From the Silk Road to New Jersey

By Martin LaflammeMarch 18, 2022

From the Silk Road to New Jersey

Visualizing Dunhuang: The Lo Archive Photographs of the Mogao and Yulin Caves by Dora C. Y. Ching

THE OASIS OF Dunhuang in China’s western Gansu province never blossomed into a mighty metropolis. Its location was too remote, its climate too dry, its immediate surroundings too unforgiving. For most of its existence, which has spanned more than 2,000 years, it was a small border town, a trade and military outpost of Chinese civilization on the doorstep of Central Asia. Hemmed in by the Gobi Desert to the northeast, the Tibetan Plateau to the south, and the Taklamakan Desert to the west, it was the last stop in China proper for travelers heading west. It was a psychological frontier too: according to local lore, the surrounding wastelands teemed with djinns and fairies. Only the brave dared to venture far beyond the city limits.

One of these courageous souls was Lezun, a Chinese monk, who, in 366 CE, arrived on the outskirts of Dunhuang on his way to India, where he hoped to deepen his understanding of Buddhism. The creed, still relatively new at the time, had emerged on the subcontinent, between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE, before entering the Middle Kingdom by way of Central Asia during the latter half of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). During Lezun’s lifetime, Buddhism had finally started to gain a foothold among the aristocracy and educated elites, but the most important centers of scholarship remained in India. It was there that adherents of the new faith went to seek knowledge and sacred manuscripts.

Dunhuang, China and Central Asia. Princeton University.

As it turns out, Lezun never made it past Dunhuang. When he approached the town at dusk, a light appeared on a nearby mountain. Hundreds of Buddhas presently burst forth in a golden halo, surrounded by celestial nymphs fiddling tunes on a bevy of instruments. This could only be a sign, Lezun thought, an intimation on the part of Lord Buddha himself that he go no further. Before long, a stele from 698 CE tells us, Lezun wandered into the desert and hollowed out a meditation cell in the cliff from where the Buddhas in his visions had emerged. It was the first of the famous Thousand Buddha Grottoes, also known as the Mogao Caves.

Over the next millennia, hundreds of other chambers were dug out. At Mogao alone, there are now at least 700, but many more exist at different locations in the region surrounding Dunhuang. Their historical and artistic significance is enormous. For instance, while very little remains elsewhere in China of the art created in the second half of the first millennium, particularly during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), spectacular paintings have been preserved in Dunhuang. At Mogao alone, 45,000 square meters of murals can still be seen, though not all date from Tang times. In many caves, every inch of space — walls, pillars, beams, alcoves, ceilings — is decorated with colorful religious imagery: frolicsome apsaras flutter next to serene bodhisattvas, deities bedecked with all manner of jewelry beam down on devotees, and bright halos of fire surround statues of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. There are also sculptures, tiny figures tucked away in narrow niches in some cases, giant ones filling entire rooms in others. Most impressive of all is a 35-meter-tall seated Buddha constructed in 695 CE. Put simply, Mogao hosts the best preserved and largest repository of Tang art in China. It is also one of the most spectacular Buddhist sites anywhere in the world.

James and Lucy Lo in the antechamber of Mogao Cave 85. Lo Archive photograph, 1944. Princeton University.

When photojournalist James C. M. Lo (1902–1987) and his wife, Lucy (b. 1920), arrived in Dunhuang in May 1943 to photograph the caves, many were in poor shape. At Mogao, parts of the cliff had collapsed, bringing down sections of the wooden galleries that had originally provided access to the top chambers. The highest ones, stacked on top of three lower layers of cells, were completely inaccessible. In other cases, doors and windows had been removed, exposing the murals inside to the elements. A few caves had been vandalized while others had their contents looted. Even so, much of the magic remained. There were even a small number of monks who still lived on-site.

