“Visualizing Dunhuang: Seeing, Studying, and Conserving the Caves”, edited by Dora CY Ching


It’s big, it’s heavy, and it’s beautiful. Dora Ching, the Associate Director of the Tang Center for Asian Art at Princeton University, has created a book that will surely become the volume to have if you are interested in Buddhist art from China or the history of photography. This book presents the art found in the Dunhuang (Mogai) Caves (now often called the Thousand Buddha Grottoes) of western China, which boast more than 500 cave temples, every one of them decorated with sculpture, various images of  the Buddha, a great number of murals and smaller-scale paintings, and some with caches of invaluable illustrated manuscripts.

The use of the caves as places for worship and pilgrimage started in the 4th century and lasted until the 14th. In 1940, Dunhuang was fortunate enough to attract the interest of photojournalists James (1902-1987) and Lucy Lo (b. 1920), whose incredible photographs (there are more than 2500 of them) at the site taken in 1943-44 form the core of this collection, and whose detailed descriptions in their notes provided invaluable observations on the artefacts they observed and photographed, particularly in cases where some of the material described has since disappeared. As Zhao Shengliang points out, “The Lo Archive holds great value, not only for its preservation of the historical images of the exteriors of the Dunhuang caves, but also for comparative analysis of cave contents.”


Visualizing Dunhuang: Seeing, Studying, and Conserving the Caves, Dora CY Ching (ed) (Princeton University Press, June 2021)
Visualizing Dunhuang: Seeing, Studying, and Conserving the Caves, Dora CY Ching (ed) (Princeton University Press, June 2021)

Ching has certainly gone much further than merely reproducing the work of the Los. This book, in addition to the illuminating introduction, contains nine essays by an international group of contributing scholars (Chinese, British, Russian and American) which present Dunhuang, as the title suggests, from different angles. Dunhuang is examined here primarily through the Lo collection featuring its architecture and its art. The black-and-white photographs taken by the Los are supplemented here with impressive contemporary colour illustrations produced by the Dunhuang Academy which show us what we could expect to see if we went there today. The Los’ photographs are not just static images, but artistic creations which reveal the inner life of the artefacts as much as they show us their external properties, thus reinforcing the need to examine them from different intellectual standpoints. The essays are, at least for the most part, accessible to non-scholars, and make for interesting reading. They may be read individually or as a group, and they also illustrate the wide-ranging interest displayed in Dunhuang over the century by scholars and explorers from France, Russia, Sweden, Japan, Great Britain, China and the United States.

The book begins with essays on “Dunhuang as a Historical Archive”, opening with four studies of the Lo Archive as well as information on other photographic endeavors and an essay about the collection of artefacts in the Hermitage at St Petersburg. Roderick Whitfield’s essay discusses the Lo Archive in its relation to the history of Buddhist art, and Zhao Shengliang explains the Archive’s significance after its collection by the Los in the 1940s. Dora Ching and Richard Kent take us in their long and very informative introduction to the history of photography in Dunhuang, which began in 1907 with explorer/archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943), whose four Asian expeditions helped to significantly increase our knowledge of the now-famous Silk Road, and which continues to this day. Maria Menshikova tells us about the expeditions of Sergey Oldenburg (1863-1934), who made two trips to Central Asia in 1914-15, and who ended his career as Director of the Soviet Institute of Oriental Studies. These essays situate the Mogao and Yulin caves at Dunhuang as an historical archive, and the many photographs reproduced in this book bring it vividly to life.

