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Coloring Culture

Yang Yang
Updated: Jun 22,2016 8:41 AM     China Daily

The Dunhuang Academy has produced An Age of Prosperity, as Flying Apsar as Wish, a coloring book based on the deity as depicted in the Dunhuang frescoes.[Photo/China Daily]

Coloring books are taking on a new role as museums try to popularize historical relics through giving them a place in people’s lives.

At a recent event, Ding Xiaohong was busy showing audiences Buddhist sculptures and frescoes from Dunhuang, which were replicated using 3-D printing technology.

Ding, who works with the Dunhuang Academy in Northwest China’s Gansu province-the institution responsible for the preservation and research of the Mogao Grottos-was doing a presentation on the world cultural heritage site at the recent 12th Five-Year Plan Scientific Innovation Exhibition.

Besides the replicated sculptures and frescoes, the academy’s display at the exhibition also showcased 3-D stereoscopic images of the caves.

And it showed a new book recently produced by the academy.

“It’s a coloring book based on the flying Apsaras in the Dunhuang frescoes,” he says, pointing to a book exhibited with other creative products produced by the academy in recent years, such as a calendar published in 2014 and a magic cube, both based on the grottoes.

Museums in China are trying not only to display historical relics but also give them a role in people’s lives.

An example of this is the Palace Museum, which has developed more than 8,700 types of souvenirs that cover almost every aspect of daily life-even costumes for dogs.

In 2015, revenues from the souvenirs exceeded 1 billion yuan ($154 million), says Shan Jixiang, director of the museum.

The Forbidden City Calendar has become one of its most popular items.

Nearly 300,000 copies of the 2016 edition have been sold.

“What matters to a museum is not how many visitors it receives but how close it is to people’s daily lives,” Shan says, explaining why the museum has such large range of products.

Last year, coloring books were extremely popular in China.

Online retailer alone sold about 1.5 million copies of Secret Garden, a coloring book designed with complicated patterns that aim to help people relax while they color.

“So we thought why not create a coloring book of the Mogao Grottoes,” says Ding.

Previously, Dunhuang Academy published academic books on the Mogao Grottoes, and pictorial books that are very expensive.

But with the coloring books “people can learn about the grottoes by coloring. Or they can also create their own frescoes,” he says.

The academy has now decided to produce more coloring books on the Buddhist figures in the grottoes and the clothing and cosmetics of the people in the frescoes.

“We chose relatively complete frescoes that represent works of each historical period-beautiful ones.”

Ding likes the flying Apsaras fresco in the No 320 Cave. It’s the first picture in the Apsaras book.

In the fresco, the flying Apsaras and the gods and goddesses in charge of song and dance play supporting roles.

“This piece from the No 320 Cave from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) is very gorgeous. It is well preserved and has very rich content like various kinds of musical instruments, including flutes and the pipa (a four-stringed Chinese lute). The gestures of the flying Apsaras are very beautiful, too,” he says.

In AD 366, a monk named Lezun arrived in Dunhuang and dug the first cave. And in more than 1,000 years of Chinese history, worshippers from different dynasties came to the place, leaving 45,000 square meters of frescoes and more than 2,000 colored sculptures in the 735 caves that have been discovered.

In its long history, the Mogao Grottoes was a place where people could seek comfort and express gratitude, until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when Dunhuang was not part of the empire.

As Buddhism came from India, the early images of the flying Apsaras seem more Indian. But gradually, ancient Chinese painters added more local elements to their work.

“The images of the flying Apsaras have changed over more than a 1,000 years. The earliest images seem very rugged and strong, but in the Tang Dynasty, flying Apsaras in the frescoes seem very gentle and gorgeous, more in keeping with a modern aesthetic standard,” says Ding.

Dunhuang was a very important point on the Silk Road connecting China, the Middle East and Europe. And, in the Mogao Grottoes, archaeologists have found silver coins from Persia.

Among the illustrations in the book is the image of a blond Apsara.

The book also contains short simple information explaining the origins and development of flying Apsaras in the Dunhuang frescoes.

Also, most of the 26 illustrations in the books come from frescoes that are not open to the public.

Yuan Yawen, the editor of the book, says that the academy originally thought that the book would not be popular, but the sales figures surprised them.

A week after its release in mid-May, the complete print run of 10,000 copies sold out and 25,000 copies were sold within 15 days.

As the director of the academy Wang Xudong says of the book: “We are glad to see that young Chinese love it.”