Dunhuang Academy engineers honored for outstanding dedication to preservation of history
Groundbreaking achievement
Published: Feb 06, 2024 09:38 PM
Mogao caves in Northwest China's Gansu Province Photo: VCG

Mogao caves in Northwest China's Gansu Province Photo: VCG

To safeguard the cultural heritage of ancient murals, cave temples and archaeological sites, a dedicated group of professionals, firmly rooted in the vast desert, engaged in a relentless dance with time, willingly exchanging their youth for the preservation of cultural treasures. Their devotion is counted by generations, finally restore the glorious face of the Mogao caves masterpiece in Northwest China's Gansu Province. 

This is the Dunhuang Academy engineering team, the sole cultural recipient bestowed with the prestigious title of "National Outstanding Engineering Team" among 50 celebrated teams on January 19 at the National Engineering Award ceremony in Beijing. 

"This honor belongs to the whole cultural relics industry," the team representatives told the Global Times in an exclusive interview, full of gratitude. 

"We feel greatly encouraged and will continue to work hard, inherit China's excellent traditions, and make new and greater contributions to the protection of cultural heritage," the team said in a statement, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

Deserving the award 

Looking at the team's history, it becomes evident that their contributions to the conservation of the Dunhuang caves are truly deserving of this national award. The Mogao Caves, with 735 caves, 45,000 square meters of murals, and more than 2,000 painted sculptures, stand as a cultural sanctuary at the western end of the Hexi Corridor. After centuries of neglect, the Dunhuang Academy, established in the early 1940s, has played a pivotal role in rescuing and revitalizing the Mogao Caves.

From its establishment of the conservation research group in 1944, undertaking tasks such as the removal of accumulated sand, mural restoration and cliff reinforcement in the Dunhuang Caves; to the comprehensive initiation of conservation research in the grottoes in 1984; and later, the establishment of the Dunhuang Caves Monitoring Center in 2014, the Dunhuang Academy has gradually formed a high-quality team of approximately 200 technical personnel, integrating production, learning, research and application, in its conservation practice, Guo Qinglin, a deputy dean of the Dunhuang Academy, told the Global Times.

Guo noted that cultural heritage protection knows no geographical boundaries. The team has expanded its focus from early conservation and cliff protection to preventive protection, digital preservation and comprehensive management. Over the years, the Dunhuang Academy evolved into a comprehensive institution, becoming a vital force in cultural heritage protection. They have developed groundbreaking techniques for the conservation of ancient murals, painted sculptures, and archaeological sites. Their innovative solutions have been applied to significant heritage sites, such as the Mogao Caves and Maijishan Grottoes in Gansu Province, Yongle Palace in North China's Shanxi Province, and Potala Palace in Southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, saving endangered ancient murals and sculptures in 13 provinces, autonomous regions and cities.

The team has also pioneered protective measures for archaeological excavation sites, creating a new model for safeguarding fragile artifacts in the field. The establishment of the Dunhuang Academy's mobile laboratory has allowed for on-site mapping, environmental monitoring, and artifact protection analysis, supporting the conservation of artifacts at 13 excavation sites, including the Shimao ruins site in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province. This experimental platform and its operational model have been extended to more than 100 archaeological projects in more than 10 provinces.

Sharing Chinese experience

Yu Zongren, director of conservation research institute at Dunhuang Academy, told the Global Times that many team members have worked decades in the Dunhuang caves, with the longest-serving member having had more than 40 years of experience, and the youngest boasting a decade of experience.

"Restoring artifacts requires patience and concentration. A restorer can only repair a few square meters in a year," Yu said.

Restoration work is not easy, but  team members share a common identity as advocates of the "Dunhuang spirit," a spirit that embodies the relentless pursuit of preserving cultural heritage for future generations.

The team envisions future collaboration with a broader perspective, sharing their successful ideas, experiences and practices with global counterparts, while also learning from the experiences of others. Amid collaborations with top global teams in ancient mural and archaeological site conservation, the Dunhuang Academy's Cultural Heritage Conservation Team embodies the principle of mutual learning and development. 

Currently, the Dunhuang Academy's cultural heritage conservation team has become a global player, fostering strategic collaborations with countries such as India, Cambodia, Nepal, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. These agreements have laid a solid foundation for the international reputation of their protective technologies and contribute to the joint preservation of cultural heritage along the Belt and Road Initiative.

According to Guo, the team's current tasks are formidable, akin to "medical professionals" battling against time to preserve the precious cultural heritage left by our ancestors.

With robust support from the government, the team aspires to establish a national key laboratory for cultural heritage protection. This laboratory will focus on researching deterioration mechanisms, preventive protection, and both fundamental and applied research, fostering close collaboration between research-oriented and skill-oriented talents. 

"Cultural heritage protection is an eternal endeavor, with no endpoint but constant improvement. Our ultimate goal is to better protect and pass down humanity's invaluable cultural heritage, propelling the Dunhuang Academy's cultural heritage conservation efforts to new heights," he said.