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A unique summer research experience

Emily Gong, Fine Art

Each year, the Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowship (USSRF) provides an opportunity for students to engage in discovery-based learning and develop their research and presentation skills. The program is targeted to students in the social sciences, humanities, and education.

Art, Culture, and Religion at Dunhuang – transmission via the Silk Route

[Emily Gong]Dunhuang, on China’s western frontier, was an important geographical location where the Silk Route split into a Northern route, reaching as far as Rome and Italy, and Southern routes, reaching toward India. It provided the only access westward for the Chinese Empire and eastward for western nationalities, and therefore serves to document the presence and influence of different cultures on one another. In my research, I focus on the Mogao and Yulin Grottoes at Dunhuang, and what they reveal about the region, specifically during the dynastic rule from 439 to 1368 AD.

The connection between the artistic achievements in wall painting and the social/political situation of Imperial China is inseparable. My investigation of the wall paintings in the grottoes helped to identify and contextualize the different styles of art and the hallmark of each dynasty and empire. The wall inscriptions and scriptures found mostly in cave 17, known as the library cave, shed light on the richness of the exchanges between cultures in Dunhuang – for example, between the Han Chinese and various different minority groups including Mongol, Xianbei, Tibetan, Tangut, Uyghur, Jin, Manchu, Persian, Indian, and Turkic. These exchanges ultimately shaped the landscape of western China.

Many of these religious and cultural influences were carried on the Silk Route to Chang’ an, the ancient capital of China for thirteen dynasties. The records at Dunhuang show the dominance of Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Buddhism in the region. Particularly, Dunhuang was an important centre for the transmission of Buddhism, since the earliest Buddhism travelled from India to Dunhuang into Central China.

The paintings on the cave walls in Dunhuang are rich in Buddhist symbolism, representing core Buddhist teachings, which differ from each sect. Visible differences exist between the depictions of Indian Buddhism in the earlier caves, flourishing Chinese Buddhism in later caves, and Tibetan Buddhism that prevailed mostly during the Tibetan occupation and Yuan Dynasty. These differences reflect variations in dominant schools of thought in each dynastic era.

This experience enabled me to conduct field research, collect data and make observations first-hand. I learned to analyze archival information and literature, document observations, and synthesize findings. In this process, I travelled from the Gobi Desert of Dunhuang, in China’s Gansu province, to the snowy Himalayas of Tibet, while crossing great historic capitals of Beijing and Xi’an, present day Chang’ an. On my trip, I had the privilege of communicating with scholars and experts in the fields of Imperial Chinese history, cultural anthropology, archaeology, Chinese and Tibetan art, and Tibetan Buddhism studies. I learned the importance of working with other researchers as a form of peer evaluation and in discussing key topics of my research results.

Read more: Emily Gong is featured in the Queen’s Gazette story: Fruitful fellowship.

This research fellowship gave me the chance to apply the knowledge from my rigorous academic studies at Queen’s University and then expand on my area of interest to develop a deeper rooted understanding in this area. I have published in the Queen’s Journal and I look forward to exhibiting my paintings produced from fieldwork research. As well, my work will appear in upcoming publications of The Journal of The National Association of Student Anthropologists (NASA) and UK’s Nee Hao Magazine.

(e)Affect Issue 6, Fall 2014