Spirit of ancient Dunhuang offers model for confident exchange between civilizations

Future study could indicate more meaningful interactions between ancient Western and Eastern civilizations.

AS a student of Western law and journalism, I’ve long admired ancient Greece, especially for its sublime architecture and sober thinkers.

But until last week, it never occurred to me that ancient Greek art and culture had, as early as the 4th and 5th centuries, touched ancient China. Persia was probably the Western-most culture China had direct contact with during antiquity, I learned during my school education. And many of my contemporaries were taught likewise.

Such ideas were turned on their head last week, when professor Fan Jinshi, honorary president of Dunhuang Academy China, demonstrated in a lecture at Fudan University that a Grecian impact on Chinese architecture had indeed been felt much earlier than many believe.

She presented her audience with a picture showing close similarities between an Ionic column in the Acropolis of Athens, made during the 5th century BC, and an Ionic column in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, Gansu Province, dated to around the 4th century AD. Her findings filled me with joyful surprise, as I realized for the first time just how open ancient China once was.

The Mogao Caves, constructed between the 4th and the 14th centuries, house a collection of precious Buddhist sculptures and paintings, among other priceless artifacts and documents. “Throughout the construction and creation over more than 1,000 years, Mogao Caves witnessed a blending of different cultures — from the Middle Kingdom, Greece, Rome, Persia, India and central Asia,” said professor Fan, who had worked in Dunhuang for more than 50 years before her recent retirement. In fact, she’s been called “Dunhuang’s daughter” for her outstanding work to protect Mogao art.

Although I’ve heard that ancient China’s Silk Road reached as far as Rome, this was also my first time to learn that Roman art had influenced sculptors working in the Mogao Caves. Professor Fan showed a picture of a lion-throned sculpture of the Maitreya Buddha made during the 5th century, and compared it to the posture of a lion-throned goddess of ancient Rome. She explained that it was a Chinese habit at that time to sit on the ground. That Maitreya sat on a throne flanked by two lions was an apparent sign of Roman influence.

Many people today like to compare ancient Greece and Rome with ancient China and India, and often conclude that the former tended to be more scientific and logical while the latter tended to be more spiritual and sensual, as if they were two breeds apart. If, however, Fan’s theory about the art of the Mogao Caves is any guide, future study could indicate more meaningful interactions between ancient Western and Eastern civilizations.

Meeting point

Professor Fan’s lecture cast Dunhuang as a historical meeting point of great ancient cultures. It was through her lecture that many of us learned for the first time that late scholar Ji Xianlin (1911-2009) had said: “There are four great ancient civilizations: Chinese, India, Greek and Islamic, and their only meeting points were Dunhuang and Xinjiang.” What a pity that so many people of my generation grew up with an education that lacked the insights of professor Fan’s lecture.

When work began on the Mogao Caves (around 366 AD), Chinese culture — at least as represented by Confucianism — had already been well developed in Dunhuang. “When we opened our door to foreign religions, thoughts and art, we were well prepared and ready to absorb the best,” Fan explained.

That brought my mind to China’s forced opening after the Opium War in the 19th century, an opening that came with far more anxiety.

A confident opening brings the best of different worlds together, including the best of one’s own world. The cynical criticism of ancient Chinese culture among many Chinese intellectuals after the Opium War was not to be supported in Dunhuang, which blended the best of China and other civilizations.

Professor Fan gave another example to this effect. She showed a picture of a sitting Buddha with a serene smile typical of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, dated to the 5th century. It was based primarily on Chinese art, but borrowed design elements from India. “I looked at the Buddha many times, and found that his eyes and mouth were both smiling — so vivid,” said professor Fan. “Many of us like the smile of Mona Lisa, but I would say Mona Lisa is much later than the smiling Buddha.”

At the end of the lecture, Fan cited President Xi Jinping as saying that communications enrich civilizations. Indeed, may the spirit of Dunhuang shine again to show us all how a confident embrace of outside cultures can make the world a better place.

(Visit Dunhuang at www.e-dunhuang.com)

Special Reports