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Eighty years in the making, a newly published photo archive of Dunhuang’s ancient grottoes offers researchers and readers a rare glimpse of vanishing treasures of Buddhist art

By Wang Yan , Li Jing Updated May.1

Fantasy Buddha Palace, a movie shown at Mogao Caves Digital Exhibition Center, shows visitors the seven digital caves of the Mogao Grottoes, on July 8, 2015

The first time Dora C. Y. Ching saw the Lo Archive’s Dunhuang photos at a graduate seminar 30 years ago, three photos immediately stood out: a detail of a running bull from Cave 249 and two images of Vimalakirti – a revered practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism – in Caves 220 and 103.  

“We studied these images to analyze painting styles, brushwork, and the use of color,” Ching, associate director of Tang Center for East Asian Art at Princeton University, told NewsChina in early November 2021.  

The Lo Archive is an important collection of over 3,000 photographs of the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang, Gansu Province taken in 1943 and 1944. They are the monumental feat of photographer James C. M. Lo (1902- 1987) and his wife Lucy L. Lo, who is 102 this year.  

As an ancient trade and cultural exchange hub between China and Central Asia, Dunhuang was an important center of Buddhism and a pilgrimage site. Southeast of the city lies the Mogao Caves complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Stunning Buddhist sculptures and murals fill its hundreds of caves, carved from cliffs between 366 BCE and the 14th century CE. Further east sits the Yulin Caves, another richly decorated site containing some of the world’s finest Buddhist iconography.  

Ching described her first visit to Dunhuang in 1993 as magical. “I’d seen photos, but nothing prepared me for experiencing the caves,” Ching told Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post in July 2021. “Walking into a dark, cool cave – no matter how hot it was outside – and viewing the cave by flashlight transported me to a different time, where I was immersed, completely surrounded, by Buddhist murals and sculptures. It felt like I’d entered a different realm.”  

To her surprise, the running bull that impressed her most in the Lo Archive was a small ornamental detail on the northern wall of Cave 249. Enamored by the grandeur and magnitude of the art, she devoted her life to studying Dunhuang’s caves and the Lo Archive. 

Arduous Journey 
The Lo Archive is the most systematic and complete photo documentation of Dunhuang Grottoes before 1949. It covers almost all the accessible caves and offers valuable glimpses into Dunhuang’s history.  

In 1943, as the National Dunhuang Art Institute (now the Dunhuang Academy) prepared to open, founder Chang Shuhong invited James Lo, a photojournalist from the Central News Agency, to take photographic records of Dunhuang.  

That same year, as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression raged on (1931- 1945), James and Lucy Lo spent 18 months in Dunhuang shooting their unprecedented collection of photos.  

Out in the remote desert, many caves were inaccessible. “Prior to embarking on their journey to Dunhuang, they had to plan what supplies they would need and buy all of it – again, no small feat during a war,” Ching told NewsChina. “They also faced many unknowns, such as how they were going to arrange for transportation, what they’d find in Dunhuang, preparing enough film stock and chemicals and how were they going to live.”  

Lucy Lo told Ching stories from their time at the site. To light the dark caves, James Lo carefully placed mirrors and white screens to funnel sunlight from the entrance. To stretch their limited supply of film, he sometimes shot two different images on a single negative. James also diverted a nearby mountain stream with bamboo piping to a tank fashioned from porcelain fragments to develop the negatives on-site.  

Despite the harsh conditions, the Los shot almost all the caves they could access. Besides panoramas of entire cave murals, they took close-ups of individual Bodhisattvas and other images. “The Lo Archive holds great value not only for its preservation of the historical images of the exteriors of the Dunhuang caves, but also for comparative analysis of the caves’ contents,” Dr. Zhao Shengliang, Party secretary of the Dunhuang Academy, said in a 2014 article in Chinese journal Dunhuang Research.  

Zhao cataloged the Lo Archive: 2,872 photos from 327 Mogao Caves with 146 exterior photos, and 187 photos from 21 Yulin Caves with 16 exterior photos.  

Additionally, there are photos of local people, cultural relics surrounding Mogao, Dunhuang and the nearby Crescent Moon Spring.  

In the second half of 1944, the Los returned to China’s wartime capital of Chongqing, where they developed photographs for exhibitions at the National Dunhuang Art Institute in Nanjing and Shanghai. Because of the war, they moved from Chongqing to Nanjing and then to Taiwan before finally emigrating to the US in the early 1960s.  

Lo sought opportunities to publish his photos, but was unsuccessful in his lifetime. 
Through efforts by generations of Chinese and Western scholars, the Lo Archive was finally compiled into the book series Visualizing Dunhuang: The Lo Archive Photographs of the Mogao and Yulin Caves published by Princeton University Press in June 2021. It was released in China in September the same year.  

“In 2008, the Tang Center embarked upon a project to publish the archive of James and Lucy Lo’s 1943-1944 photographs of the Mogao and Yulin Caves near the ancient trade center of Dunhuang, along with a set of scholarly essays. In the decade that followed, the project underwent many changes,” the preface reads. 

