Panoramas of Magnificence: Keystone Hosts Back-to-Back Events on Dunhuang Culture

By Communications

The Silk Road was an important passage not only for commerce but also for ideas brought by countless envoys, military brigades, trade caravans, explorers, pilgrims, and laypeople. One of the road’s significant frontiers was Dunhuang, renowned in olden times for being a place where art met culture.

What remains now in Dunhuang are tangible marks of glorious days past—hundreds of caves whose halls and walls keep visual treasures and relics of ancient Chinese art preserved in time. These transcendent works have long carried on the history, beliefs, and aspirations of the people who lived in the Tang Dynasty.

Today, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes the surviving structures and routes along the Silk Road in Central China (including Gansu) and the restored caves in Dunhuang as World Heritage Sites that have continuously inspired and amazed generations of scholars, explorers, students, and many others around the world. These locations are among China’s most culturally distinct landmarks visited by thousands every year.

In the spring of 2017, the then eighth-grade Keystone Academy student Jessie Zuo traveled to Dunhuang for the first time and revered its mysterious splendor. That moment ignited her passion for cultural preservation. She has developed it over the years, inspiring her mother, Ms. Xia Xiuling along the way.

“That trip [is etched] in my memory forever, be it the grotto art or the spirit of centuries-old inheritance at Mogao,” Jessie said. “The idea of doing something for the place has been overwhelming me.”

The now twelfth grader relives and brings this experience to Keystone, co-hosting Panoramas of Magnificence, an exhibition of Dunhuang mural art and replicas of Buddhist statues on campus. The showcase was part of the school’s back-to-back event on Dunhuang art and culture on September 8 (Wednesday).

Jessie and her mother had worked with experts from Dunhuang Academy China and the China Dunhuang Grottoes Conservation Research Foundation for a year to curate the murals for the showcase. Also, as part of the exhibition launch, the foundation organized a three-day course in early September to train 27 students to become visitor guides.

At the opening ceremony, Mr. Yang Xiuqing, President of the China Dunhuang Grottoes Conservation Research Foundation, described Dunhuang as a “frontier” that united Chinese and world civilizations.

“Dunhuang caves represent an attitude of our ancestors toward life,” Mr. Yang continued. “It also symbolizes the outstanding Chinese civilization. Its surviving legacy of a culture of competence becomes a mission for the young people of today.”

The event continued with the Keystone Education Salon, titled “Where Art Meets Culture”, featuring Mr. Zhao Shengliang, the Secretary of the Party Committee of Dunhuang Academy China. Mr. Zhao, who has studied Dunhuang for over 37 years, said the landmark is a “great representative of Chinese culture” as it “shows the inclusiveness of the Chinese nation.” He also emphasized the era in which Dunhuang flourished: the Tang Dynasty, when Buddhism spread across imperial China.

For him, Dunhuang is an “interesting phenomenon”, as it illustrates how China absorbed, assimilated, and improved various beliefs, especially Buddhism, and successfully integrated them into its civilization.

Mr. Zhao’s discussion continued to the five perspectives from which Dunhuang could be understood: (1) its Buddhist temples as cultural centers; (2) music and dance, and their relation to Buddhist worship; (3) cave sculptures; (4) paintings and murals; and (5) calligraphy in extant scrolls and stone steles. These records, according to Mr. Zhao, are “high-level arts of Chinese culture” that have attracted thousands of people over the past years. He also highlighted the work of Dunhuang Academy China and the China Dunhuang Grottoes Conservation Research Foundation to preserve and protect the landmark for future generations.

“Arts and culture are shared by humankind,” he continued. “Dunhuang is an important part of China as much as it is a treasure and heritage for everyone.”

Keystone Head of School Malcolm McKenzie commended Jessie for being a “fantastic example” to everyone, showing how a passion can be turned into a “focal point in life”, inspiring and teaching many others in the process. Jessie hopes that the exhibition can help everyone find their paths in life.

“What really matters is what the eyes cannot see,” she said. “I started to pick up the brush and draw the perspectives that the camera cannot record. Maybe these civilizations will eventually fade away one day, [but] if I can do something to slow down their extinction, it will be a great blessing in my life.”