Yale Club of Beijing: The Universe Revealed: Decoding the Pictorial Program of a Dunhuang Cave

This talk explores the discoveries at Dunhuang and how these finds have transformed our understanding of Chinese culture and society. The event is co-sponsored by the Yale Club Beijing, the University of Pennsylvania Club of Beijing, and the Courtyard Institute.

Dunhuang caves and their vast riches remain one of the most fascinating discoveries in archaeological history. In 1900, nearly 50,000 manuscripts were discovered hidden in a cave among the Mogao Grottoes near the oasis of Dunhuang in the northwest of China. Indicative of a pilgrimage site along the Silk Road, these manuscripts range from prayers in Hebrew to detailed economic records to devout Buddhist sutras.  The accompanying mural paintings together with paintings on silk provide the most robust collection of aesthetic styles and iconography to survive from the medieval period.

Over the course of the 20th century, news of the discovery spread throughout the West, Japan, and China, bringing extraordinary attention to this obscure Buddhist pilgrimage center and its wealth of cultural resources. This find and its scholarship blossomed into its own field of research, Dunhuang Studies 敦煌学, which in turn has revolutionized our understanding of Chinese culture and history. In fitting recognition of the site’s culture significance, the Mogao Caves were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and they continue to draw tens of thousand of visitors every year as one of China’s most spectacular archaeological sites.

Neil Schmid explores the discoveries at Dunhuang and how these finds have transformed our understanding of Chinese culture and society. In particular, he will focus on two Tang Dynasty caves together with related manuscripts and artistic materials to investigate how these unique resources shed new light on the medieval Chinese world. Our task will be to unpack these caves in all their splendor, in effect explaining how to “read” the ritual and artistic program experienced by their Tang Dynasty patrons, a program said to contain the very universe itself. In doing so, we will address two crucial questions: First, how did the artistic riches in these caves reflect people’s views of themselves and their world? Secondly, what unexpected insights do Dunhuang materials provide about daily social and religious life in medieval China? The talk will conclude with a brief synopsis of recent changes at Dunhuang, such as the newly built visitors center, and prospects for the site’s future.

About the Speaker:

Neil Schmid is a specialist in Chinese Buddhism and Dunhuang Studies. After completing an M.Phil at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris and his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, he taught at UNC, Duke, and Penn, publishing on Chinese Buddhism, art, and Dunhuang. Since 2011, he has served as Country Director of DKT International, Beijing. More recently, Neil was named Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Religion and Culture in Asia, University of Groningen, Netherlands.

Event Details:

Language: English
Time: Thursday, April 16th, 7pm- 9pm
Venue: Courtyard Institute (No.28 Zhonglao Hutong, Dongcheng District) MAP
Tickets: (a) On-line: ¥75/person and ¥40 for Yale’s undergraduate colleges or Penn’s in 2013 or later (ten discounted tickets available, please provide school affiliation and grad year, first-come first-served). Please order “Regular” or “Resent Yale or Penn Grads” tickets at yoopay.cn/event/25846129; (b) Walk-ins: ¥100/person. Limited seating – Please purchase your tickets online in advance.