Fan Jinshi: Daughter of Dunhuang

2021-10-21 10:37:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter DU CHAO
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The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, China, began to be built during the reign of Emperor Fu Jian (338-385) of one of the 16 kingdoms in northern China. After construction spanning several dynasties, a sprawling structure was formed, including 735 caves, with 45,000 square meters of murals, and 2,415 clay painted sculptures which are of extremely high artistic value. The Mogao Grottoes were listed as a world cultural heritage by UNESCO in 1987.

The art treasures of the Mogao Grottoes have captivated generations of people, and it has also brought them to forge an indissoluble bond with Dunhuang. Among them, Fan Jinshi, former president and current honorary president of the Dunhuang Academy, the institution responsible for the conservation, management, and research of these grottoes, is an illustrative one.

Fan Jinshi is interviewed by China Central Television inside the Mogao Grottoes on October 23, 2004.

Intertwined with Dunhuang

Fan, whose ancestral home was Hangzhou, was born in Beijing on July 9, 1938. Her father was a graduate of Tsinghua University and passionate about Chinese classical art and culture. He hoped that his daughter would also be an intellectual, and so gave her the name “Jinshi” (literally meaning beautiful poetry).

Influenced by her father, Fan especially liked visiting museums to appreciate cultural relics when she was in middle school. Knowing that many cultural relics were unearthed through archaeological excavations, Fan did not need to ask her parents for advice when choosing her university major, and applied to the archaeology department in Peking University.

Speaking of her ties with Dunhuang, Fan described it as “accidental.” She went to Dunhuang in 1962 for the first time. Arranged by the school, Fan and three classmates went to the Dunhuang Institute of Cultural Relics (now Dunhuang Academy) to do some field work. The institute in her imagination, was supposed to be “a romantic and elegant place.” However, she was dumbfounded when she arrived there. The staff members there were all emaciated with sallow complexions and wore clothes that had faded from being washed many times. But as soon as she entered the cave and gazed at the vivid, mesmerizing murals on the walls, Fan was immediately amazed by its artistic beauty.

The year 1962 was crucial for Dunhuang. Then Premier Zhou Enlai instructed for the facilitation of a huge amount of money to start the cliff reinforcement project in the southern area of the Mogao Grottoes. Before the project started, it was necessary to excavate and clean up the archaeological remains. However, since there were no professional archaeologists in the institute, the institute requested Peking University for professionals to guide the excavation, and Fan became one of the two students that were assigned there.

Considering the hardships of the environment, Fan’s parents worried that their daughter who had grown up in a relatively comfortable environment in the city would not be able to endure these hardships, and thus opposed her working in Dunhuang. They eventually had to give in as she insisted on heading there. Before leaving, her father told her that since it was her own choice, she should give it her best. “My father’s words made me acknowledge the onset of maturity. One must have no regrets about one’s choices,” said Fan.

The living conditions were nothing short of squalid, to the extent that there was no electric power and lighting relied only on candlelight or torches. In the middle of the night, large mice on the ceiling beams squeaked and fell on the bed from time to time. “I would be lying if I said I was not distressed. Compared with Beijing, this was literally being in the middle of nowhere,” Fan said frankly.

The extremely difficult environment was quite challenging for Fan to acclimatize to, resulting in the deterioration of her health. Many people working there began to suffer from asthma and dirt retention in the lungs. However, when faced with this unforgiving environment, Fan resolutely chose to persevere. From mural disease control to cliff reinforcement, from environmental monitoring to sand control, Fan fulfilled her original aspiration and mission in all areas of Dunhuang preservation.

Tireless and Selfless

Fan and her university classmate Peng Jinzhang got married in Wuhan in 1966. Peng had been working at Wuhan University following graduation. After getting married, the two mostly ended up residing in separate places due to work commitments. Fan, initially thought of staying in Dunhuang for three years and completing the major tasks at hand during this period. However, she later found it was hard to leave the Mogao Grottoes and feared that its brilliance would not be able to shine better in the world. Fan always said to herself, “I will leave when the project at hand is completed.” Thus more than a decade passed by. The couple had to live apart for a long time.

