Professor Fan Jinshi has so selflessly devoted her life to the study and preservation of the Dunhuang Mogao Caves that she has become known as the 'daughter of Dunhuang'.
Fan was born in Beijing and obtained her degree in history from Peking University in 1963, specialising in archeology. She was immediately assigned to work in the Dunhuang Research Academy located in a remote and desolate area in North Western China without running water or electricity. Her initial posting to this uninviting location was three years. She has devoted herself to this project for almost fifty.
The Dunhuang caves, which have been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, are located on the Silk Road in Gansu Province twenty-five kilometres southeast of Dunhuang. Dunhuang was an important stop on the Silk Road that connected China with Central Asia and Europe and it gradually became a political, economic and cultural centre of the region in ancient times. The construction of the caves is believed to have begun sometime in the fourth century when a Buddhist monk received a vision of a thousand buddhas bathed in golden light. At the time people referred to them as the Mogao caves, meaning a high place in the desert.
The caves served as a place of meditation for hermit monks. Construction continued, thanks to generous sponsorship, until the fourteenth century. Among the many caves that were built, 735 of them have been preserved. Most of these caves were elaborately painted, so that the frescoes served as an aid to meditation, as visual representations of the quest for enlightenment and as teaching tools about Buddhist beliefs. Their size is breathtaking and there are 45,000 square metres of preserved frescoes found in 492 of the existing caves. The caves also contain more than 2,000 sculptures made of earth, clay, wheat grass and wood. The colours of the frescoes and sculptures came mainly from minerals. By the mid-20th century these grottoes, with their paper-thin skin of painted brilliance, had largely survived the ravages of war and pillage, nature and neglect.
When Fan arrived in Dunhuang, however, she immediately recognised the dangers that these caves faced from natural erosion and climatic conditions. Although the dry desert climate had helped to preserve the treasures, bad weather, particularly sandstorms, created a serious risk. Further, it was inevitable that the colours of the frescoes would fade over the years and the sculptures would crumble.
A further risk of deterioration came with the opening of the caves to the public in 1979, attracting thousands of visitors from China and overseas. The ever-increasing number of visitors provided her with a difficult paradox between the desire to promote the site and share its treasures with the world and the need to protect the frescoes and sculptures. The presence of tourists in the caves increased their warmth and humidity and the vibrations caused by tramping feet led to further risk of deterioration. In recent years the site has received more than half a million visitors annually and the visitor numbers reached almost 800,000 in 2012. Although touching the treasures and flash photography has been forbidden, these measures have not provided adequate protection.
Of her work of custodianship she has said:
'The caves are like an old person who needs to be taken care of constantly. Protecting the caves is an endless project since you can never say how healthy an old person is. She can get out of the hospital today and go right back in tomorrow'.
Whilst President of the Dunhuang Research Academy, Fan made several important breakthroughs in grotto preservation technologies, including the protection of frescoes, the consolidation of cliffs and the reduction of the impact of sandstorms on the treasures.
In 2003 she proposed to the 11th Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee an ingenious and viable solution to the risk from visitors: to create a database and a digital presentation centre so that visitors could take a virtual tour round the site rather than actually enter the caves. Her proposal was adopted and an ambitious programme was launched to better preserve and display the cultural relics. But, to be effective, the virtual tour would have to be realistic. Her solution, a digital presentation centre, which provides a three-dimensional tour of selected caves, is up and running but is still a work in progress. With local and international assistance, the work is proceeding with admirable speed and is expected to be completed in 2013. After a trial run, the Centre will officially open in 2014 and, by then, all visitors must take the virtual tour first. This will enhance visitors' appreciation of the Dunhuang treasures, at the same time facilitating the preservation of the site.
For her dedication to preservation Fan has been awarded the four ministries 'National Outstanding Professional and Technical Personnel Award' in 2004.
She has demonstrated remarkable devotion to her task as guardian of the caves but has modestly summed up her life by saying:
'Some people call me an idealist. When I arrived at the academy, I was a naïve twenty-five years old woman and now I have become a naïve old lady, which is not bad'.
Mr Pro-Chancellor, Fan may claim to be naïve, but she has proved herself a selfless and remarkably effective custodian of history for the benefit of us all.
It is my honour and privilege to present to you Professor Fan Jinshi for the award of Doctor of Social Sciences honoris causa.
Citation written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator of the University.