[My apologies – after a gruelling flight from London to Beijing yesterday (a journey I’d made in the opposite direction a few days before, coming home for a dear friend’s wedding), I found myself feeling somewhat discombobulated by my ping ponging of time zones. And so I’m running a day behind (or ahead?) with these posts which, appropriately enough, have just acted out the very West-East transit they describe.]
At the turn of the twentieth century,
the monk appointed by himself caretaker
of the sacred rubbish was persuaded
by Aurel Stein that the explorer should be able
to load up his ponies and
‘Don’t miss me too much today’
two years later the cave was empty.
–Caleb Klaces, ‘The cave is woken up’
At the close of my second post, I left you with Li Bai’s famous poem, ‘The Moon at the Fortified Pass’, which imagines how the wind which beats at the battlements of the Yumen Pass in Gansu has already scoured a thousand miles of desert before it reaches that point. The elements have eroded the four-feet deep ochre brick walls of today’s Yumen Pass to a dilapidated softness – as though destined to collapse back into the surrounding sands – which it can’t have possessed in Li Bai’s day, when it bristled with soldiers guarding China from westward hordes. Stretching away on either side of the pass are distant, marooned fragments of the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) Great Wall, now just a few feet high. Built from tamped earth and reeds in the absence of a resilient local stone, they are a thousand years older than the crenellated bulwarks of the Ming Dynasty wall tourists saunter along near Beijing. On the afternoon, two weeks ago now, we filed through the squat doorway that broaches the Yumen Gate, jostled by a stream of eager Chinese tourists, the air hung unbearably still – the desert’s oven-like expanse relieved by no wind. But when the wind does blow in that corridor of the Gobi, it blows from the West. In other words, the winds noted by Li Bai follow the same route across Central Asia from the Middle East as the eastbound caravans of 2000 years ago, which would have had to pass through that very juncture, where we were stood, on their way to Xi’an and other Chinese cities to trade in silk and precious goods.
We had originally planned to track further back along this stretch of the Silk Road, from Gansu on to Xinjiang province. Xinjiang, whose name means ‘new border’, is the furthest west of China’s provinces and also the largest – its vast reaches of desert account for almost 20 percent of the country’s total area. Despite a recent and growing influx of Han Chinese, its inhabitants are mostly members of the Uighur ethnic minority, whose Turkic descent and Islamic faith mean they have more in common with the peoples of Central Asia than the Chinese heartland. We were interested in the city of Turpan because of its importance as a stopover on the Silk Road, but modernity intruded (as it does) by way of a reminder that the troubles facing China’s western border regions in Li Bai’s poem are still very much a present concern. In July this year violence once again broke out in Turpan’s streets, partly in remembrance of the Xinjiang riots of July 2009, in which hundreds were killed. In an effort to quell the ethnic unrest, the central government cut off communications and the internet in an effort to stay the flow of information in and out. As July wore on, we scoured the internet back in England, noting the trickle of photos showing tanks and troop-bearing vehicles lining the roads, which had made it out via twitter and a few news outlets, pondering whether it might still be possible to go to Xinjiang. That is, until our domestic flight into Turpan was cancelled a few days before we were due to travel, barred along with all other routes in to the region. That decided that.
On the long drive from Dunhuang out to the Yumen Pass, we whisked by an ‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’. From the photo-heavy signage, it seemed to offer Han tourists, there for the Silk Road sites, the chance to stop by and watch specimens of the westernmost few of China’s famous ‘55 recognized minority peoples’ engage in traditional cultural activities, from dancing and sporting colourful costumes to playing typical instruments and carving folk handicrafts. We had already encountered something of this that morning, when we found the route out of our Dunhuang hotel’s front entrance flanked on both sides by twenty pretty local girls wearing elaborate jingling headdresses and skimpy turquoise bikini-and-harem-pant-type outfits. They all adopted wafty poses and smiled (no teeth) while a besuited tourist-trade delegation padded past them into the carpark. By the time we passed between their ranks a few minutes later, they had already gone slack, looking rather bored. Our driver said that you could see Mongols and Kazakh immigrants, among others, in the Dunhuang ‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’, but when I asked if there were any Uighurs inside, he was distracted by an overturned motorbike that had clearly skidded to the roadside some minutes earlier. After that, I didn’t have the heart to ask him again.
