Revealing the Beauty of the Kizil Caves

Zhao Li, 32, a scholar with the Institute of Kucha Caves Research in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, was given a Muslim upbringing.

Her 67-year-old father, Zhao Zhizhong, is a proud and dedicated Muslim whose ancestors settled in a village under the jurisdiction of today's Yanqi Hui Autonomous County in Xinjiang more than 100 years ago during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Old Zhao, a farmer, is now a respected Aji - one who has accomplished his pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

"He always prays five times a day," his daughter said.

Nine years ago after Zhao Li graduated with an archaeology/history major from Xinjiang University, Old Zhao expected her to get a job specializing in religious affairs with the local government.

But at the same time Zhao Li and her classmates watched a documentary on the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves, which are tucked in the hills on the northern bank of the Muzat River, around 300 kilometres from her home county.

"I was amazed," she recalled. "I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the splendid murals that are inside these desolate and barren hills in the Gobi desert.

"Without highly advanced cultural development, these fine murals would not exist," she said.

Intrigued and curious, she persuaded her parents to allow her to join the Institute of Kucha Caves Research.

"I studied history and archaeology at university and I couldn't just leave behind what I'd learned to do something else," she said.

Nine years have now passed since she made her decision. And Zhao Li has said goodbye to several of her peers who have chosen to leave behind the brick bungalows at the foot of the caves in favour of better-paid jobs.

But Zhao Li and a few others have remained, continuing their training, research and field work.

The word "hard" is not strong enough to describe her life and work over the past nine years, in what her mother describes as "the world of Buddha."

Every day, she has to climb up and down the hills to study and document, in detail, the murals and relics in some 300 caves at the Kizil grottoes. In the first few years, she and her colleagues had to walk 7 kilometres to reach the nearest bus stop.

But her work has held a lot of exciting moments as well, when she has closely scrutinized the art work, unravelling the ingenuity of the ancient artists who created these, the earliest, Buddhist mural arts in China.

Duan Wenjie, a leading expert on the Mogao Grottoes, and a former president of the Dunhuang Research Institute in neighbouring Gansu Province, once said that the Kizil caves were the predecessors of the now better-known Mogao Grottoes.

In a way, the Kizil caves were like a melting pot in the 3rd to 9th centuries AD, in which legends and myths and arts from ancient India, Greece, Rome, Persia and Central China combined to find expression in Buddhist art.

Zhao Li and her colleagues could talk for days about the tales depicted in the beautiful murals about the reincarnations of Buddha, who had to make sacrifices in order to save the lives of the common people.

As far as style is concerned, Zhao and her colleagues are firmly in their favour of the Kizil murals, "because the wall paintings here were done in a simpler, more natural and efficient style," said Peng Xiaojiang, another young scholar at the institute.

"It often takes a series of murals at the Mogao Grottoes to tell just one story about Buddha, but here at Kizil, a number of sketches on a tiny part of the wall can portray several stories in relation to Buddha's reincarnation," Peng explained.

However, there have also been days of pain at Kizil, when Zhao and her colleagues have had to note down the condition of the murals. The caves were largely abandoned around the 10th century, as Islam began to spread into the northwestern part of China.

The statues were destroyed as the new religion forbade the worship of idols. And the remaining murals succumbed to all kinds of destruction brought on by the wind, drought, rain and insects.

Zhao Li had to check her anger further, when she measured metre by metre the missing parts of murals that had been chipped off and stolen by the Russians, the Japanese and the Germans in the early years of the 20th century.

Index cards that the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin sent to Zhao via fax early last year listed that museum had "395 fragments of wall paintings from Kizil."

From Cave No 207, the Germans cut off as many as 12 fragments from murals, which included among others, a head decorated with white pearls; a red haired head of a monk; and a Bodhisattva.

"The Germans also took away two large bagfuls of ancient documents written on birch bark and wooden slips," Zhao Li said.

German scholars in the museum catalogue noted that they now have 328 square metres of murals taken from the Kizil caves in Berlin.

With careful measurements and examination, Zhao has discovered, that the missing mural parts altogether amount to around 470 square metres, she said.

For Zhao, Peng and a few other young scholars, their years of work at the Kizil caves under the guidance of veteran researchers culminated last year in an acclaimed Chinese language academic work, "A Comprehensive Record of the Contents of the Kizil Grottoes," to which Zhao was a major contributor.

"After immersing herself in the Kizil caves for eight years, Zhao Li now knows the details of each cave like the back of her hand," said Professor Huo Xuchu about his apprentice. "She has acquired a basic knowledge about Buddhism as well.

"Zhao and the other young scholars who have chosen to remain with the institute are now pillars of the on-going research."

For researchers at Kizil, their study reaches beyond the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves, according to Chen Zhiliang, a researcher and former director of the Institute of the Kucha Caves Research, since the institute also looks after several other smaller grottoes in the adjacent mountains on the northern rim of the Tarim Basin.

In the course of their work, they have encountered a few new surprises there as well.

Once, Zhao and her colleagues went to the site of a particular cave which hangs above a sharp cliff. A ladder made of rope hung down 1,500 metres from the cave to the ground.

"The cliff bulged in the middle of the route so I found myself dangling in the open," she said. "The climbing was very hard."

When she finally reached the top of the ladder and looked down from the cave, she couldn't believe she'd made it.

Further surprises awaited her when she entered the cave.

"We saw well-preserved, detailed murals depicting the wonderful life, in what Buddhist scriptures describe as the joyous world of the West," she said.

New discoveries and initial research results haven't left Zhao content, however.

"Compared with enormous research accomplishments made at the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, we've just started," Zhao said.

Basically, research methods at the Kizil caves are still backward. In this age of computers, they only began to store their research results and mural images on computer software last month.

The written documents from the Kizil Grottoes, now kept in Berlin, are still waiting to be studied and they will have to decipher the Tocharian B language as well, which is intelligible to only a few veteran scholars.

"We don't even know for sure, what the missing fragmented murals are," Zhao said, "because we've discovered discrepancies between what we've noted down on the site and what we've been told by foreign scholars."

An established leading scholar on ancient Buddhist arts at Kizil now, Zhao has been able to balance her Muslim upbringing and her Buddhism-related profession very well.

She and her colleagues have started arduous work compiling similar comprehensive records on the Simsem and Kizilgaha caves, which contain ancient Buddhist arts under the protection of the institute, according to Sheng Chunshou, the institute's current director.

"I thought I might have a few emotional conflicts when I started my research, but I've found peace, reaped rewards and worked out future goals, from my work," she said.

(China Daily 03/10/2001)

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