Dunhuang, an ancient city that is home to Buddhist caves in northwestern China’s Gansu province, will continue to seek global collaboration on archaeological research, says its celebrated custodian.

“Dunhuang culture is broad and deep without a limit. Each wall painting contains a huge amount of knowledge about the ancient world, including music, dance, clothing, architecture and Chinese herbal medicine,” Fan Jinshi, honorary director and fellow of the Dunhuang Academy, told Asia Times in an interview in Hong Kong.

Each of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang is equivalent in importance to a museum and could show how the Chinese culture was influenced by those of Central Asia, India, Iran, Egypt and Rome, said Fan.

Fan said she welcomed international archaeologists interested in visiting Dunhuang to jointly conduct research on the Mogao Caves (also known as the Mogao Grottoes and the Thousand Buddha Grottoes).

Born in Beijing in 1938 and raised in Shanghai by her parents, who were originally from Hangzhou, Fan graduated from the history department of Peking University in 1962. She was assigned by the Communist Party of China to work at the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Institute in 1963.

Fan Jinshi in 1998. Photo: Dunhuang Academy

Fan, now 81, has spent 56 years in the Dunhuang Grottoes managing conservation and archaeological work in the 492 caves.

Hailed as the “Daughter of Dunhuang,” Fan efficiently modernized the conservation and management of the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fan is also an ex-officio member of the Dunhuang Foundation, which was founded by billionaire Bill Gates’ mother Mimi Gardner in 2010.

Last December, Fan was awarded a medal by the Chinese government, which declared her one of the 100 reform pioneers during the period of China’s opening-up between 1978 and 2018. She is also one of the country’s 23 Excellent Communist Party Members.

Fan Jinshi shows her work to Xi Jinping at the Dunhuang Academy on August 19. Photo: Xinhua

On August 19, Fan showed her work to Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Dunhuang Academy. On September 30, just before the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Fan was awarded the National Title of Honor by Xi, making her one of the 42 top contributors to the country.

On October 3, she received the 2019 Lui Che Woo Prize – Positive Energy Award of HK$20 million (US$2.55 million). She said she would donate it to Peking University and the Dunhuang Academy.

“During the Cultural Revolution, a lot of foreign reporters asked me whether any of the Dunhuang relics had been damaged. I said no but they did not believe it,” Fan said in the interview, adding that she was proud of this achievement and that it was her most unforgettable memory from the past 56 years.

Fan said the archaeological research in Dunhuang had begun only several decades ago but her team had already achieved a great deal, including the digitalization of photos of the caves’ wall paintings. She said a lot more work could be done in the future.

Cave 285 of the Mogao Grottoes. Photo: Digital Dunhuang
God of the sun in Cave 285 of Mogao Caves Photo: CNA

She said some of the wall paintings in the Mogao Grottoes contained elements from Greek mythology. In Cave 285, which was painted in the sixth century, the God of the Sun on a chariot is a combination of India’s Sūrya, Iranian Mithraism and Greece’s Apollo.

Many of these wall paintings, which cannot be found in other countries, combined with Chinese historical records could help solve some of the puzzles of world history, she said.

“For example, India has a lot of mythology but is lacking historical records. It can take reference on the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions,” she said.

There is no point in arguing about which country was the best in ancient times as different countries had different advantages, she said.

“Central Asia was good at horse husbandry while Greece was strong at human sculptures and architecture…the Huaxia nation made high-quality silk, ceramic and bronze products,” Fan said, adding that “Every beauty is beautiful,” quoting the famous Chinese anthropologist and sociologist Fei Xiaotong.

Silk Road and Hexi Corridor

Dunhuang is located at the west end of the Hexi Corridor in the highlands of Qinghai and Inner Mongolia. The Silk Road connected it to Central Asia, Iran and Greece. On the east end of the corridor was Xian, the capital city of the Qin empire (221-206 BC).

Dunhuang connected the Silk Road to the Huaxia nation (ancient China). Photo: Google Maps

In 344 AD, the first cave in the Mogao Grottoes was dug out as a venue for Buddhist meditation. After that, more than a thousand caves were dug. During the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, a large number of local residents in Dunhuang were forced to migrate to Jiayuguan. In the following 400 years, the Mogao Grottoes and the treasures inside had been allowed to deteriorate until the National Dunhuang Art Institute was established in 1944 to help preserve and replicate them.

In 1950, Beijing sent dozens of academies there to set up the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Institute but resources were very limited, especially during the Cultural Revolution  (1966-1976), until the Dunhuang Academy was established in 1984.

Mogao Caves is a famous tourist site in China. Photo: Xinhua

Nowadays, Dunhuang is a key tourist city for people who are interested in the history of the Silk Road and the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907 AD), which were deeply influenced by the Buddhist culture from the west. Last year, it was visited by 1.95 million people.

Visiter numbers will likely exceed 2 million this year, Fan said, stressing that the number must be controlled for conservation reasons.

In the past, tourists traveled from Xian to Dunhuang and then to Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Fan said. Although most people prefer not to visit Xinjiang due to tightened regulations there, tourists are still strongly interested in Dunhuang, she said.

Asked whether she had read the media reports about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, Fan said she did not have much time to watch television. She said she opposed the movements that promote the separation of Xinjiang and Tibet from China, which had become a part of the nation from the Qing and Yuan dynasties, respectively.

In July, China’s State Council issued a white paper titled Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang, saying that Xinjiang has long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory and has never been “East Turkistan.”

Buddhist statues in the Mogao Grottoes. Photo: Dunhuang Academy