Art and Culture Brought to Life: Speaking with Lucy Guan of the Dunhuang Research Academy

During my April visit to Dunhuang, I interviewed Song Shuxia, deputy director of the Dunhuang Research Academy’s visitor reception department (文化弘扬部) – a slightly bland English name that belies its weight and influence. As leader of one of the “big four” departments in the Academy, Ms. Song has the exciting but difficult task of managing the visitor flow to the Mogao Caves, the premier site managed by the Academy. Put bluntly, this means that controlling how many people come to the Mogao Caves on a daily basis is her top priority.

This prime imperative of preserving the grottoes has led to an unexpected flourishing of online and offline initiatives that bring the Mogao Caves to audiences far beyond Dunhuang (meaning that people in China can enjoy Dunhuang without having to come in person). Such services and offerings have to be of the highest quality, and be attractive enough for people to enjoy accessing Dunhuang from their homes or urban centers without feeling like they are getting a second-rate experience. The Mogao xuetang – a branding and educational initiative – is not only first-class in how it delivers Dunhuang content to its audiences; it is also taking the overall brand of the Academy to new heights.

Restoration painting lessons. From

While the visitor reception department does not pay so much attention to marketing or branding, the Mogao xuetang actively builds conceptual identity through cultural research (for adults) and pilgrimages to the Hexi Corridor, world heritage and youth development for children, and specialty classes like making Mogao clay tablets, colors out of natural stone, dance and music, mural repairs. The brand follows the maxim: compassion develops talent, wisdom facilitates communication, and fine taste achieves great things.

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with its pioneer, a lady called Lucy Guan (关燕茹). Together we had some fun trying to think of an English name for Mogao xuetang (there is no official English equivalent). Eventually, we came up, humorously, with “Mogao Learning Center.” Lucy worked in the visitor reception department as a bilingual docent from 2007 to 2019. Each docent is free to develop their own specialty, and over the years Lucy found herself favoring the educational aspect of the Dunhuang experience. She has also appeared on various Chinese media, bringing the glories of the Mogao Caves and its art forms to non-specialist audiences.

Lucy Guan. Photo by the author

“The Mogao Learning Center was established at the end of 2018, under the visitor reception department. We started hosting classes then,” Lucy tells me. “The Center is the first organization in China that elevates Dunhuang culture as a core focus for cultivating research and art education among all demographic groups.” In 2019, the Mogao Learning Center began its first classes for children and adolescents, establishing a reputation for itself as an initiative that was suited for the up-and-coming generation of young people who were thirsty to learn and be inspired, but were not necessarily going to Mogao (and in any case were always connected online).

In 2020, just as the pandemic swept across China, Lucy and her team developed various programs like “The Paintings Speak: A Hundred Lectures on the Dunhuang Grottoes” (画中有话:敦煌石窟 百讲) and “Appreciating Dunhuang from the Clouds” (云赏敦煌). The former is a series of recordings on the Ximalaya app about historical and cultural stories surrounding the Silk Road, while the latter is a 40-episode series of videos covering 15 of Mogao’s caves with voiceovers from 15 specialist commentators. “These initiatives and more are part of our attempt to bring an authentic appreciation of Dunhuang to people at home, without compromising the experience and making them feel like they are missing out by not being at Mogao.”


Working with Lucy are a constellation of well-known scholars and experts from the Academy – just a few days ago on the 29th, after I had left Dunhuang, the Mogao xuetang launched its 29th session of classes, with an entourage of 18 students travelling to locales along the Hexi Corridor. “The cause that united us under the Mogao Learning Center was Silk Road culture, which incorporates art, history, anthropology, science and technology, and nature into interactive and tailored programs. More ambitiously, our programs seek to be cultivators of life wisdom and helpers in transmitting the path.” The result is a curriculum immersed in Silk Road culture, Tang-era aesthetics, conservation, music and dance, and archaeology.

This is not to say that the Center does not have a physical presence. “Our teachers have travelled to more than ten cities around China, and taught Mogao-themed art at schools and art associations. They are all highly qualified,” Lucy points out to me. As I conclude my visit to the Dunhuang Research Academy, she takes me to one of the classrooms that she has taught in. “And we do not only have this place. In Lanzhou [the capital and largest city of Gansu Province], we have acquired 1200 square meters’ worth of themed classrooms that can accommodate 120 people.”

Image by the author

On the shelves are various highlights of the Center’s activities, including authentic paints made according to the local colors found at the grottoes. She opens a case and goes through the process of how she teaches students to restore a cultural artifact – in this case, a painting of a deer from one of the murals. One of the plaques hanging in the classroom reads, World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region under the Auspices of UNESCO (Suzhou): World Heritage Youth Education Base. “This was awarded to us in 2021,” Lucy tells me proudly. Another plaque denotes the Mogao Learning Center as a “Cooperative Base” for the duration of 2021–24, which was awarded by the World Research Travel Organization.

“Dunhuang is a cultural light in the hearts of us all,” says Lucy, as I admire the milestones she has accomplished for the Academy since 2018. “I have always been enchanted by the diversity and power of its art, whether we are talking about the murals or artifacts. Through involvement with the Mogao xuetang, people can see themselves as and truly become protectors of culture.”

See more

[免费收听] 画中有话:敦煌石窟百讲 (Chinese only) (Ximalaya)
“云赏敦煌”系列短视频即将上线!(Chinese only) (Dunhuang Research Academy)
开班 | 莫高学堂五一假期静享之旅 (Chinese only) (Dunhuang Research Academy)
2023 重新出发丨同走河西走廊 共赏甘肃石窟 (Chinese only) (Dunhuang Research Academy)

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