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Digital Dunhuang offers new path for cultural heritage protection

HU BING | 2018-12-13 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Technicians work to restore damaged murals in a cave of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang. Photo: XINHUA


The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, a place of strategic importance to the ancient Silk Road, has a history of more than 1,600 years. It is a concentrated demonstration of religious culture and national arts, and it records historical imprints of the diverse cultures of the countries and regions along the ancient Silk Road as they developed and blended together.

The Digital Dunhuang project utilizes advanced technologies and cultural heritage preservation techniques to comprehensively collect, process and store image, video and three-dimensional data of the grottoes and related cultural relics in Dunhuang, in order to build a diversified and intelligent database and share it with the world via the internet. It is a creative attempt at cultural heritage protection and development made with the goal of rejuvenating traditional Chinese fine culture. It is also a part of the Belt and Road initiative’s objective to revitalize contemporary technological and industrial resources and open up new paths for international communication.

The project will provide valuable information for passing down national cultural heritage, deepening shared cultural memory and identity, and enhancing the capacity for the international communication of national cultures.


Origin of the project
If they are only shelved, cultural relics lose their potential to spread culture. Without their dignity, they will never reenter society. In the long course of history, the Mogao Grottoes have suffered looting, theft and vandalism from time to time. They have been subject to erosion by such natural factors as sandstorms, efflorescence, flaking and mildew, while the weight, breath and sound of numerous visitors to the Mogao Grottoes, as well as light and other human factors, have caused irreversible damage to the cultural relics at the scenic spot. The protection of the historical site has been, for a long time, a daunting and pressing task.

As the longest, largest and richest gallery and the greatest treasure trove of existing Buddhist art in the world, the Mogao Grottoes popularizes ancient art, and serves cultural communication and education. This requires the site to open to the public as much as possible to allow more people to experience the vast, profound Dunhuang civilization.

Around 1998, when a wave of transregional tourism companies across China were being listed on the stock market, related government departments proposed listing the Mogao Grottoes together with a tourism company. Making the tough choice between cultural heritage protection and the urgent need to open markets, the Dunhuang Academy resisted the pressure and decided to resolutely protect Dunhuang’s unique cultural heritage.

The Dunhuang Academy began to scientifically protect the heritage in the 1980s after years of guarding and rescuing efforts. In 2003, the then director of the academy Fan Jinshi suggested researching and exploring how to protect and develop the Mogao Grottoes using modern digital technologies, marking the beginning of the Digital Dunhuang project.


Utilization of digital technologies
Through the development and application of digital technologies, the Digital Dunhuang project has implemented virtual reality, interactive information interfaces and the digitization of scenic spots.

The Dunhuang Academy has created high-fidelity living murals and caves using technologies such as cave model replication, three-dimensional representation of layered murals and 3D printing of painted sculptures.

In digital exhibition centers like the tourist reception hall, digital cinema and dome theater, which were opened in 2014, audiences can appreciate a lifelike view of some special caves in a multi-dimensional fashion through featured exhibitions and digital movies. This has improved the ability to popularize and promote the Mogao culture and optimize visitors’ experiences while effectively relieving real caves from the pressure of opening up.

In May 2016, the Dunhuang Academy unveiled high-definition digital resources and panoramic wandering programs created with holographic displays and digital network technologies, covering 30 classic caves and 45,000 square meters of murals. Audiences at home and abroad can get a taste of an audio-visual multi-model virtual Mogao Grottoes via the Internet and wearable VR equipment without leaving the house.

The “Online Mogao Grottoes” breaks the temporal and spatial limitations of the Dunhuang culture, considerably extending the breadth of its cultural communication. Furthermore, the multi-model communication pattern and panoramic wandering service improve audiences’ viewing experience, increasing the appeal of this ancient Chinese culture.

In addition, the academy registered a public account for the Mogao Grottoes called “Xiao Bing,” literally “Little Ice,” on WeChat to build an information exchange platform for audiences to ask questions and interact in real-time. Through targeted communication, it helps audiences learn more about the Mogao Grottoes and perpetuate the culture and history of Dunhuang.


Cultural industrialization
In the report to the 19th CPC National Congress, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of strengthening the protection and utilization of cultural relics and better preserving and carrying forward cultural heritage. “We will improve modern systems for cultural industries and markets, explore new mechanisms for cultural production and operation, improve economic policy on the development of the cultural sector, and develop new forms of business in this sector,” Xi said.

Therefore, cultural relics are not old-fashioned. It is crucial to revitalize cultural objects sealed in historical archives by displaying them and leveraging contemporary commercial methods, superior resources and innovation mechanisms.

The Mogao Grottoes industry has evolved from early simple tourism and song-and-dance performances, such as “Silk Road, Flower Rain,” to digital entertainment and digital exhibitions. For example, in 2017, the Dunhuang Academy signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Chinese Internet giant Tencent called “Working Together to Build the Digital Silk Road.” The agreement aims to innovatively integrate the Dunhuang culture with digital games, animation and music following the “technology plus culture” model.

The innovative development of the Dunhuang cultural industry relying on digitization has creatively transformed classical cultural traditions and reproduced their socioeconomic and cultural value in the new era. Telling Chinese stories through the fusion of cultural relics and digital resources allows more audiences to experience and spread the Dunhuang culture, thereby sustaining historical and cultural memories, deepening the understanding of and identity with national cultures, and solidifying national confidence.


Global communication
Cultural exchanges foster significant bonds that help people around the world know and trust each other and cooperate beneficially. Digital interaction technologies have effectively upgraded the ability of the Dunhuang culture to join in international communication.

The Dunhuang Academy has collaborated with many institutions of higher learning in the United States and Germany and facilitated the wide spread of the Dunhuang culture across the world by integrating the digital and exhibition resources of Dunhuang. In June 2018, for instance, an exhibition on Dunhuang mural arts was staged in Duisburg, Germany, which used digital images, cartoons, 360-degree holographic 3D projection technology and virtual reality to represent live-action caves in Dunhuang. Through targeted 360-degree virtual wandering experiences and wearable equipment like VR glasses, tourists can “come” to the Gobi Desert to enjoy the time-honored Silk Road culture in a virtual journey to Mogao and Dunhuang.

Public university exhibitions of the Dunhuang Mural Art Treasures have taken place not only in more than 30 colleges and universities in China but also in the University of New Hampshire, Bryant University and Harvard University in the United States, alongside research cooperation. Digital information exchange and international cooperation have blown the seeds of Dunhuang arts and culture across the world.

The Dunhuang Academy has also engaged in transnational digital technology cooperation to gather some priceless Dunhuang relics that have been scattered across the collections of countries like the United Kingdom and France for a century.

The charm and appeal of the Dunhuang culture is manifested in the continuation of the national history and memory. Standing for the cultural blood and identity of the Chinese nation, it is an essential and inexhaustible source for strengthening national cultural confidence.

The Digital Dunhuang project, based on digital technologies, relying on the modern development of the Dunhuang tourist industry and using an international communication strategy, is an achievement of cultural heritage protection in the new era. It will be further expanded and optimized with database improvements, display technologies and big data analysis. Under the guidance of the Belt and Road initiative, more brilliant results can be expected from the Chinese cultural heritage protection and development represented by Digital Dunhuang.


Hu Bing is from the School of Journalism and Communication at Huaqiao University.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)