Experts and skilled workers applying scientific methods to protect the treasure of Buddhist art
Preserving a historical and cultural heritage site created more than 1,500 years ago would be a challenge in any country, but China has completed the task in the case of Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province, thanks to efforts researchers over the past decades.
Yungang Grottoes, located in the northern Shanxi city of Datong, is one of the three most famous Buddhist cave sites in China. The other two are Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, and Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan Province.
Yungang Grottoes were built during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), when Datong, then called Pingcheng, served as the national capital. The caves were carved into sandstone cliffs of Wuzhou Mountain in the northwest suburb of Datong.
According to historical documents, a total of 54 main caves were dug during the period 460-524. Today, 45 main caves remain intact, which house more than 59,000 statues, ranging from a few centimeters to 17 meters in height.
The Yungang Grottoes were added to UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List in 2001. UNESCO said in a document that the site has universal value as it represents “the outstanding achievements of Buddhist rock art in China”.
Although influenced by Buddhist cave art from South and Central Asia, UNESCO said Yungang Grottoes interprets Buddhist art with Chinese characteristic and local spirit. “As a result, the Yungang Grottoes played a vitally important role among the earliest Eastern Buddhist caves and had a tremendous impact on Buddhist rock art in China and East Asia.”
While proud of its growing recognition in global academic circles, local authorities and scholars understand that after the Yungang Grottoes were battered by wind, rain and snow for more than 1,500 years, the protection of this precious cultural heritage site has become an urgent challenge.
The first cave preservation work began in the 1930s, and systematic protection has been carried out since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Protection efforts have been strengthened since the establishment of Yungang Caves Academy in February 2021.
“The Yungang Grotto Academy was launched on the basis of the ancient Datong Institution for the Preservation of Yungang Grottoes,” said Zhang Zhuo, director of the academy. “The protection of cultural heritage is a major task of Yungang Cave Academy.”
Over the past decade, the Datong Institution for the Preservation of Yungang Grottoes has launched a number of programs to protect the site.
One of the efforts has been a collaboration with the US-based Getty Conservation Institute. In Yungang, collaborative activities included environmental monitoring to assess the extent and effect of weathering from pollution, wind, rain and temperature extremes. They have also developed a comprehensive conservation plan to prevent deterioration caused by visitors and the environment, according to Zhang.
Now benefiting from a number of expert researchers and dedicated preservation workers, the academy is better placed to maintain the authenticity of the caves with more scientific and systematic measures.
Zhang Juncai is one such dedicated preservation worker. He has been engaged in repairing relics in Yungang for more than 10 years.
“Relic repair requires long-term concentration, as work on some sections of relics can take several years,” Zhang Juncai said.
The skilled craftsman is now training about ten apprentices. “With the steady growth of our repair team and the application of the latest technologies, we are confident that we can make a greater contribution to the preservation of relics,” said Zhang Juncai.
Yan Hongbin, head of the academy’s studio for relic preservation and repair, is one of the expert researchers in cultural heritage protection.
He and his team have proposed a number of preservation solutions through the use of new technologies. One solution is to apply coatings of nanomaterials to cave walls to prevent them from being eroded by wind and water.
“The use of these new materials signifies a fundamental solution to the problem of water erosion that has threatened the relics for centuries,” Yan said. He added that the project to strengthen the walls of the cave, implemented for more than six decades, will be completed in one or two years.
“After the completion of these two landmark projects (for the prevention of water erosion and the improvement of the cave walls), we will focus our energy on repairing small damage to the relics.”
In addition to preserving the relics, academy head Zhang Zhuo said the latest technology will be used to improve the visitor experience.
The academy runs a number of museums and galleries, allowing visitors to explore the history and hidden details of the caves using digital, virtual and augmented reality technologies, as well as replicas made with technologies 3D printing.
Wang Rui, a tourist who recently visited the Yungang Grottoes Museum, said the museum’s digital screens provide a better experience than the caves themselves.
“We can closely examine every detail of the caves, the statues and the decorations. It’s impossible for you to see them in the real caves,” Wang said. “And we’re told the story and the stories behind every detail. It’s something you can’t expect from a tour guide.”
According to Zhang Zhuo, the Yungang Grotto Academy has held online exhibitions for audiences across the country and the world, allowing them to visit this World Heritage Site from home.
Li Shu contributed to this story.