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Keeping Apsaras Flying

HANGZHOU, August 14 -- With two spinning coloured flowers in the middle, two flying apsaras, one on either side, hold their palms together in front of their chests, their countenances calm and their legs pointing to the sky with blue ribbons gently fluttering behind in the air. Around them are falling lotus flowers and various clouds of red and blue, according to today's China Daily.

This is one of Yang Dongmiao's favourite copies of the famous Dunhuang murals.

"Flying apsaras look so elegant and free, like angels, to me. They are a dream, " said the Hangzhou-based artist in her early 30s. Crazy about Dunhuang apsaras, Yang's real dream is to reproduce all Dunhuang murals according to what they originally looked like.

At her ongoing solo exhibition of Dunhuang mural reproductions in the capital city of East China's Zhejiang Province, this colourful painting of two descending apsaras is probably the most attractive among the more than 100 works.

It does not matter whether people have personally been to Dunhuang in the west of the country, where the world's most outstanding murals were found, or not, because visitors are deeply fascinated by the paintings' rich colour, their graceful shape and the wisdom of the original painters.

They could hardly imagine that the original thousand-year-old murals in Dunhuang have in fact far faded beyond recognition.

As the west end of the Hexi Corridor in western China's Gansu Province, Dunhuang used to be one of the most important stops on the ancient Silk Road that connected China with West Asia and Europe.

In AD 366, a monk named Le Zun came to Dunhuang. He considered the place a sacred spot and bored a huge cave in the cliff.

In the thousand years that followed, the opening of caves never stopped in Dunhuang until the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) , leaving more than 1, 000 grottoes with innumerable Buddhist sculptures and murals inside.

However, the surviving caves have been reduced over time to only 492. The breathtaking murals of various different dynasties that can still be made out are confined to some 5, 000 square metres and about 2, 000 sculptures.

Unfortunately, even for the limited surviving works, they are no longer what they used to look like after thousands of years of weathering and oxidation plus human-inflicted damage and destruction.

Walking into Yang's huge exhibition room is almost like placing oneself in the midst of a brand new grotto in Dunhuang.

All on the correct scale, the copies filled the walls, taking viewers on an interesting journey to the incredible Dunhuang murals.

According to the artist, items in the 20-day exhibition account for only 5 per cent of all the murals in Dunhuang. To finish them might take 50 to 60 years.

"But I am ready, " said Yang. "By reproducing those murals, I want to give people a better idea about what they used to look like when they were first painted in Dunhuang more than 1, 000 years ago, so more people will be able to enjoy this dying cultural and artistic legacy left to us by our forefathers."

Many years ago when Yang was still a little girl of seven or eight, she said the same words to herself. Yang's father, Yang Tongle, is one of China's earliest Dunhuang experts. She spent much of her childhood in Dunhuang with her father.

The mysterious place has never lost its interest to her.

"I do not know. It is something that I can hardly summarize in words that has been drawing me closer and closer to Dunhuang from childhood," said Yang.

"For some reason, I was especially attracted to Dunhuang's flying apsaras and various kinds of patterns on the grotto ceilings, " said the artist. "They look so beautiful, yet so strange."

One day, Yang asked a colleague of her father "Why do those murals look so strange Why are the leaves green while the flowers are black " "You are right. They must not have looked like this in ancient times, " answered the old man.

He told Yang that it was because that artists at the time used a special natural pigment, which was extracted from plants, to create the colour of red. This kind of pigment contained certain amount of white lead, which easily changes into black after some thousand years.

"Oh, what a pity! They could have been so beautiful, " she exclaimed.

She started by copying the beautiful ceiling patterns.

"I was often excited for days whenever I completed one copy, changing the black flowers back into red, " said Yang in triumph.

From then on, it became Yang's hobby to copy Dunhuang murals, which followed her all the way to Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts, where she spent four years of college life studying Chinese painting.

Although the academy focused attention more on the Chinese ancient art in the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Yang never gave up her interest in the earlier Dunhuang mural art.

One day, she told her father that she was going to reproduce all the Dunhuang murals.

To her great surprise, her father discouraged her despite being the one who first introduced her to the historic culture.

"Reproducing Dunhuang is a mammoth project which not only takes up huge amount of money, but also time. This is not something that young people like yourself could complete, " he said.

Old Yang had his reasons. In history, reproducing Dunhuang murals was started by eminent Chinese painter Zhang Daqian in the 1940s. He made himself worldly famous with his most exquisite reproductions of Dunhuang murals. But for some reason, Zhang only continued for three years.

After Zhang, many artists also tried to reproduce the Dunhuang murals. However, their works either copied the murals in their present state or the renovated versions. As a result, the "black flowers" were still black in their works.

At the age of 20, Yang chose a method that was the most difficult to all - to represent the murals in their original colour, shape and size.

"Many people questioned her, fearing that it was no more than a childish joke. But she told me that she couldn't be more serious than that and I was deeply touched, " said Jin Weidong, Yang's husband.

It may be the special pioneering spirit that Jin found in Yang that finally made him give up his former job in tourism to help his wife complete her dream.

"If in the first few years, she was still mostly working out of her passion, then in the past 10 years, she was working more from a sense of responsibility and duty, " said Jin.

They got married in 1995 and started their career with some US$60, 000 of funds in a large abandoned warehouse in a southern suburb of Xi'an, where they lived until they moved to Hangzhou about one year ago.

The couple's life was simple. The husband was in charge of collecting reference materials and consulting experts, while the wife was the main painter.

They began with Dunhuang's ceiling designs, the easiest.

Then, they worked on murals about how Buddha preached the Law, which give the views of a Land of Ultimate Bliss in Buddhism.

"This is a little more complicated than the ceiling patterns, but the most difficult part is the illustrative murals for Buddhist Scriptures, " said Yang.

According to the artist, a normal illustration fresco usually contained about 100 people, not to say a large one with sometimes 300-400 people.

"As most of the ceiling patterns are symmetrical, I can still guess how it might look like on the right side, say, according to its left side, if the mural is blurring. But for illustrative murals, it is almost impossible to guess, because every part of the picture is different," said Yang.

"We had to consult many experts and books before we could finally make sure that everything going on to the painting is correct," said Jin.

Now the couple have already completed 10 illustrations where even the smallest one cost them three months.

In their own words, they still have a long way to go, as there are altogether 350 such murals to be restored.

"It's true that it is a very arduous experience to restore all those illustration murals, but it is also the most interesting part." said Yang.

Since 1999, Yang has exhibited her works in Xi'an, Shenzhen and now Hangzhou. Her ambition has also received enthusiastic support from related departments and people from all walks of life.

In their brand new studio in Hangzhou, which is provided by a Shanghai company, Yang and Jin are still living as simple as they can. For them, nothing could be more attractive than Dunhuang murals.

"It is no longer just a childhood passion for me, but a way of life. It might be boring some of the time, but it will always be my dream and that inspires me every time I think about it, " said Yang.

-- source: Xinhua News Agency

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