XINJIANG: Protecting ancient art

CCTV News

Ye Mei restoring a cave wall

From the series XINJIANG: Exploring China’s new frontier

The ancient Silk Road was not only a trade route, but also a corridor for ideas to flow. Today in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the major religion is Islam. Prior to the arrival of Islam, it was Buddhism. One of the greatest legacies from that time is the murals in the Grottoes of Qiuci, another name for the ancient kingdom of Kucha. As a part of our special series Xinjiang: Exploring China’s New Frontier, reporter Han Bin takes us to see the murals and what’s being done to restore them.

XINJIANG: Protecting ancient art

XINJIANG: Protecting ancient art

The ancient Silk Road was not only a trade route, but also a corridor for ideas to flow. Today in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the major religion is Islam. Prior to the arrival of Islam, it was Buddhism. One of the greatest legacies from that time is the murals in the Grottoes of Qiuci, another name for the ancient kingdom of Kucha. As a part of our special series Xinjiang: Exploring China’s New Frontier, reporter Han Bin takes us to see the murals and what's being done to restore them.

The paintings reveal a lost oasis on the Silk Road. For the past 18 years, Ye Mei has been investigating the secrets of the murals – created when Buddhism flourished in Xinjiang.

Ye Mei, director for the Institute of Qiuci Grottoes Protection has always been curious how murals drawn over 2,000 years ago have survived to this day – and how to protect them into the future.

She told us the grottoes house the cultural achievements of the region’s ancient ethnic groups. They show that ancient civilization was built on the integration of the dominant Buddhist culture with several other religious cultures.

Ancient mural

The murals are rich and diverse in content. But time and the elements have taken their toll.

The murals are rich and diverse in content. But time and the elements have taken their toll, and the actual number of grottoes and murals is still a mystery.

“Qiuci was a very inclusive and prosperous society. It was a key hub of the ancient Silk Road, a key melting pot for different cultures<‘ Ye Mei said. “These characteristics are fully reflected in the paintings. Like this figure: he’s a high-ranking nobleman, with short hair, a half-length robe, and a small sword.”

For a long time, Qiuci was the most populous oasis in the Tarim Basin. The Qiuci Grottoes are the most famous Buddhist art site in Xinjiang. The influence of the different civilizations from the West and the East were profound. The glory enjoyed over one thousand years ago still lingers today.

Caves where ancient murals are being restored

Every day, Ye Mei and her team are hard at work, high up in the mountains. Most of the caves are closed to the public.

The team keeps detailed records and identifies the cause of the damage to determine the best course of action. She says the speed of restoration cannot catch up with the speed of deterioration.

“Restoration is a daunting task, which needs extreme dedication, patience, and carefulness. It’s not a project to finish rashly,” Ye Mei said. “We strictly follow the concept of modern relic protection. We try to minimize human intervention, achieve material compatibility, and maintain historical authenticity. The techniques and material used in mural restoration are still in a long process of research. What we are using is obtained through years of testing and analysis.”

Closeup of ancient Buddhist mural

“Restoration is a daunting task, which needs extreme dedication, patience, and carefulness. It’s not a project to finish rashly,” Ye Mei said.

For Yei Mei, no detail is too small.

“The murals are a precious cultural heritage left by our ancestors. They are also a valuable world heritage that needs our great protection,” she said. “I will be their life-long companion. A little shake might remove a piece of history from the wall; my hands can also help stabilize them in the original form. This is my greatest joy. ”

Ye Mei wants to restore Qiuci as closely as possible to its former glory so that the legacy of the lost oasis can one day be viewed by all.