Archaeologist Fan Jinshi’s memoir

Source: (7/6/22)
Archaeologist Fan Jinshi’s Memoir: Ancient Buddhist Cave-temples in the Desert, Red Guards & the Spirit of Peking U
By Bruce Humes

Cultural Revolution: The Mogao Grottoes Miraculously Emerge Unscathed
(Excerpted from 我心归处是敦煌 by Fan Jinshi as told to Gu Chunfang)
Translated by Bruce Humes

Many people have asked me if thMogao Caves in Dunhuang were damaged during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

At the time, the Destroy the Four Olds, Cultivate the Four News campaign was sweeping the country, resulting in severe damage to many ancient sites and cultural artifacts. Everyone at the Dunhuang Academy was wondering: Would our cave-temples be spared?

My colleagues were indeed very concerned about the Red Guards wreaking havoc in the grottoes, because they were chock-full of fragile clay sculptures and murals. However, during the Cultural Revolution, not a single scroll, mural or sculpture in the academy’s care suffered damage — which can only be described as miraculous.

Many people can’t get their heads around this, and I have often been grilled about it by foreign journalists. “You can go and see with your own eyes that there was no damage at all,” I assure them.

I believe there were two reasons behind this. At the start of the Cultural Revolution in “Guidance regarding the Protection of Cultural Relics and Manuscripts during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” the Communist Party’s Central Committee clearly stated that “important and representative ancient buildings, cave temples, stone carvings, sculptures and murals everywhere should be preserved.” Academy staff were all aware of this document. The Red Guards might not know the importance of protecting cultural artifacts, but we were in the cultural heritage business, and our Priority Number 1 was to protect the cave shrines and their artifacts.

Secondly, during the Cultural Revolution although factions propagated within the academy, there was no ambiguity about the question of protecting cultural relics. A basic consensus was reached that individuals could participate in activities elsewhere at any time, but wu dou — violent struggle — absolutely could not be introduced into the academy proper. Anyone who did so and disfigured the relics would be held legally responsible.

Although the academy staff of 48 eventually splintered into 16 factions — some comprising just one adherent — and authored “Big Character Posters” criticizing and attacking each other, protecting the caves and banning violence from the outside was unanimously supported. Therefore, while there was “internecine strife” among the various factions, there were no incidents of relic destruction.

Back then, our worst nightmare was that Red Guards from elsewhere would arrive and ravage the Mogao Caves. To guard against such a potential disaster, the academy took measures to seal especially precious grottoes.

But as feared, one day a squad of Red Guards did arrive.

Several leaders of the academy and I went to mediate. We assured the visitors that the caves, murals and painted sculptures here were not the “Four Olds” targeted by the campaign; they were invaluable relics of ancient civilization, covered by regulations protecting cultural artifacts. We explained this as a form of on-the-spot ideological education, in the hope that they would remain calm and rational.

“Don’t get all agitated,” the youths explained. “We’re just here to check out Dunhuang.” I realized straight away that this was a bunch of students from the capital who had taken the opportunity offered by the call to engage in nationwide chuan lian — “revolutionary networking” — and had snuck off to Dunhuang to view the artwork in the grottoes with their own eyes.

They requested permission to tour the caves. Should we grant their request? What if someone got hot-headed and took advantage to inflict damage? The clay sculptures would crumble at the mere swing of a stick. On the other hand, if we refused, we might antagonize them. What if they left that day but came back the next in greater numbers?

“Maybe these young people, like myself years ago, have long dreamt of Dunhuang,” I thought to myself. “Having come this far, it’s only natural they want to view the cave-temple artwork. It might be best to let them have a look-see at some of the run-of-the-mill grottoes.”

I sent a guide to accompany them. The purpose of the escort would be twofold: To prevent any sudden vandalism, and perhaps — who could tell? — transform foe into friend.

The Red Guards were impressed by our formally assigning a specialist to guide them in the caves. They were touched by the institute’s “warm reception” on the one hand, and by the mesmerizing cave-temple artwork on the other. So, we struck while the iron was hot and reached an agreement to jointly compose and print “Small Character Posters” and place them along Dunhuang’s roads and at bus stops. Their core message:

Be informed that the Capital’s Red Guard Corps have joined forces with the Rebel Faction of the Dunhuang Art Research Institute to defend the Mogao Caves —  so other squads seeking to instigate rebellion, don’t bother intervening here!

