Study Group Travels to Dunhuang, China

The Tang Center for East Asian Art is currently engaged in a major research and publication project centered on the department’s archive of approximately 2,500 historic black-and-white photographs of the Buddhist cave temples in Dunhuang and Yulin. An oasis town at the crossroads of the northern and southern routes of the ancient Silk Road, Dunhuang served as the gateway for trade and cultural exchange between China and Central Asia, and beyond that, India and Europe. The nearly 500 caves there preserve approximately 2,000 sculptures and 45,000 square meters of wall paintings ranging in date from the 4th to the 14th century and representing every aspect of Buddhism during that long period. The paintings also provide the best surviving evidence for the development of Chinese painting as a whole, since much Chinese painting from before the 10th century disappeared long ago.

In 1943–44, James and Lucy Lo spent 18 months systematically photographing the caves at Dunhuang and Yulin, producing an unparalleled set of black-and-white negatives that are remarkable for their documentary value as well as their high artistic quality. The archive is a particularly valuable research resource because the site has since experienced considerable deterioration and has undergone a series of restorations.

A team of art historians assembled by the Tang Center is analyzing and organizing this material into a meaningful chronology of Chinese painting from the 4th through the 14th century. The resulting publication will consist of one volume of essays and five volumes containing more than 2,000 black-and-white photographs that will be dated and arranged chronologically.

The Tang Center’s research trip sent a team of six scholars who are engaged in the Lo Archive project—three professors, a Tang Center staff member, a museum curator, and a graduate student—to Dunhuang. They spent a week surveying the caves and surrounding areas in order to understand better the original production of the Lo Archive photographs, the current conditions of the caves, and the unique characteristics of the site. They were hosted in Dunhuang by Director Fan Jinshi and Dr. Zhao Shengliang of the Dunhuang Academy. Dr.  Zhao had spent the previous semester as a visiting research scholar at the Tang Center at Princeton, studying the Lo Archive photographs and doing research on the cave paintings and sculptures for the project.

As research and translation work for the Lo Archive project continues, another research trip to Dunhuang is being planned for this May. Three members of the research team will perform a geographical site inspection of the surrounding areas—especially nearby Mount Sanwei, the original sacred site in the area—and will collaborate with Dr. Shengliang on an extensive review and verification of the team’s previous findings, especially the chronology and descriptions of the caves. The Tang Center is also investigating the possibility of digitizing, restoring, and editing the 16mm movie footage that James Lo took as he and Lucy journeyed to and worked in Dunhuang.