The main reason for making the trek to Dunhuang (which really is in the middle of nowhere) is to see the Mogao Caves. The Mogao area’s several hundred individual temple-grottoes, which are decorated from floor to ceiling with painted murals, have also earned it the name ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.’ Along with the material goods transported along the Silk Road, another foreign import to China that arrived along those continent-spanning routes was, of course, Buddhism. The Mogao Grottoes are not the only such painted caves in the region: various sites survive where monks and merchants, adopting the practice from Indian Buddhism, sponsored as an act of piety a cave to be cut out of the cliff face and painted with scenes brought to life from the written sutras.
What makes the Mogao site unique, however, is the sensational rediscovery in 1900 of its so-called ‘Library Cave’. A smallish cave (you can only peer in through a grille, as the guide’s torch wavers through the gloom), it had remained sealed for centuries, filled to the roof with thousands of manuscripts on paper, silk, hemp and bamboo, all hidden behind a carefully repainted wall. The manuscripts’ ‘discovery’ is usually credited to the British explorer Aurel Stein, who hearing rumours of their existence, rushed there to purchase thousands of the scrolls, shipping them back to the British Museum in London. But in fact it was a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu – he had arrived at the caves while wandering through a famine and appointed himself their caretaker, sweeping out the in-blown sand each night – who helped pull down the patch of wall another monk had noticed rung hollowly under his tapping pipe. Amongst the batch of manuscripts wending their slow way to London was a volume called The Diamond Sutra, which would later be identified as the oldest printed book ever found. It was the unfortunate Wang who presided over their sale to Stein and the succession of foreign collectors who arrived in his wake – a fact which continues to grate upon Chinese patriotic sensibilities, as was clear from the wire of emotion in our guide’s voice as she pointed her frail torch into the Library Cave’s hollow dark. Stein conducted the negotiations in broken Chinese and could not, in fact, read the scrolls he was acquiring.
...two years later the cave was empty.
The story of the Library Cave makes up one strand in a sequence called ‘16 Airs’ from the first collection, Bottled Air, of British poet Caleb Klaces. (Klaces might be known to American readers because of his role as curator of Like Starlings, an online space for collaboration between US and British poets, whose conversations often have a transatlantic flavour.) Bottled Air is a book of poems whose brilliance and variousness makes me regret the need to pick out here just one small tile from their mosaic. Describing the origins of these poems in an interview, Klaces stressed that he has never been to China. His imaginations of Mogao were mediated entirely through Aurel Stein’s journals and the other books on the subject he could find in the Texas university library where he went to work at the time. I find this so interesting – the question of what it means to summon a place in the mind solely from one’s read experience of it. The same thought occurred to me as I processed along the Mogao cliff-face, filing behind the other tourists to pass in and out of one cave after another, eyes dazzling in the desert sun after the accustomed gloom – Bottled Air in my rucksack all the way.
Klaces’ poem, ‘The cave is woken up’, opens by comparing ‘Waking cut into managable pieces / by the snooze button’ – its troughs and hikes of consciousness – to the lookout towers spaced along the Great Wall. Intercut with the narrative of Mogao’s rediscovery, the poem’s other overt subject is a long distance relationship – a Skype call (‘Don’t miss me too much today’) across the Atlantic between the speaker and a girlfriend who is ‘always finding secret caves / in metaphors’. Klaces’ oxymoron, ‘sacred rubbish’, in the passage from my epigraph, at once reveres and dismisses the Library Cave’s contents. It is entirely characteristic of the book, whose tone is at once laconic, flat, and intriguingly multilayered. Whose words are these? Is the colour we’re getting here (‘sacred rubbish’) an ironic insight of the speaker’s – voiced with a century’s distance from the colonial unconcern of the European collectors? Or does ‘sacred rubbish’ subtly focalise the thoughts of one of the historical figures in the poem? Aurel Stein, who purchases the trove for a mere four horseshoes of silver? Wang Yuanlu, who allows the treasures to leave China for a song? Or could it be the monks who sealed the cave a millennium before? Their motives are still not understood, but it is thought they closed off the cave either to protect its precious cargo from Muslim invaders riding from the West, or alternatively because the Library Cave’s contents were fragments, useless scraps of sutras, which were only stowed away because they couldn’t bring themselves to burn them.