Over the course of the following months, the Los proceeded to create the most comprehensive photographic record of Mogao ever attempted until that time — they also took pictures of the Yulin Caves 170 kilometers to the east. The result is a rich and unique archive, consisting of more than 2,800 negatives along with drawings and contact plates. For decades, few had access to any of this material, but last year the holdings were finally published by Princeton University Press in a comprehensive nine-volume set called Visualizing Dunhuang.

Bringing the project to fruition was no easy task and took 13 years to complete. Under the guidance of Dora C. Y. Ching, the associate director of the Tang Center for East Asian Art at Princeton University, boxes upon boxes of negatives had to be sorted out, digitized, analyzed, cataloged, and prepared for publication. In parallel, Ching led an international team of scholars to prepare comprehensive site diagrams, elevation maps, and 3D architectural models of the various cave types, all of which have been reproduced in the set. Alongside are essays exploring the significance of the archive from a variety of perspectives, particularly art and architectural history. The pièce de résistance are the more than 3,000 photographs, many of which have a unique aesthetic quality that makes them works of art in their own right. At $1,500, the price for the entire collection is admittedly steep, but those with an interest in Buddhism and Silk Road history who can afford it or are able to consult it at a public or university library will be richly rewarded. When all is said and done, Visualizing Dunhuang is an extraordinary feat of scholarship.


As an important entrepôt on the Silk Road, Dunhuang was a cauldron of cultures. In 1900, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu conducting renovations at Mogao chanced upon a massive cache of documents. Walled up for about a thousand years, the “Dunhuang Library,” as it is now known, was a treasure trove of manuscripts dating from the fourth to 11th centuries CE. It contained Buddhist sutras in Chinese, Sanskrit, Khotanese, old Uyghur, Tibetan, and various other languages. There were also tracts on Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, two faiths which had been popular in Central Asia, as well as Nestorian Psalms in Syriac and a variety of other papers of a secular nature, like contracts and transaction receipts.

Not all caves were hiding such prizes, but Dunhuang was not a singularity either. It was part of a large network of religious sites, many of them grottoes, which connected China with Central Asia, Eastern Iran, and, most importantly, Northern India, where the tradition of hewing sanctuaries out of rock originated. The city of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which made headlines in 2001 when the Taliban pulverized its prodigious stone Buddha, was an integral part of this transnational community until Islam firmly took hold in the ninth century.

There is no indication that James Lo knew much of that history, nor that he had any particular interest in Dunhuang prior to the early 1940s. His interest was piqued, however, when friends in the United Kingdom unexpectedly sent him a portfolio of Mogao photographs taken by Aurel Stein (1862–1943), a Hungarian-born British explorer who twice journeyed to the area, first in 1907 and again in 1914.

Admired in his day, Stein is now a controversial figure. In China, many see him as a freebooter, a shameless imperialist who robbed the nation of its treasures. True, over three expeditions, he gathered cartloads upon cartloads of artifacts — paintings, books, clay tablets, pottery, coins, embroidery and much more — which are now in the British Museum and other institutions around the world. In Mogao alone, he collected thousands of manuscripts from the Dunhuang Library, which he bought from Wang Yuanlu, who then used the funds to renovate some of the caves.

Stein, however, was not acting in secret, and his work was conducted with the full knowledge and support of Chinese authorities. What’s more, he developed a close relationship with many officials and even spent long hours with some of them, showing off his finds and discussing their significance. In The Compensations of Plunder, an insightful study published in 2020, Justin Jacobs argued that if Stein was able to leave with so much, it was because these objects, though valuable, were not yet considered priceless national treasures. That perspective developed slowly, in parallel with modern Chinese nationalism, and only became dominant in the mid-1920s. By the time Stein embarked on his fourth and final journey to China, in 1930, the mood had completely changed: he was unable to take anything out of the country.

