Monday, July 6, 2009

Accidental burials

The first place I absolutely needed to see for my current research
project was actually the second place on my itinerary: Jiayuguan,
which is home to a cluster of Wei-Jin painted tombs now open to the
public as a miniature underground museum. But Jiayuguan is only five
hours from Dunhuang, and it seemed like a waste to come so close to
the most significant collection of Buddhist temple art in Gansu and
not stop by for my first look in 11 years. The caves themselves are
relevant to my project, but the restrictions on access combined with
the fact that I saw so many of them in 1998 and the fact that Dunhuang
is so well published made them a sort of second-priority destination;
I was unlikely to get to see anything I hadn’t seen before. But on
the principle that it is always best to see the real thing, I went.
Dunhuang has also got some Wei-Jin painted tombs that are relevant to
my project, as well, but as far as I knew they were not open to the

I settled into a budget hotel in Dunhuang (with in-room internet! The
times, they are a-changin’) and got on the bus to the caves the next
morning, when the sandstorm had blown itself out. I enjoy looking out
the windows of trains and buses, and this was nothing different; but
sometimes it pays off in unexpected ways, as when I saw a large blue
placard by the side of the road directing visitors to the Foyemiaowan
Wei-Jin painted tombs. The existence of such a sign more or less
presupposes that the tombs are open to the public, and I decided to
make a point of visiting after I returned from the cave temples. The
caves were absolutely worth it, research-wise; I paid extra to see
some of the “special caves” and made a few minor but significant
discoveries. I also ran into one of the senior English tour guides,
Ms. Ma, who remembered me from 11 years previously. As she was the
only one I remembered from that time, it was nice to be remembered in
return. The exhibits in the rather deserted exhibition hall are
interesting, too, including many documents that have turned up during
the excavations of the less artistically interesting Northern Caves,
which were mostly used as residences for monks, and occasionally as
tombs. The documents include a double page from a Tang-era codex of
the Book of Psalms in Syriac script, which I was once inclined to see
more or less as just another Silk Road document. This time around I
was oddly moved to see a page of tehillim, well over a thousand years
old and very far indeed from Damascus. Syriac is, if I understand
correctly, a form of late Aramaic that was used in Syria and other
parts of the Near East. The appearance of Syriac in Tang China is
more likely to indicate a (Nestorian) Christian than a Jewish origin
for the book, but still it felt like a kind of connection, of a type
that I might not have felt in the past, and indeed might have scoffed

Having looked my fill, and eaten a dubious vegetarian lunch, I
returned to town on the public bus, and negotiated with a taxi driver
to take me to the tombs. As sometimes happens, the driver was a
talkative local, from a Dunhuang farming family, and his ongoing
narration was worth at least as much as the trip itself. He asked me
why I wanted to go to the tombs, and I explained that I was interested
in the paintings. He’d visited himself and allowed as how it was
worth going down for a look. “Of course, there’s nothing left down
there but the paintings,” he said. I said yes, they were mostly all
robbed long ago. “No kidding,” he said. “When I was a kid we used to
go digging them up and most of the time they were totally empty. I
bet those Tibetans [who occupied Dunhuang from the mid-eighth to the
mid-ninth century, more or less] dug up all the good stuff.”

The Foyemiaowan tombs are located just beyond the furthest extent of
arable land at the edge of the oasis. This is not only where
historical tombs are located, but modern burials take place there too,
as Dunhuang (unusually for a Chinese town) has no crematorium. There
is so much land which is good for little else that burials are not
prohibited as elsewhere in China. I asked my driver how the plots
(which are marked out with lines of stones or bricks on the gravelly
surface, and tumuli that are often reinforced with bricks or concrete)
were chosen. He said that people just went out and picked a spot,
which explains the marking-out of plots - it must be a way of keeping
recent burials from impinging on each other. The other thing that
always struck me about these burials was the way in which the ground
around them is often strewn with garbage: principally old clothing and
shoes. The driver said these are the belongings of the dead, which
are discarded after death because no-one dares to use them. I said
that this seemed wasteful (thinking especially of the usual thrift of
rural Chinese people, and their relative poverty) and he agreed, but
said that the belief in the inauspiciousness clinging to these things
was so strong that nobody could be convinced to wear clothing that had
belonged to a dead person. Similarly, he said that not every taxi
driver could be convinced to drive out to these tombs in the first
place; but since he had played and dug among them as a child, he
wasn’t phased.

The road to the tombs is a village road, bumpy dirt and gravel snaking
between agricultural fields. The driver explained that most of the
fields were planted with cotton, because of its value as a cash crop;
maize for food was planted in odd corners here and there. I asked,
rather ignorantly, if cotton wasn’t a rather thirsty crop for a desert
oasis, and he said that it wasn’t as bad as I thought; but he conceded
that water usage was approaching crisis levels in Dunhuang. “If we
don’t find a solution,” he said, “we’ll become a second Loulan.”
Loulan (Kroraina or Shanshan) is one of the lost cities of the Lop Nor
region of the eastern Taklamakan desert, abandoned in 330 CE when its
major water source, the Tarim River, changed course, and buried under
the dunes for a thousand years or so until its rediscovery by Sven
Hedin in 1899. It was a strangely precise Silk Road connection for a
local Dunhuang man to make, marked by a kind of sad historical self-
awareness. As the Crescent Moon Lake retreats under the dunes,
however, it is an increasing possibility for Dunhuang and its
burgeoning population.

The tomb itself was worth visiting, although I’m dubious of both its
location and what appears to be its partial reconstruction. I think I
can match it with one of the Foyemiaowan tombs in the original site
report (which I’d already read last month), but a number of details
appeared to have been enhanced for the benefit of visitors.
Similarly, the tour guide (who came with the ticket) provided several
interpretations of the iconography of the tomb which I found
unsupportable - i.e., they couldn’t be explained either by reference
to the images themselves or the original site report. If this
particular group of tombs were more central to my project, I would
want to figure out who had provided these explanations, and whether
there was unpublished material supporting them, or whether there’s
been a certain amount of spicing things up for the benefit of the
tourists. Still, to descend into it and see the way the space is
organized (with a little “kitchen” in a side room, complete with stove
and shelving) turned out to be important to understanding the images
on the walls; so that even with a much duller taxi driver, it would
have been worth the trip. It would have been much less fun, though.

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