Dunhuang Academy director looks to iconic Mogao Caves art in renewed global role for Chinese culture
They are often depicted drifting through the air, descending from the heavens among wisps of clouds and wearing silken robes that convey the lightness of their flight.
The apsaras, angel-like beings known as feitian in Chinese, are a symbol of the historic Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang in Gansu province. Common motifs in the city range from towering sculptures of ethereal musicians clutching Chinese pipa lutes at crossroads, to intricate drawings of winsome beauties bearing floral tributes enameled on mugs.
For Dunhuang Academy director Zhao Shengliang, the feitian also offer an important way to "brand "traditional Chinese culture and help spread an appreciation of it across the world.
"When people think about traditional Chinese culture, they'll think about the Dunhuang feitian, about the beauty of its art."
Zhao, 55, was speaking to China Daily on the grounds of the academy in one of his first major interviews since he took up the position earlier this year.
The leading research institute manages and studies the nearby Mogao Caves, one of the greatest repositories of ancient Buddhist art dating back to the 4th century, covering the golden age of the Tang (618-907) and other seminal dynasties. The monumental impact of the murals, sculptures, scripts and other major artifacts discovered in the 500 or so caves at the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of the oasis in the early 20th century continues to be felt beyond the cultural, historical and religious spheres.
Zhao lists tapping Dunhuang art and its legacy to promote Chinese culture to the world as a top priority for the academy.
The academy has grown over the seven decades since the establishment of the People's Republic of China and "our development, our direction, has essentially remained unchanged", says Zhao, who is the fifth person to head the institution. His predecessor, Wang Xudong, is the current director of the Palace Museum in Beijing.
"Our main responsibility is to protect, research and promote. These are still what we do because first, you need to effectively protect the cultural relics. Then you need to research them well. It's only after researching them well that we are able to understand what they are, what they are composed of, what their value is," Zhao says.
"Finally, we can properly develop and promote the value of these priceless treasures."
Promoting the Dunhuang legacy involves "upgrading and improving" the academy's conservation and research work, Zhao says.
Building on the international collaborations, technological advances and conservation achievements of the past decades, the academy has successfully preserved Mogao's artifacts, but the efforts must now be upgraded, from the repair and restoration of the relics, to the prevention of any damage to them, he says.
The academy now includes a monitoring center, which receives data constantly transmitted from every cave. If there are any changes in the air in the caves, such as higher humidity levels, employees will be alerted.
"We have to think about measures to prevent any potential problems from occurring," Zhao says. "This preventive approach has been taken to a new level. Domestically, we are probably at the forefront of these efforts."
"Of course, it's not perfect yet. There are still many areas that need to be worked on. For instance, there are the seismic type of conditions, which even include the impact of ground movements from tourists," he says.
As part of the academy's latest conservation measures, public access to more than 100 Mogao caves is rotated, with limits set on daily visitor numbers to lessen the human and environmental impact on the sites.
Research on the relics has also made remarkable strides, with the academy's scholars sharing their expertise with other heritage sites in developing countries and expanding their academic exchanges in recent years.
The director himself is a specialist in art history. Born in Zhaotong city, Yunnan province, Zhao headed straight to Dunhuang in 1984 after graduating from Beijing Normal University, against the advice of his father who worried about the harsh conditions at the site.
Zhao persevered, fueled by his constant fascination for the relics in front of him and the sense of their importance beyond the caves containing them. He subsequently took the opportunity to study in Japan and earned his doctorate.