With the Stein photographs from London in hand, James Lo began to conceive of his ambitious project to photograph as much of Dunhuang as possible. But first, there were significant hurdles to overcome. At the time, James Lo was in Chongqing, the wartime capital of the Nationalist government, where he was employed by China News Agency, a government outlet. Life was grim: Japanese air raids were frequent, and large sections of the city lay in ruins. Everything was in short supply. Organizing an expedition to Dunhuang under such circumstances seemed utopian at best. But James and Lucy — who met and married in the city — were a stubborn pair. Without knowing if they would ever be able to execute their project, James began using personal funds to stockpile films and supplies. Whatever was unavailable locally, they found ways to order from abroad. For logistical support, the couple relied on their personal network of relations. Eventually, it all paid off: in early 1943, they finally received permission to take leave and travel to Dunhuang.

When the Los arrived at their destination, Dora Ching writes, neither the Mogao nor the nearby Yulin Caves were under any kind of official jurisdiction. A year later, however, the authorities established the Dunhuang Art Institute, which is still in operation today, albeit under a different name — the Dunhuang Research Academy. Over the following decades, the Institute conducted extensive preservation work at both sites. The importance of the Lo archive thus partly derives from the fact that it documents the caves “at the beginning of a new era, preserving views that were irretrievably changed during successive projects to protect, stabilize, and conserve [them].”

The Los spent a total of 18 months in Dunhuang. When they left at the end of 1944, the Second Sino-Japanese War was approaching its denouement.

Mogao Cave 45. High Tang (704–781). Bodhisattva. West wall. Niche interior, south side. Lo Archive photograph, 1943–’44. Princeton University (Lo 045-7).

Respite, however, would be short-lived: clashes between Communist and Nationalist forces erupted within weeks of the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Before long, a full-blown civil war was underway. In 1949, the Los decided to relocate to Taiwan. Except for Lucy’s notebooks, which were lost in the chaos of those years, they were able to bring out everything they had gathered in Dunhuang.

The challenging economic conditions in Taipei during the 1950s, however, meant that the Los were unable to find the equipment or financial support required to process their negatives. Making the best of their circumstances, they began working on colored renderings. “They projected selected negatives onto paper, traced the outlines, and then painted the compositions,” Ching explains. An acquaintance proposed that the compositions be displayed at the pavilion of the Republic of China at the 1964 World Fair in New York, which is how Princeton University learned of the negatives. Almost immediately, it commissioned a series of prints, and two years later, the photographs entered its collection.

Despite their personal tribulations, the Los were lucky. They saw Dunhuang as it had been for centuries — quiet and alluring, conducive to contemplation, and open to anyone with an interest, religious or otherwise. In recent years, by comparison, most caves have been inaccessible and those that have remained open have often been swarmed by throngs of visitors, at least prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hushed tranquility of yesteryear is largely gone. We should be thankful that so much of it remains in the photographs of James and Lucy Lo.

Lo 158-10
Mogao Cave 158. Middle Tang (781–848) Reclining Buddha, Parinirvāṇa scene. West wall.
Lo Archive photograph, 1943–44. Princeton University (Lo 158-10).

Lo 267-1
Mogao Cave 267. Northern Liang (420–439). North wall and ceiling, seen from Cave 266. Visible in the distance, north wall of Cave 272.
Lo Archive photograph, 1943–’44. Princeton University (Lo 267-1).

Lo 275-5
Mogao Cave 275. Northern Liang (420–439). Que tower–shaped niche. North wall,
west side.
Lo Archive photograph, 1943–’44. Princeton University (Lo 275-5).

Lo 285-12-3a
Mogao Cave 285. Western Wei (535–556). Five Hundred Bandits Become Buddhas (landscape). South wall.
Lo Archive photograph, 1943–’44. Princeton University (Lo 285-12-3a).

Lo YL03-2b
Yulin Cave 3. Western Xia (1036–1227). Samantabhadra and assembly. West wall, south side.
Lo Archive photograph, 1943–’44. Princeton University (Lo YL03-2b).


Martin Laflamme is a Canadian Foreign Service Officer who served in Tokyo, Beijing (twice), and Kandahar. He is currently posted to Taipei.

LARB Contributor

Martin Laflamme is a Canadian Foreign Service Officer who has served in Tokyo, Beijing (twice), Kandahar, and Taipei. The views presented here are his own.


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