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Fresco aficionado envisions grottoes
By Zhu Shenshen

PAINTER Wang Zheng has devoted half his life, around 20 years, to studying and reproducing the spectacular frescoes in the earliest major Buddhist cave complex in China, in the far west Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Wang sometimes bows and murmurs before grotto figures dating back more than 1,500 years. It has become Wang's mission to research and spread appreciation of early religious art from Silk Road centers of civilization.

Though his work is acclaimed and he could earn large sums for both his reproductions and original art, which are considered treasures, he seldom sells his work, saying the profit motive violates Buddhist principles.

Though his parents were sick, his daughter was in school and he needed money, he once turned down a 1 million yuan (US$160,465) commission to decorate a Peking roast duck restaurant because he opposed killing animals or profiting from an entertainment venue. He says he knows the ethical boundaries. But he did sell art to buy a home for his family in Urumqi, where he was born, saying his work showed respect to Buddha.

"In painting Buddhist subjects, I clearly know what to do and what not to do. I know the principles and the lines not to cross," Wang said.

"Through art and research, I will continue my xiuxing or spiritual journey," 42-year-old Wang told Shanghai Daily in an interview at his office at Xinjiang Normal University where he teaches traditional Chinese painting.

In January he will attend an exhibition in Berlin of his Qiuci-style art, which arose in the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Qiuci or Kuche, on a branch of the Silk Road in the Tarim Basin near the present-day city of Kuche. In the early 1900s, German explorers (and others) plundered large sections of frescoes, artifacts and manuscripts from the Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves, and they are displayed in museums in Europe. Wang sees a certain symmetry in his art exhibition opening in Berlin.

Fresco reproduction

Xinjiang, the Central Asian region where Buddhism first entered China, contains extensive manmade grottoes containing Buddhist art from the third to 14th centuries at sites around Kuche and Turpan.

Wang, who was born in Xinjiang outside Urumqi, spent nine years working in often cramped spaces, sometimes lying on his back to study and copy the murals on paper. Through meticulous research and comparisons, he was able to re-imagine what the originals must have looked like, tapping "inner logic" to recreate large chunks that had peeled away. He ground his own pigments, using minerals and natural materials.

The famous frescoes in the Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves, for example, date from the 4th to 8th centuries, and reflect Greek, Persian and Indian influences along a branch of the Silk Road. They are quite different from later murals reflecting Chinese influence in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Vivid vermilion, brilliant ultramarine blues, vibrant greens and aquas create magnificent scenes and three-dimensional effects, including flying Apsaras and swimming figures in lakes and waterfalls in dark grottoes. The deep blue pigments were made from lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan.

There's mysterious contemporary feel to the frescoes, including their dark gaps and voids, and Wang's own art, in addition to his reproductions, reflects the ambience of the grottoes.

"While I was painting in the caves all those years, I felt those Buddhas and flying Apsaras in paintings were alive and talking to me, just as if I were on the ancient Silk Road," Wang said in an interview .

The Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves are considered one of China's greatest grottoes, including Longmen in Henan Province, Yungang in Shanxi Province, Mogao and Maijishan in Gansu Province.

In 1993, Wang decided that reproducing the cave art was his mission. When he graduated from Xinjiang Normal University in painting, the 23-year-old went to work in remote Kizil, working for the Kuche Academy of Xinjiang, dedicated to research and protection of the Kizil caves.

Wang lived in a shabby wooden dormitory in front of the No. 47 cave and spent up to 12 hours a day copying works from the caves. It was baking in summer, freezing in winter and the room leaked when it rained. Food was limited, mostly tea and flatbread, plus apples and potatoes. At night he stared into the glowing coals and flames in his heating stove and saw shifting images, shapes and shadows "like mountains and rivers."

He remembers camping out in Simsim Grotto, even more remote than Kizil, copying frescoes. There were no people or houses nearby. "It was like working on another planet or in a total world of art. I forgot everything else."

In art he combined the abstract style of traditional Chinese painting, with the vivid colors of cave art.

Promoting art and culture

For nine years, Wang draw and lived in front of mural paintings around Kizil; they cover more than 10,000 square meters in more than 200 caves, around 80 of them major grottoes.

Then he spent another decade researching and promoting the art and culture of the ancient Qiuci Kingdom in Xinjiang. It is found mainly in the Kizil, Kumutrua and Simsim grottoes, all around the city of Kuche, 400 kilometers west of Urumqi. It was a major Central Asian metropolitan center on the Silk Road caravan route and the most populous oasis in the Tarim Basin. It was a city of great wealth and commerce, great monasteries and scholarship. Almost nothing is left today.

By 2002, he had copied more than 300 murals, some reproduced in books. In 2009 he painted frescoes for temples on Mt Wutai, a sacred Buddhist mountain, and showed his sketches to farmers living nearby, helping them understand.

"Qiuci art represents the mixed culture influence from the West and the East, just like China and its people now," Wang said. "We should not be like sheep following Western modern and post-modern ideas. Instead, we can find value through Chinese treasures and make better use of them."

After working in the Kuche region, Wang is now planning to reproduce frescoes from grottoes in Turpan, another oasis city on the Silk Road from the Gaochang Kingdom period dating from the 1st century BC.

In his office, there's a map of Afghanistan and books on Central Asia and its art. He aims to visit Afghanistan, which has a small border with China.

"I will be there one day because it was a key site along the Silk Road and a high source of Qiuci art and culture," Wang said. "My life is connected with these art treasures ... This is my xiuxing (spiritual journey)," he said.

After copying frescoes for nine years, Wang returned to Urumqi and taught Chinese painting at the university where he graduated. He spends most of his spare time researching the grottoes, not painting, which would be lucrative. "Without research and analysis, you cannot progress further, relying only on artistic imagination," he said.

He has an almost uncanny ability to recreate missing areas with apparent authenticity. He categorizes paintings in eight or 10 categories. "By understanding the art styles and religious characters of the period, we can fix and recover painting on paper," Wang said.

Many murals have lost large parts, and traces of the original cannot be detected in darkened areas. But Wang recreates works through his understanding of what he calls "inner rules."

"I know what the missing bodies are like since there are paintings in other grottoes with the same themes, created at the same time," he said.

"Grotto art has given me a great deal and changed my life," he said. "More people should see the paintings. They are hidden in the mountains, unknown and broken for too much time."

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