rudolf Arnheim wrote: “The time dimension possesses no sensory medium of its own,” but space “is directly embodied in the visual world.”3 In this sense, this book’s proposition to reinvestigate the art of Dunhuang from a spatial perspective entails two basic methods. First, we will take the caves as they actually are as the focus of sustained art historical investigation and elucidation. Second, we will attempt to understand the caves’ historical meaning beginning with visitors’ experiences. These two methods fuse with and complement each other in the concept of space, because space is humanity’s perception of the objective world, rather than the objective world itself. As Arnheim defined it: “What we call Space, then, is the perceptual system that controls the relations between independent object systems.”4 With regard to the Mogao Caves, this perceptual system transforms the caves into features such as dimensions, shapes, directions, distances, proportions, areas, borders, and centers. It also connects the appearances of the caves seen from different distances into the continuous experience of space—from the mountain range on the horizon, to the cliff face covered in caves, to the thousands of deities emerging from the darkness inside the caves. The instruments used to sense space are, first, the body and, then, the eye. Reinvestigating the artistic materials of Dunhuang from the perspective of space requires activating the body’s key role. When recently discussing how to look at a work of sculpture, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote: “Clear your mind. Let your body tell you what’s happening. Then your mind may start up again, pondering the work’s significance.”5 This provides an appropriate explanation of this volume’s title—Spatial Dunhuang: Experiencing the Mogao Caves.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
2. Zhao Shengliang, Dunhuang shiku yishu jianshi, 37–41.
3. Arnheim, “A Stricture on Space and Time,” 653.
4. Arnheim, “A Stricture on Space and Time,” 649.
5. Schjeldahl, “Richard Serra Will Jolt You Awake,” 74–75.
Wu Hung is Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Chinese Art History at the University of Chicago. He is the author of fifteen books and anthologies, including Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture and Contemporary Chinese Art: A History.