The book Visualizing Dunhuang: The Lo Archive Photographs of the Mogao and Yulin Caves (2021)

Photo of paintings on the southern wall of Cave 285, in Visualizing Dunhuang

Preservation Efforts 
According to Ching, her graduate advisor Wen Fong, professor emeritus of Chinese art history at Princeton University, was the first scholar to champion the Lo Archive. Professor Fong met James and Lucy Lo in 1964 in New York City while the couple held an exhibition of their work at the World’s Fair. The exhibit included painted renderings of their Dunhuang photos, created by projecting negatives onto paper and tracing the outlines. Impressed with their work, Fong commissioned a set of prints for Princeton University.  

In 1968, Professor Fong invited Lucy Lo to curate the Far Eastern Seminar Collections at Princeton University’s Department of Art and Archaeology. She worked at Princeton for the next two decades, curating exhibitions at the Art Museum, mentoring graduate students and sharing stories about her time in Dunhuang.  

As the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was in full swing, making it nearly impossible for US scholars to see the murals in person, the Lo Archive was the most important resource for studying Dunhuang’s art.  

After China’s reform and opening-up began in 1978, academic exchanges between China and US picked up. In 1992, Duan Wenjie, who was president of the Dunhuang Academy, visited Princeton as a visiting scholar. Ching visited Dunhuang in 1993 and 1994.  

In 2001, the Tang Center for East Asian Arts Studies opened at Princeton. The following year, Ching became deputy director of the center. While at the international symposium “Dunhuang Manuscripts and Paintings: An International Symposium to Commemorate the Los” held by Princeton University in 2007, Ching first approached Lucy Lo about publishing her photos.  

“Then in 2008 I brought up the possibility of publishing the Lo Archive at the Tang Center, even though I had to complete many other projects before focusing on the Lo Archive,” Ching told NewsChina. “Professor Fong supported our endeavor to publish the Lo Archive, and his single most important contribution was introducing us to Zhao Shengliang of the Dunhuang Academy.” 

Startling Discovery 
The Lo Archive is not the only Dunhuang resource from the first half of the 20th century. 

In 1900, Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu accidentally discovered the caves, which had been obscured by centuries of sandstorms. From 1907 until 1948, at least 14 expeditions visited Dunhuang, including Hungarian-British archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein in 1907 and French explorer Paul Pelliot. Stein took 46 photos in the Mogao Caves. Pelliot took 399 photos and published the book Les Grottes de Touen-houang (The Grottoes of Dunhuang), a record of the Mogao Caves’ appearance not long after their discovery. 
However, the Lo Archive contains more photos than those from the 14 expedition teams combined. “Most of [the expeditions] did not focus on photographing the grot toes,” Sun Zhijun, associate researcher of the Dunhuang Academy, wrote in his article for Dunhuang Research in April 2017. “Restricted by equipment, conditions and environment, it was difficult [for them] to get many clear photos.”  

After over 1,000 years, the Mogao Caves have changed both inside and out. Decades of direct exposure to air have decayed and faded some murals uncovered in the early 1940s. Fortunately, the Lo Archive offers clear and artistic images of the murals and icons. “The Archive is a treasure trove of historical information for researchers, art historians and conservationists, as it presents a now vanished perspective of the caves from the 1940s,” Ching said.  

In 2010, Zhao Shengliang spent six months with the Tang Center for East Asian Art as a visiting scholar, reviewing and cataloging the Lo Archive’s 3,221 photos. He confirmed the content of each photo, the cave and its location, and dated the murals. “He provided foundational research that was essential to our project. After he became director of the Dunhuang Academy, he continued to support our project,” Ching said. 

In the spring of 2011, the Tang Center for East Asian Art organized a series of seminars on the Lo Archive and Dunhuang, inviting top scholars from across the world. Over the next decade, dozens of Chinese and foreign scholars with backgrounds from Dunhuang studies and history to art and architecture edited the Lo Archive book series. In June 2021, the Tang Center published Visualizing Dunhuang, the photo archive in nine volumes with an additional volume of essays.  

Ching, who is lead editor of Visualizing Dunhuang, told NewsChina she is using the series as assigned reading for her undergraduate course “Dunhuang: Buddhist Art and Culture on the Silk Road” at Princeton University this spring.  

“I hope my students will understand and appreciate the Lo Archive as a vast repository of rare photographs that are documentary and artistic, providing materials for research and revealing the unique skills and aesthetic vision of James Lo,” Ching said. “Visualizing Dunhuang presents the Lo Archive photographs chronologically and cave by cave, making it possible for students to gain a sense of the Dunhuang Caves as a site and, through the photographs, to browse 1,000 years of construction, paintings, and sculptures to discover topics that interest them.”

Picture of a Buddhist sculpture in Visualizing Dunhuang

Pictures of Dunhuang caves in Visualizing Dunhuang