The most splendid cave art was produced during the height of the early Tang dynasty from roughly 618 to 718, a period when the statues and mural paintings were the most sumptuous. In one tableau, which is rendered in greens, browns and beige, a wide-girthed, beautifully dressed Chinese emperor listens closely to a debate on Buddhist doctrine The artists, who usually painted with rabbit hairbrushes, achieved their rich colors by grinding and mixing mineral and organic pigments — red ocher, cinnabar, lapis lazuli — much as painters do today, according to Susan Whitfield, the director of the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library.
最灿烂的石窟艺术出现在唐初，大约在公元618年到718年之间，这期间创造的雕像和壁画最为瑰丽。在一个场景中，画师使用绿色、棕色和米色，描绘一位胖胖的、衣着精致的中国皇帝在认真倾听佛法辩论。大英图书馆(British Library)的国际敦煌项目(International Dunhuang Project)主任苏珊•惠特菲尔德(Susan Whitfield)说，这些画师通常使用兔豪毛笔，通过研磨和混合矿物，他们获得了层次丰富的色彩和有机颜料——赭红、朱砂、青金石——这与如今画家的做法相差不大。
After the Tang, there was a 70-year interlude of Tibetan rule, followed by a long line of local clans who commissioned life-size portraits of themselves. The Cao family, for example, loved their women, and had them painted on the cave walls with rouged cheeks, layers of splendid necklaces and voluminous gowns. Some of the caves used as chapels featured floor-to-ceiling paintings in lapis blue and earth reds that depict the life of the Buddha.
In several caves, scenes show daily village life: figures bathing, wheat being winnowed and preparations for a wedding ceremony. Some caves are as large as a small ballroom with high coffered ceilings covered with fields of patterns that give the illusion of draped fabric in a desert tent. Others feature deep niches with life-size sculptures of Buddha and his disciples. Much of the painting is devoted to Buddha, but it was also easy to imagine from the mortal figures in the murals that during its heyday Dunhuang was alive with traders dealing in silk, furs, ceramics, gold and ivory.
The size of some of the sculptures is startling. A 75-foot-tall Buddha stands bolt upright, carved from the rock face and covered in plaster, protected from the elements by the facade of the Nine-Story Temple. In a nearby cave, a 50-foot-long Buddha statue from the Tang dynasty lies on its side, tranquil in death, surrounded by paintings of anguished disciples.
On our second day — after being greeted by Ms. Gates's breakfast mantra, "Let's go to more caves" — we drove two hours in a minibus on a paved road to Yulin, a rock face that is also punctuated with caves. The desert and the distant snow-encrusted mountains along the route were a reminder of the terrain along the old Silk Road.
"This is one of the highlights," said Ms. Gates as we clambered with a young Chinese guide, Wang Yan, to Cave No. 3 at Yulin, a space measuring about 20 by 20 feet. Here the 10th-century artists painted with ink and brush in rich blues and greens the color of malachite. Landscapes with graceful waterfalls and willowy trees surrounded scores of Buddha's followers dressed in robes, their hair tightly knotted on top of their heads.
One follower, Samantabhadra, her face a portrait of calm, sailed through the landscape on the back of an elephant whose feet were planted on lotus leaves. It was such fine line painting. Who were the artists?, we asked. The artists were almost always anonymous, and many were just paid with food, Ms. Gates said.
At Yulin, we ate a delicious farm-cooked lunch at a no-name rustic restaurant set beside the Yulin River, a fast flowing, narrow stream. The menu came from the fields: elm tree seeds coated in flour and steamed; stir-fried green beans; steamed pumpkin slices; and soup with freshly made noodles and veal.
Back at the Mogao Caves, another local guide, Liu Qin, an art historian at the Dunhuang Academy, was eager to show us the spot where Warner ripped out the statue. In Cave No. 328, Mr. Liu showed us a Buddha set on a low platform surrounded by a half-dozen attendants. On the far left at an easy-to-reach height, one attendant is missing, a gap that destroys the symmetry of the tableau. A slightly raised gray plaster disc marks the place where Warner and his men removed the bodhisattva.
Mr. Liu was also anxious to take us to the place where Aurel Stein, a British historian, and Paul Pelliot, a French scholar, took thousands of books and manuscripts. Inside the entrance to Cave No. 17, Mr. Liu pointed to a small, nearly empty room where Stein found 7,000 manuscripts, including one of the world's oldest printed books, the Diamond Sutra, produced in 868. It is now at the British Library. Stein paid a local monk £130 for his booty. A little later, Pelliot took another substantial haul of scrolls for the Musée Guimet in Paris, and paid even less.
刘勤还热切地带我们参观了英国历史学家奥莱尔•斯坦因(Aurel Stein)和法国学者保罗•伯希和(Paul Pelliot)带走的数千份书籍及手稿所在的地方。在17号石窟入口处，刘勤指向一个很小而且几乎空荡荡的屋子，斯坦因在那里发现了7000份原稿，其中包括世界上历史最悠久的印刷书籍——公元868年印制的《金刚经》。《金刚经》现藏于大英图书馆(British Library)。斯坦因向一名当地僧侣支付了130英镑就带走了他所掠夺的物品。不久之后，伯希和以更低的价格带走了另一批书卷，送到巴黎的吉美艺术博物馆(Musée Guimet)。
In recent years, the Chinese authorities have said the treasures from Dunhuang now stashed abroad should be returned. That battle may be waged in the future. For the moment, the new director of the Dunhuang Academy, Wang Xudong, has a friendlier approach. Over lunch in his private dining room, Mr. Wang, who praised Ms. Gates's work, said he was intent on making Dunhuang not only a tourist attraction but also an international research center for scholars.
Unlike the Great Wall, a monument to China's strenuous efforts to keep outsiders at bay, ancient Dunhuang was inclusive, a fitting theme for the contemporary era of China's global reach.
"Dunhuang is a broader story,'' he said. "It shows China's willingness to interact with other cultures."