This poster agreement really did the trick, as later Rebel Corps assumed that a heavyweight Beijing-based team was already stationed here, and went their way.

But the 48 academy staff members who had split into 16 factions often locked horns and launched small-scale assaults against one another. Among the more serious cases was when the academy’s Red Guards seized on staff with various “historical problems” in the past, and Chang Shuhong, (then the academy director) was the first to be targeted. He was dragged back to Dunhuang from Lanzhou, put on stage and subjected to humiliating struggle sessions.

Duan Wenjie was similarly tagged — known as kou maozi, lit., “having a cap slapped on your head” — and publicly critiqued.

At the time, almost all those who had worked at the caves before 1949, such as Chang and Duan, were seized and their homes raided. As these incidents continued, more and more colleagues found themselves corralled in niu peng — lit., “ox-shed” — i.e., improvised jails for those accused of political incorrectness.

Analyzing the situation in private with colleagues who shared similar views, I figured that after a few more arrests, it might be my turn. I was psychologically prepared. I knew in my heart that, for one thing, given my father’s recent political mishap, if my room were raided and his letters to me were seized, this might be used to make a case against me; and for another, a co-worker had recently been seized, and his dormitory room searched. Beforehand, he had given me a book about WW II for safekeeping, and it contained pictures of Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-shek and other political figures. If the rebel faction discovered this book, they would certainly make a big stink about it and exploit it to “elevate minor faults to the level of a principal violation,” as the popular four-character slogan trumpeted such errors.

So, in the dead of night when all was quiet, I pulled out from under my bed the illustrated book that my fellow staff member had left with me, along with the letters that my father and grandfather had written me, and set them alight.

It was inevitable for people to follow the herd during the Cultural Revolution, and most of them just handled it in a perfunctory fashion, or ostensibly agreed to participate. This was pardonable, because as the tide of the Cultural Revolution rose, no one could escape this fate, and everyone had to actively take part in the campaign even if unwilling; not participating was not an option.  If someone was labeled “problematic,” they had to undergo public criticism; if you were problematic the following day, everyone must critique you too.

But some people’s participation was far from passive. They took advantage to give others hell, and this category of person had character defects. Faced with colleagues fighting with each other, wives exposing their husbands, sons exposing their fathers, and close friends denouncing one another, all ethics and morals seemed to disintegrate overnight. Innate human sentiments, such as envy or fear, were catalyzed and fermented in a public setting.

In fact, everyone was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, but some were blind to this reality. When they saw that others were suffering, some individuals experienced inexplicable excitement and joy, even mocking and humiliating them. Some also wished to make use of the Cultural Revolution to their own benefit. Driven by an inherent, innermost ambition and to satisfy their personal desires, they were not above dragging others into the mire, or forcing them down a well and then dropping stones on them for good measure.

There were also some who, once the Cultural Revolution was over, penned articles emulating the tone and posture of one who judges history. But the truth is that what they said about history and the people and events in it were basically self-fabricated.

Having lived through those stormy, troubled times, I realize now that I was too naive, too foolish. But I’m glad that during those difficult days, I always maintained my internal sense of morality, and even the unnatural death of my falsely accused father did not make me irrational. The education I had received from my parents and Peking University revealed their true significance in these, the darkest moments of my life.

An intellectual should maintain her reason and conscience at all times, and must not follow the wind indiscriminately, being blown eastward by the east-bound wind today, and westward by the west-bound wind tomorrow.

We have all come to Dunhuang from the four corners of the globe to preserve the Mogao Caves. The most important thing for us to do is to play our role well, to do this cause justice and complete the specific tasks assigned to each one of us.

Let’s not engage in mutual vengeful chastisement, or mimic what the fictional character Jia Tanchun (Jia Baoyu’s sister) described in the 18th-century classic, Dream of the Red Chamber:

“Each of us is a pugnacious gamecock. Either you eat me or I eat you!”

Otherwise, we’ll end up accomplishing nothing while sabotaging both the grottoes and ourselves. [end]

For agents and publishers interested in Fan Jinshi’s memoir (我心归处是敦煌), please contact the China publisher, Yilin Press (译林出版社) at To date, Russian and Hindi rights have been sold, but other foreign language rights — including English — remain open.

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