Fan was appointed as the deputy director of the institute in 1977. As she became busier with her job, she and her husband shared even less time together than previously. Faced with this abnormal family life, in 1986 Peng, then in his late 40s, made the difficult decision to help his wife’s career by sacrificing his own. He resigned from his deputy director position at the Department of History of Wuhan University, which he had founded. Fan was deeply moved by her husband’s understanding and support. “He knew that I couldn’t live without Dunhuang. He made sacrifices.”

In 1998, Fan, who was 60 years old at the time, rose to the rank of president of Dunhuang Academy. Soon after taking office, many people proposed to make Mogao Grottoes listed and commercialized to promote tourism and boost western China’s economy.

Fan firmly disagreed. “The protection of cultural relics is a very complicated thing. What if they ruin this cultural heritage? There is only one Mogao Grottoes in the world.” She believes that it is her responsibility to protect the heritage left by the ancestors. “If the Mogao Grottoes are destroyed, then I will be remembered as a sinner in history.”

Fan Jinshi inspects the cliff reinforcement project in the northern area of the Mogao Grottoes on November 16, 2011.

Scientific and Innovative

Thanks to the efforts of Fan and her colleagues, the charm of Dunhuang has become increasingly visible and accessible for the world. With the increasing popularity of the region, the Mogao Grottoes have gradually attracted more and more attention from home and abroad. However, a new problem emerged — the number of tourists to Dunhuang soared to over 200,000 every year. Once, Fan sneezed due to the overwhelming fragrance of perfume when she was inspecting a cave, she realized that the murals are difficult to preserve and will continue to erode over time, and the corrosion of the murals by breathing, sweating, and aerosols from the increasing number of tourists exacerbates this process. Compared with the state of the murals 100 years ago, the colors have faded a lot, and the increasingly blurred murals worried her. “If tourists are prohibited from visiting and this treasure of mankind is sealed off, it would be quite a selfish act,” was the dilemma confronting Fan.

After conducting a great deal of research and discussion on how to protect the cultural relics and alleviate the impact of excessive tourism on the murals and colored sculptures, the Dunhuang Academy began to build a visitor service center in early 2003. At the center, visitors could obtain a comprehensive understanding of the cultural features, historical background, and cave composition of the grottoes through film, virtual tours, and exhibitions before entering the cave, and then be taken into the cave by a professional guide for further field visits.

“This not only allows tourists to glean more detailed cultural information in a shorter period of time, but also greatly eases the huge pressure on the preservation efforts of the Mogao Grottoes caused by excessive numbers of tourists,” said Fan.

Fan also proposed establishing a “digital Dunhuang” — making high-resolution digital images of caves, murals, colored sculptures, and all other cultural relics. Meanwhile, Dunhuang’s documents, research results, and related materials scattered around the world would be integrated into electronic files. “The murals are cultural relics that cannot be regenerated, nor are they eternal.” This prompted Fan to consider using “digitalization” to permanently preserve them. With a panoramic tour, everyone can take in the magnificent details of Mogao Grottoes at close range. To a certain extent, this is an experience that provides a richness and intimacy not possible on a crowded visit to the site itself.

After years of hard work, “Digital Dunhuang” was officially launched in 2016. Visitors to the website could now view a high-definition panorama of the 30 classic caves for free with just a click of the mouse, and if was almost as good as visiting the site in person. This not only satiates their desire to visit the Mogao Grottoes, but also reduces the damage caused by excessive tourism.

Fan’s contribution in promoting the preservation of Dunhuang has also been unanimously recognized by the academic community. Ji Xianlin, a famous academic expert in China, once praised Fan with one word: meritorious. This word suffices to explain her great contribution, and it is also a true portrayal of her achievements in protecting Dunhuang’s cultural relics.

From the national titles of a model member of Communist Party of China and model worker, to the prestigious “100 people that Touched China” award, Fan has won numerous accolades, but in her humble opinion, “This honor belongs to the Dunhuang Academy and belongs to all the staff. I understand this is due to China’s great emphasis on cultural relic preservation.”

Fan, who is now 83 years old, is still devotes much of her time and effort to protecting Dunhuang’s splendid cultural heritage. Her life and career have been dedicated to Dunhuang and the cause of national cultural relic protection.

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