by Calisa Cole

While less known than the Great Wall, the Forbidden City or the terra cotta warriors of Xian, one of China’s greatest cultural treasures is the expansive network of caves near the town of Dunhuang on the southern lip of the Gobi Desert. Dunhuang was a legendary stopover point along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that connected imperial China with the cultures of central Asia and the Mediterranean.

Map showing ancient Silk RoadMap showing ancient Silk Road extending from Southern Europe to China. Land routes are red, water routes are blue.  (Source: Wikipedia)

Known as the Mogao Grottoes, the caves house an astounding range of artwork, mostly Buddhist murals and sculptures, from the heyday of the Silk Road. NVIDIA recently became engaged in an initiative to offer visual computing advice and support to the Dunhuang Academy, which is charged with the preservation, research and promotion of the Mogao Grottoes.

The Academy has embarked on an ambitious project to digitize the art and relics in the caves, including murals, statues and monuments that are up to two thousand years old. As a first step in NVIDIA’s relationship with the Academy, NVIDIA Quadro solutions are being used to display high-resolution 3D images of the art in a domed theater prototype.

A group from the Academy, including its director, Fan Jinshi, who has spent 50 years of her life on work related to preserving the caves, visited NVIDIA last week to meet with CEO Jen-Hsun Huang and other team members. Director Fan explained that the Academy’s objective is to create beautiful, highly-accurate multimedia presentations of the art, which will be displayed in two domed theaters in a new Visitors Center being built near the caves. This will allow visitors to view the art treasures in greater detail while reducing overall foot traffic in the caves. The digitization initiative ultimately will enable the Academy to share the collection virtually with art historians and enthusiasts around the world, both on the web and via a traveling theater.

Dunhuang Cave 428 A look inside Dunhuang Cave 428, built ~1500 years ago. (Source: Dunhuang Academy)

Director Fan said, "The relics in the grottoes are precious and irreplaceable. Our goal is to preserve them for as long as possible… The digitized images will provide scholars with more convenient access to materials for their research on Dunhuang Studies, as well as a permanent record for future generations to enjoy."

Stay tuned for more news about this initiative from NVIDIA and other Dunhuang Academy partners.

Dunhuang highlights:

  • The grottoes were constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries when Dunhuang was a thriving trading hub along the ancient Silk Road.
  • Today they represent the best preserved and largest Buddhist art collection in the world.
  • The caves are situated along a cliff face that is 1680 meters long from north to south.
  • 492 caves have decoration and/or statues; there are 45,000 square meters of murals and 2415 stucco statues in total.

Further reading:

  • National Geographic has just published a fascinating article on Dunhuang, along with stunning photos, which you can read here.
  • Read an account by a New York Times art reporter here.
  • Learn more about the digitization initiative here.
  • See info about the new Visitors Center here.