The Adventurous Quest to Capture Remote Buddhist Caves in the 1940s


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In the spring of 1943, During the Sino-Japanese War, photographer James Lo and his wife Lucy Lo ventured into a remote and almost abandoned cave complex near where the ancient trade routes north and south of the Silk Road converged, in the junction of China and Central Asia. There were 700 carved spaces in front of a cliff, known as the Mogao Caves. Of these, some 500 have been lavishly decorated with carvings and wall paintings, outstanding examples of Buddhist art spanning 1,000 years. Today, the 2,000 painted cave sculptures and nearly 485,000 square feet of murals are preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, popular with tourists. But in 1943, when the Los meet them, they deteriorate and are neglected. Over the next year, the Los systematically photographed the Mogao Caves, as well as the nearby Yulin Caves; the 3000 black and white images are a meaningful document of these incredible and vulnerable sacred spaces. Many images from these archives will be featured for the first time in print form in an upcoming nine-volume set, Visualize Dunhuang: see, study and conserve the caves, edited by Dora CY Ching and published by Princeton University Press.

The Los were resourceful in the face of difficult conditions. For the light, James Lo carefully placed mirrors and white cloth screens to illuminate the dark and gloomy caves. To preserve the film, he sometimes took two different images on a single sheet of the negative for his large 6×8 field camera. (He also used a Graflex 4×5 Speed ​​and a Leica 35mm.) For an on-site darkroom, he brought water from a nearby mountain stream with bamboo piping. The resulting images are not only perfectly focused and well exposed, but also artistically composed. “They made what amounts to a photographic time capsule of the caves as they were in the 1940s, before restoration and conservation permanently altered the cliff face,” Ching writes. “This work was absolutely necessary, but the now-missing views are preserved in Lo’s photographs.”

The northern part of the Mogao cliff. Lo archive photograph, 1943–44. Princeton University (Lo mx070).

Atlas Obscura emailed to Ching, Associate Director of PY and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art at Princeton University to learn more about what life in the Mogao Caves might have been like, d other creative things the Los have accomplished there and what it is like to visit the caves in person.

Can you describe what the religious life of the Mogao Caves would have looked like at the height of its development and use?

[The nearby town of] Dunhuang has long served as a gateway between China and Central Asia. Westward, trade routes extend to Kashgar and the Pamirs, then to Central Asia and Persia. Eastward, roads led to the ancient capital Chang’an (now Xi’an) in China. To the north was the Russian steppe and to the south was India. Due to its position in this network of land routes, Dunhuang has become the seat of local government and a major hub, attracting traders, Buddhist pilgrims and visitors of all kinds. In short, it was a vibrant commercial, political and artistic center.

Only 25 kilometers [15 miles] southeast of Dunhuang, a cliff along the Daquan River turned out to be the perfect place to make cave temples, now called the Mogao Caves. Over 1,000 years, architects, artisans, painters and sculptors have built and decorated nearly 500 caves, while more than 200 additional caves have been turned into living or burial chambers. The land across the river from the caves. that we cross to access the site today, was used as a cemetery. At the height of activity, the site reportedly supported a community of builders and artisans to build and decorate new caves, and monks reportedly lived in the caves. A number of clans had family caves which they maintained through generations, and dedication ceremonies and other religious gatherings were most likely held from time to time. If one looks at some of the murals, one can imagine what life would have been like: caravans of merchants and adventurers and their camels traveling through the landscape and arriving and departing from towns, as well as lay Buddhists carrying out tours. rituals.

Bodhisattvas.  Mogao Grotto 328, west wall, interior niche, north side.  Early Tang (618–704).  Lo archive photograph, 1943–44.  Princeton University (Lo328-6-1b) (left);  Mogao Cave 420, coffered ceiling.  Sui Dynasty (581–618).  Lo archive photograph, 1943–44.  Princeton University (Lo420-16) (right).
Bodhisattvas. Mogao Grotto 328, west wall, interior niche, north side. Early Tang (618–704). Lo archive photograph, 1943–44. Princeton University (Lo328-6-1b) (left); Mogao Cave 420, coffered ceiling. Sui Dynasty (581–618). Lo archive photograph, 1943–44. Princeton University (Lo420-16) (right).

How were the caves almost entirely forgotten? And how did they finally survive?

Activity at the cave sites near Dunhuang lasted around 1000 years, when successive policies ruled the area. In the 15th century, although the official Chinese Imperial Embassies moved from the Ming capital to Beijing in Tibet, more travel and trade took place along sea routes, while land routes were less traveled. Without a constant flow of travelers and a stable population, the construction and maintenance of Buddhist caves could no longer be sustained. The locals still knew about the caves, but due to their remoteness, the caves were practically forgotten.