The second set of essays discusses the setting and architecture of Dunhuang. It opens with Cary Liu’s “Architecture and Land on the Dark Side of the Moon”, in which we are taken to the Mogao Caves and nearby Mount Sanwei, a sacred mountain, which Liu shows has an intimately spiritual connection to the caves. “In order to fully comprehend the caves,” Liu writes, “it is essential to visit them in person and experience their physical scale and spatial configuration in relation to their environs.” Liu notes of the Lo photographs that even if they cannot convey “color, size, sound and three-dimensional space”, they are nonetheless valuable because they show the caves as they were in 1943-44 and because they “present the aesthetic outlook of James and Lucy Lo.” Wei-Cheng Lin asks “What did Architecture do in Visualising Dunhuang?” There is a detailed discussion of the various cave-types and how their shapes evolved over the centuries, revealing that “cave-builders had the entire spectrum of the cave typology at their disposal by the early Tang dynasty (618-704).” In the third and final essay in this section Neville Agnew introduces and describes in detail the vital task of conservation, which, he tells us, “is premised on the belief that what society values now will be valued equally or even more so in the future.” To some readers, this might look like wishful thinking after the horrible destruction of ancient artefacts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but Agnew nevertheless thinks that “in most cases that is a valid premise,” and we have to hope that he’s right.

The third section is entitled “Dunhuang as Art and Art History”. The first essay, entitled “Textiles, Thrones, and Crowns” by Annette Juliano, shows us painted textile patterns and the shapes of various thrones and crowns used in portrayals of the Buddha and Maitreya. These aspects of the art, like the shape of the caves described earlier, help determine its date. Textiles in particular “had a special role in Buddhism as valued donations to monasteries,” and illustrate the importance of patronage for the caves. Jun Hu concentrates on Cave 240 as an example of narrative painting, in this case depicting the life of the Buddha; it’s here that the modern color illustrations really come into play and can tell us more than James Lo’s black-and-white photographs. Hu contends that “between Lo’s photographic identification of the pictorial subject … and his less-mediated attraction to the painting’s rich colors is bracketed a host of visual and religious experiences.” This, he explains, “often eludes our analysis.” The final essay in the book is Jerome Silbergeld’s “Dunhuang’s Contribution to Chinese Art History: A Historiographic Inquiry,” in which Silbergeld sums up the narrative of exploration, beginning with Sir Aurel Stein and ending the book as it began, with history.


It’s James and Lucy Lo, of course, who have the place of honor in this book, and their story is at its core. In 1940 James, then working as a photojournalist for the Central News Agency in Chongqing, was a seasoned photographer who had recorded events of the Sino-Japanese War. Some London friends had sent him an album of the Dunhuang photographs taken by Sir Aurel Stein and James was hooked. The same year he met and married Lucy, who was also working for the Central News Agency as a photographer. She “had a strong interest in literature and the arts”, and in 1943 they were given a leave of absence from the Central News Agency to document and photograph the Mogao and Yulin caves. They and their equipment traveled uncomfortably to the site by oxcart, and for the next eighteen months cheerfully and indefatigably carried out their assignment without the benefits of either running water or electricity; at one point James even made ice-cream for Lucy’s birthday and distributed it to their crew! Their work in the caves produced by far the largest and most comprehensive collection of photographs that had been done to date and it remains unsurpassed to this day for its visual impact. James Lo had an uncanny skill for photographing objects from different angles and, as Silbergeld says of the photographs, they are “a record of [the Los’] own aesthetic harmony with the wide-ranging, ever-changing artistry of the Mogao and Yulin caves.” Lucy set about organising the vast collection of photographs, curating them, labelling them, and making sure that they were properly preserved so that they could be viewed by scholars over the intervening years.

Through the medium of the Los’ work, as presented here with a more than merely generous set of photographs, readers can get some idea of the impressiveness of the caves, not to mention    gaining healthy respect and admiration for the effort the Los put into their work. The photographs are clear and wide-ranging; through them one can come to understand the different artistic styles and aesthetics employed through the centuries, and how they illustrated in artistic productions the various doctrinal shifts in Buddhism. Different aspects are emphasized in different eras, but fully discussing the archive presented in this book would be an impossible task here, because it’s so vast and varied, even when the photographs are selected. In spite of the passing of time and the fact that they are black-and-white, the photographs of the Los beautifully complement the excellent essays in the book, and through them readers can enter into an almost magical world with some of the best tour-guides to accompany them, all thanks to Dora Ching.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.