Thousands of years ago, four major ancient civilizations intermingled in one city, Dunhuang, located in what is now Northwest China's Gansu Province.
Nine Storey Tower in the Mogao Caves in Northwest China's Gansu Province Photo: IC
As a key hub along the ancient Silk Road, Dunhuang was once a thriving metropolis similar to today's Hong Kong or Shanghai, as numerous merchants from the West traveled through to the city to sell their wares during the Han (206BC-AD220) and Tang (618-907) dynasties. The city was truly cosmopolitan as people from different cultural and religious backgrounds coexisted harmoniously together.
It was also through this road that Buddhism spread to China, which is how Dunhuang's renowned Mogao Grottoes came into being.
In 336 BC, a monk named Le Zun traveled to Dunhuang. Upon his arrival, he saw glowing lights in the sky, which he considered as a sign from Buddha. He therefore decided to stay in Dunhuang, and began digging the first of the caves that make up the Mogao Grottoes.
Over the next 1,000 years, as Buddhism flourished in China, the faithful continued to dig out more caves, carving Buddhist statues and painting murals inside the caves.
A total of 735 caves were carved out from this 1,700-meter-long cliff. The caves contain more than 2,000 Buddhist sculptures and 45,000 square meters of murals depicting Buddhist art and life in ancient China.
In his many interviews with the Global Times over the years, Wang Xudong, director of the Dunhuang Research Academy, has remarked on how Dunhuang can serve as a source of inspiration for modern society, "If we could live and coexist here a thousand years ago, why can't we understand each other now?"
Wang said that he believes studying the cultural treasures in Dunhuang is sure to help people understand the connections between different cultures that existed then, and will help make Dunhuang become a cultural hub once again, especially with the influence of China's "Belt and Road" initiative.
In an interview with the Global Times on Thursday, Wang emphasized the importance of cooperating with other countries and regions for Dunhuang studies in China. He expressed his hopes that the B&R initiative will improve cooperation with B&R countries when it comes to improving Dunhuang research.
With his decades of experience in repairing murals inside the Mogao Grottoes, Wang says the academy is also willing to provide assistance in this field to B&R countries looking to preserve their own ancient paintings.
Since the 1980s, the academy has cooperated with experts from the US, the UK and Japan in the research, restoration and protection of the Mogao Grottoes.
Currently, the academy is cooperating with more countries, including France, Belgium, Russia and India. Wang also mentioned that this May an exhibition of Dunhuang murals will be exhibited at UN headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
While Dunhuang studies are making great progress, there is still a lot to be done, according to Wang.
A Guangming Daily article published in September 2016 pointed out that "the translation of Dunhuang studies is a weakness that is in urgent need of a solution."
Wang confirmed this situation, "Dunhuang research is rather difficult and can be dull. For translators looking to make money, the market is just too small, and so they are not willing to work in this field... This lack of translators specializing in Chinese Dunhuang studies has been a major roadblock for it to go abroad."
Wang explained that the academy is currently working on solutions when it comes to training translators.
In September 2016, the first Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo was held in Dunhuang.
Wang told the Global Times that the expo had a great impact on tourism in the city.
Last year, roughly 8 million domestic and foreign tourists traveled to Dunhuang, a year-on-year increase of nearly 21 percent, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
This number is sure to continue to rise, which in turn has the potential to create more challenges for the academy when it comes to protecting the Mogao Grottoes, which are also a hot tourist spot.
Painted more than 1,000 years ago on conglomerate rock, the murals over the centuries have suffered from severe damage from both natural and man-made causes. The murals are so delicate that even the slightest change in humidity or light levels - which large amount of tourists are sure to affect - could lead to more damage.
Controlling the number of visitors entering the caves at one time is key to protecting the murals. Since the number of tickets available each day is limited, Wang emphasized that all visitors should book tickets online, or else they risk not being able to enter the Mogao Grottoes that day.
Wang also revealed that the academy is cooperating with neighboring cities and towns when it comes to tourism so that tourists will have plenty of other activities to keep themselves occupied instead of everyone rushing straight to the grottoes.
The academy is also working on more modern ways to visit the grottoes. A digital museum is already available online. In this way, visitors from all around the world have access to 360 panorama views of the caves and can look at high resolution scans of the murals.