To a certain extent, the climate and the relative inaccessibility of the sites have protected and preserved the caves. However, the caves deteriorated due to the harshness of the environment. The front facade of the caves, as well as many wooden structures, in cases where some were built at the entrance to the caves, have collapsed. When this happened, the shallow caves were particularly vulnerable to light damage and sand abrasion. Periodic flooding of the Daquan River caused water damage in the lowest level of the caves.

The Lo Archive photographs show the condition of the cave site in the 1940s, when most of the cave facades had fallen and the murals and sculptures were exposed to the elements.

Mogao Cave 259, north wall and area outside the cave.  Northern Wei (439–53 4).  Lo archive photograph, 1943–44.  Princeton University (Lo259-1).
Mogao Cave 259, north wall and area outside the cave. Northern Wei (439–53 4). Lo archive photograph, 1943–44. Princeton University (Lo259-1).

This project must have been particularly difficult for James and Lucy Lo in 1943 and 1944, which you describe in the book as “a particularly unstable cultural moment”?

I am always amazed by the self-managed Los Photographic Expedition. They mounted their expedition during the Sino-Japanese War, starting from Chongqing, Sichuan Province, which had been bombed several times by the Japanese. For the Central News Agency, James Lo had photographed the destruction caused by the bombing. The Los were not on the outskirts, but in the middle of a dangerous situation. Their home in Chongqing bore the scars of the bombings; the foundations and walls had cracked so badly that one of their friends, a famous architect, refused to stay with them when they visited. Before embarking on their journey to Dunhuang, they had to plan for the supplies they would need and procure them – again, this is no small feat during a war. They also faced many unknowns, such as how they were going to arrange transportation, what they would find in Dunhuang. Did they prepare enough film and chemicals, how were they going to live?

Once at the caves, they faced the challenges of the project. They had to plan what the 1.6 kilometer [1 mile] section of the cliff to photograph – exteriors, interiors, details, etc. – and carefully measure the film. The condition of the cliff and cave temples ranged from total darkness inside to collapsed facades and floors. Some caves were simply inaccessible; others were accessible but threatened by crumbling walls or floors. They had no electricity or running water, and they had to find where to live and how to take care of daily necessities, such as food.

It is a testament to their vision, courage and ingenuity that they have produced such an important and valuable collection of photographs.

Mogao Cave 267. North of Liang (420–439).  North wall and ceiling, seen from cave 266. Visible in the distance, north wall of cave 272. Lo Archival photograph, 1943–44.  Princeton University (Lo 267-1).
Mogao Cave 267. North of Liang (420–439). North wall and ceiling, seen from cave 266. Visible in the distance, north wall of cave 272. Lo Archival photograph, 1943–44. Princeton University (Lo 267-1).

Are there any interesting details from your interviews with Lucy Lo that you can share?

Three stories come to mind, each highlighting a particular trait that I think has helped the Los succeed in their great photographic endeavor.

First, to develop the negatives, James Lo needed a water reservoir, so he made one out of ceramic shards he collected from the site. This is just one example of his inventiveness.

Second, to celebrate the National Day on October 10, 1943, the Los Angeles hosted a tea party in the caves for visitors there, including British sinologist and science historian Joseph Needham and New Zealand political activist Rewi. Alley. They cooked up a feast and shared everything they had, showing their kindness.

Third, in what I interpret as joie de vivre, James Lo quietly made ice cream with goat’s milk, sugar and flavorings by mixing everything together in an enamel bowl and placing it outside on a cold stone overnight – mixing it every once in a while – and surprise Lucy the next morning.

Buddha niche in the west wall.  Mogao Cave 328. Early Tang (618–704).  Lo archive photograph, 1943–44.  Princeton University (Lo328-2).
Buddha niche in the west wall. Mogao Cave 328. Early Tang (618–704). Lo archive photograph, 1943–44. Princeton University (Lo328-2).

You have studied the caves firsthand. What was the most fascinating and memorable for you?

The site is magical: hundreds of caves, large and small, are filled with colorful murals and sculptures. Before my first visit to Dunhuang in 1993 and 1994, I had seen photographs, but nothing prepared me to discover the caves. Entering a dark and cool cave – no matter what the temperature outside – and gazing at the cave with a flashlight transported me to another time, where I was immersed, completely surrounded, by Buddhist murals and sculptures. I felt like I had entered a different realm.

An art historian at heart, I marveled at the breadth, beauty and exquisite craftsmanship of painters and sculptors – and how I was able to testify on a site of the arc 1000 years of artistic and doctrinal styles.

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