So preciously vulnerable are the Mogao Caves that tourists cannot be trusted to wander them alone. You must join a tour, so that your guide can unlock the climate-controlling metal shutter doors (donated in the seventies, our guide said, by a rich Hong Kong businessman) and check the carbon dioxide detector dial just inside the lintel to see if excessive touristic breathing is today at risk of mouldering the frescoes to oblivion. Only then will she gesture for you to shuffle through the threshold. When Aurel Stein saw them, the caves’ cliff-face exterior had partially collapsed, leaving their precious statue-sentried vestibules exposed to the elements, with ladders the only means of communication between each hole. My husband Marc and I were part of the only English-language tour group that day, and found ourselves tagging along behind a modest busload of twenty or so middle-aged Israelis. (Even though his Hebrew no longer stretches much further than his Bar mitzvah portion, Marc takes a certain professional pleasure in identifying Israeli tourists when we happen upon them abroad.)
Our guide spoke rapid English straight into our earpieces, which startled because of its frequent invocation of a highly specialised theological and art historical vocabulary (Asparas, Bodhisattvas, lapis lazuli, oxidization), which sat strangely with her lack of basic fluency elsewhere. She would preface all of these choice terms by giving the word in Chinese, then would say, several times over, ‘Do you know...Bodhisattvas?’, or ‘Do you know...oxidization?’ The effect of her repeated ‘Do you know...’, ‘Do you know...’, was to make my idling mind begin to imagine that Oxidization, like the various members of the Buddhist pantheon, was a personified entity whose acquaintance one might hope to make. As it turned out, her strategy was an effective one, and no doubt learned from hard experience, because many of the Israelis hadn't met Oxidization. So there would follow a period of susurration in which the more fluent English speakers would try to translate for their companions what was going on. This pleasant Babel lingered especially long after the guide explained why so many of the seated Buddhas and other painted figures appear to have black skin: the lead white pigment, ground by the original craftsmen so many centuries ago, had oxidised on prolonged exposure to the air and gradually darkened to black.
I thought I knew what was coming when one lady finally asked the guide whether part of the Buddhist community of Mogao had come from Africa. Perhaps she had in the back of her mind the Ethiopian Jews famously evacuated to Israel in the ’70s and ’80s. In many ways it was a fair question, given the trans-continentally cosmopolitan variety of peoples who passed through Dunhuang on the Silk Road. Among the manuscripts in the Library Cave were discovered not only Buddhist scriptures, but writings in many different languages and from several different religions – Daoism, Manichaeism, even Nestorian Christianity. Several leaves of prayers written in Hebrew found in the Library Cave have allowed scholars to conclude that Jews were among the many groups who traded along the much-trodden road via Dunhuang. In fact, Marc and I had gone to seek out the still-surviving descendants of these Silk Road Jewish traders the summer before, when we took a detour from following the route through China of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Missionary, Matteo Ricci, to stop at the city of Kaifeng. Kaifeng lies right across the other side of the country from Dunhuang, at the Eastern end of the Silk Road – and was even the capital of China for a time. Ricci never visited Kaifeng himself, but in 1605 received an emissary from the head Rabbi of their small community – previously unknown to Europeans – who wanted to negotiate with him towards their conversion to Christianity. Otherwise, he feared the dying out of their non-Chinese traditions.
