Digitization efforts at Mogao Caves set the standard for protection and promotion of China's ancient culture
Virtual Nirvana
Published: Sep 14, 2022 08:00 PM
Editor's Note: 

Carrying the genes and spirit of a nation, cultural relics are irreplaceable resources for a thriving civilization. A huge number of Chinese relics have become more popular over the past 10 years, allowing people from around the world to better understand Chinese culture. To make these cultural relics come alive, the Global Times will feature a number of these "star" artifacts in this series. 

As Chinese President Xi Jinping has said, Chinese civilization, together with the colorful civilizations of other countries, should provide mankind with proper spiritual guidance and a strong spiritual impetus.

For our last entry in this series, we arrive at the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu Province.

Containing 735 caves full of Buddhist art, the Mogao Caves welcomes more than 1 million visitors every year. Currently, Chinese academicians are trying to figure out how to better use digital technology to make the splendid murals, sculptures and buildings at the site available for the world to enjoy while also ensuring they are preserved for generations to come.

Replica of the Buddha statues Photo: Courtesy of Beijing Minsheng Art Museum

Replica of the Buddha statues Photo: Courtesy of Beijing Minsheng Art Museum

 For more than 1,000 years, the murals and statues within the Mogao Caves have represented some of the best of Buddhist art in China. However, the centuries have not been kind, as the elements have taken their toll on some of the delicate artworks within the many grottoes and alcoves at the site. To better preserve this art while also making it accessible to people around the world, scholars at the site have been turning to digital technology to ensure these treasures can be enjoyed for centuries to come. 

As of 2022, the Dunhuang Academy, a national research institute dedicated to studying the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, has accomplished quite a great deal, completing digital photography of 278 caves, image processing of 164 caves and 3D reconstruction of 145 painted sculptures and also a total of seven ruins. Additionally, it has produced a panorama-tour program covering 162 caves and digitalized more than 50,000 film negatives of the caves' cultural relics.

In August, Yu Tianxiu, head of the academy's Institute of Cultural Relic Digitalization, discussed these digitalization achievements at the 2022 China Internet Civilization Conference.

Chinese academicians attending the conference emphasized that digital technology such as mobile digital exhibitions give those who cannot travel to Dunhuang the opportunity to appreciate these ancient treasures, so they have focused on developing methods to better combine digitalization and the caves.

Ever expanding range

The fruits of the digitalization efforts at the Mogao Caves have been accumulating over the years as the technology has continued to improve and expand to more fields such as publishing and creative cultural products.

Yu said that the caves' earliest digitalization efforts began in the early 1990s. 

At that time, the biggest debate revolved around what kind of technology should be used to archive the site. 

Since then the project has evolved greatly, coming to use advanced technology such as laser scanning that can detect millimeter-level differences on the surfaces of statues and  other works of art.

The results of the Digital Dunhuang project, which provides highly accurate photographs and scans of 30 of the caves, have been available to netizens around the world for free since 2016. At present, the Digital Dunhuang website has been visited by users in 78 countries, including the US, the UK, South Korea and Spain, and earned more than 16.8 million page views.

Restoration is a significant part of the digitalization project. 

Among the many caves at the site, one cave containing an important cache of documents was discovered in 1900. 

This so-called Library Cave has been one of the most important focuses of the digitalization project being carried out by the Dunhuang Academy and Chinese internet giant Tencent.

The every detail of the ancient paintings in the cave and other cultural relics were recreated at a 1:1 millimeter-level accuracy through laser scanning and photo reconstruction technology. 

Chinese cultural workers have also been creating digital cultural products based on the art of Dunhuang. The academy recently introduced a virtual figure named Jia Yao as the Mogao Caves' official virtual ambassador. 

The figure uses digital technology such as motion capture and AI programming to present an entertaining and lifelike avatar that can introduce the caves to the public, researchers at the academy told the Global Times.

Replica of the Buddha statues Photo: Courtesy of Beijing Minsheng Art Museum

Replica of the Buddha statues Photo: Courtesy of Beijing Minsheng Art Museum

Promising future

The Trace of Civilization exhibition held at the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum displays high-fidelity digital replicas of the Mogao murals, meeting the needs of people in Beijing who want to appreciate the caves without traveling thousands of kilometers to Dunhuang.

More exhibitions featuring digital replicas are expected in the future. As an experienced expert who has participated in digitalization projects at Beijing's Palace Museum, professor Fei Jun from Central Academy of Fine Arts believed that China is leading the world in this field.

Yu noted that digitalization projects will continue to being carried out and can be expanded to other cultural relics throughout the rest of China.