Ancient Dunhuang gets digital doubles



A guide (right) introduces a Buddhist sculpture replicated by 3D printing at a Dunhuang-themed exhibition in Beijing on June 18. (WU YIBIN/FOR CHINA DAILY)

The northwestern Chinese city of Dunhuang is more than 2,000 kilometers from Beijing, but thanks to digital technology, its renowned traditional heritage can be freely enjoyed by people in the capital.

Dunhuang is home to the Mogao Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and recreated elements of the grottoes can be found on display in an ongoing exhibition at the National Base for International Cultural Trade in Beijing. Murals, grottoes, painted sculptures and other splendid items of cultural heritage have been reproduced, while the caves that are closed to the public have been reproduced in digital form.

The exhibition area, covering 1,600 square meters, features the results of research on nearly 50 sets of cultural relics from the Dunhuang Academy.

The No 3 grotto in Dunhuang is a typical example of ancient frescoes, but it is steadily deteriorating.

"There are small blisters on the wall, and these blisters will make the pigment layer fall off. Some experts have concluded that it will not be long before this fresco disappears," said Tang Li, who is the curator of the exhibition.

Although the real grotto in Dunhuang is no longer open to the public, the digitally restored grotto can be preserved forever in digital space.

Opening in July, the exhibition will run for three years. It is the first time that the Dunhuang Academy has held such an extended exhibition in Beijing.

Through digital scanning technology, the buildings, painted sculptures and murals of Mogao Grottoes have been scanned, stored and transformed into a digital format.

The 3D scanning and printing technology restores the charm of painted sculptures, while 3D reconstruction and artistic restoration replicate the shape of painted sculptures in the same proportions, according to the Dunhuang Academy.

The idea of digitizing Dunhuang culture was first put forward in the late 1980s. The subsequent decades have seen much development and numerous achievements in digital preservation.

By the end of 2021, the "digital Dunhuang project" had completed the digital collection of 268 grottoes, the image processing of 164 grottoes, and the 3D reconstruction of 45 painted sculptures, 146 grottoes and seven large relics sites. A professional and technical team of more than 100 people were involved in the project.

The Dunhuang Academy has created a set of digital techniques suitable for murals that cannot be physically moved. In the process, it has not only applied various mature technologies to the digital protection of the grottoes in Dunhuang, but has also established standards for the digitization of immovable cultural relics.

The protection and revival of Dunhuang's ancient culture is not an isolated case in China. The Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi also have 3D "digital archives", which allow precious cultural relics and historical archives to be permanently preserved. Meanwhile, tourists can now enjoy a dynamic experience of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an through augmented reality technology.

Such projects have provided a means of preserving China's splendid cultural heritage for future generations, while making it more widely available both at home and abroad.

Zhao Shengliang, Party secretary of the Dunhuang Academy, said, "It is hoped that the 'digital Dunhuang' will not only allow more people to experience the artistic charm of Dunhuang, appreciate the outstanding achievements of traditional Chinese culture, enhance artistic appreciation, and enhance cultural self-confidence, and also promote exchanges between cultures along the Belt and Road under new historical conditions."