After many generations of intermarriage, the Kaifeng Jews looked Chinese in appearance, but still practised many customs (sometimes without quite remembering why), such as the avoidance of pork, which marked them out from the rest of the Chinese population. Searching the dusty alleys behind one of Kaifeng’s many mosques, we eventually stumbled upon ‘Teaching Torah Lane’. A lady about my age and who self-identified as Jewish, Guo Yan, welcomed us into a side room in the house she inherited from her grandparents, which happens to sit on the site of the synagogue built there in 1163 (the synagogue’s footprint is now largely covered by Kaifeng’s city Hospital no. 1). The room serves as makeshift shrine to the place’s Jewish past, its back wall bearing a painted scroll mapping the lost synagogue’s various courtyards – to my eye, its architecture of red wood columns surmounted by colourfully tiled roofs looked like a Chinese Buddhist temple. Guo Yan’s dream was to raise enough money to have the synagogue reconstructed, not as an active place of worship – she didn’t believe the government would allow that – but as a kind of garden-cum-museum with live demonstrations (‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’?) of the city’s Jewish past. We bought a leaflet from her for a few pounds. In 1851, European missionaries in Kaifeng purchased a Hebrew Torah scroll, one of the fifteen thought to have originated in the city – the remaining Jewish descendents were happy to sell it to the foreigners as no one could read it anymore. It now resides in London, in the British Library.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Mogao frescoes, oxidization aside, is the continuing brightness of their pigments – the intactness that came from being so long forgotten by the outside world. And so the examples of their deliberate defacement, when you come upon them, are all the more striking. In 1921 the Dunhuang local authorities were confronted with a flood of incoming Russian soldiers, fleeing the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. They decided to house them temporarily in the Mogao Caves:
The emigrants wrote their names all over the statue,
carved genitals into its mouth
and cut out its eyes. “The kind of shit people do
to find out where they are”
(Caleb Klaces, ‘Emigrants deface the caves’; you can read an earlier version of the poem, which differs only by a few words, online here)
In one of the caves we entered, decorated with thousands and thousands of two-inch high Buddhas, crosslegged in their painted niches (the pattern reminded me of English wallpaper), the Russian refugees had used their nails, or perhaps knives, to scratch out the faces of all of the tiny figures they could reach. Our guide explained that they were after the gold leaf that once shimmered over those thumbprint-sized visages. I wasn’t sure about this explanation; I wasn’t sure one could so confidently infer the motives of such iconoclasts. In my academic work as a scholar of Renaissance English literature, I’ve been interested for some time in the history of Reformation iconoclasm – the waves of destruction of Church art, in the 1530s and after, that followed on from England’s conversion to Protestantism. A host of little churches in Norfolk contain painted rood screens of Christian saints sporting exactly the same type of damage as the Buddhas in Dunhuang: whole faces, or sometimes just eyes, scratched out with a neatness of outline (like a kind of reverse colouring-in) that seems to belie the passion involved in such a destructive act. The paradox is, of course, that the iconoclasts seem to believe that the pattern of pigment on the panel before them holds forth an eye, a face, which could suffer hurt, even as they seek to demonstrate the image has no hold over them. Sacred rubbish.
The final stanza of Klaces’ last Mogao poem, ‘Emigrants deface the caves’, switches scene entirely, leaving behind the desert of Dunhuang for what I think must be the South American waterfall that starred in Werner Herzog’s 2004 film, The White Diamond:
Nobody had ever seen the cave behind the water.
“Please don’t show it in your film”,
requested the elder tribesman. “We would rather not pry
where the swifts go. It is their place,
The cave behind the water. Herzog’s water-veiled cave is that of Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls. But the segue here reminded me of the Water Curtain Cave (Shuǐlián Dòng) from the Chinese novel Journey to the West, the thought of whose secret space used to enthrall me as my mum read to my six-year-old self about the Monkey King’s early days, happy in the cave behind the waterfall. Journey to the West ultimately tells, of course, the legend of how the Buddhist Scriptures were brought eastward from India into China. In The White Diamond, Herzog puts his camera behind the sacred falls and watches the footage himself, but does not show it to the viewer:
But how could he not take a camera
through the falls, just once, to turn
on himself, to star in what wasn’t really there?
When the Jesuits arrived in China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they considered paintings of the Virgin and child to be among their most powerful tools in the quest for converts. (The Crucifixion – the execution of a lowly slave – seemed to go down less well with the Chinese audience.) But it wasn’t so much the content of the paintings as their style – endowed with all the ‘realism’ Western linear perspective and chiaroscuro could afford – in which they placed their faith. The technical devices of European painting demonstrated its clear superiority to the unshaded flatness and misshapenly proportioned figures the Jesuits saw in Chinese painting – and thus couldn’t help but capture the minds of Chinese converts with its awesome verisimilitude. And yet this idea of depth – of penetrating through the painted surface into the receding world of the work of art behind – is enshrined in the famous legend of the artist Wu Daozi. On finishing a spectacular mural for the emperor’s palace, the Tang dynasty painter clapped his hands and disappeared into a cave within his picture, whose mouth sealed itself behind him before the emperor could follow. Scratching away at the murals’ gilded surface, perhaps Mogao’s Russian guests were trying to emulate Wu Daozi – to open up a hole in the painted surface and follow him through.