Ancient Chinese caves are part of an exhibit at Bryant University exploring archeological sites and art from the northwest region of China. The area is a cultural and religious melting pot because of its proximity to the Silk Road, which connected China to the West. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ximena Conde visited the exhibit and brings us this audio postcard.
“So we’re going to start our tour looking at this picture,” said Leo Lian, our guide to Dunhuang, a city on the western edge of the Gobi Desert that is home to the famous Magao Caves.
Dozens of Buddhist temples were discovered inside these caves, filled with sculptures and paintings made over a period spanning 1,000 years.
But Lian’s tour isn’t in China.
A sophomore at Bryant University, Lian is guiding visitors around a large room on campus that showcases digitized photographs of the Magao Caves and their contents.
“There are 735 caves that currently exist in Mogao,” Lian explained before pointing to a photograph of what looks like a tall building.
The structure is nine stories tall and is known as Cave Number 96.
“Built literally on the cliffs,” Lian said. “If you walk inside this building there’s a giant Buddha statue.”
At the end of the tour, visitors got a chance to feel what it’s like to step inside one of these caves.
“Imagine wall of tiles and then each tile has a Buddha,” described 13-year-old Phillip Tierney of East Providence.
Tierney was looking through a virtual reality headset to explore one of the caves in the exhibit. His mom, Jennifer Tierney tried a headset too.
“It’s in red and beautiful blue and green,” she said. “So much detail.”
For the Tierneys, who have never been to Dunhuang, the exhibit helped contextualize some of the Chinese history Phillip is learning this year. And the virtual reality tool was a highlight.
“I have to say, probably like a lot of people, the experience to put it on and then walk through the rooms, pretty amazing,” Jennifer said.
The Dunhuang exhibit came to Bryant through two programs funded by the Chinese government -- the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and culture center and the Dunhuang Research Academy, which is working to restore the caves.
For Chinese transfer student Weili Lin, it was an opportunity to learn a little more about his country’s history.
“It’s really proud for me to present all these things to people,” said Lin. “Many of the things they are presenting, I never looked [at] before.”
The exhibit is scheduled to tour several American colleges and universities including the University of New Hampshire and University of Maryland over the next two years. Organizers have also developed a website, which allows some smartphones to duplicate the virtual reality experience.