Staging the Silk Road Journey Abroad: The Case of Dunhuang Performative Arts


  • Lanlan Kuang University of Central Florida Center for Ethnic and Folk Literature and Art Development, Ministry of Culture, PRC



Dunhuangology, Silk Road, Journey, Performing Arts

How to Cite

Kuang, L. (2016). Staging the Silk Road Journey Abroad: The Case of Dunhuang Performative Arts. M/C Journal, 19(5).
Vol. 19 No. 5 (2016): abroad
Published 2016-10-13

The curtain rose. The howling of desert wind filled the performance hall in the Shanghai Grand Theatre. Into the center stage, where a scenic construction of a mountain cliff and a desert landscape was dimly lit, entered the character of the Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu (1849–1931), performed by Chen Yizong. Dressed in a worn and dusty outfit of dark blue cotton, characteristic of Daoist priests, Wang began to sweep the floor. After a few moments, he discovered a hidden chambre sealed inside one of the rock sanctuaries carved into the cliff.

Signaled by the quick, crystalline, stirring wave of sound from the chimes, a melodious Chinese ocarina solo joined in slowly from the background. Astonished by thousands of Buddhist sūtra scrolls, wall paintings, and sculptures he had just accidentally discovered in the caves, Priest Wang set his broom aside and began to examine these treasures. Dawn had not yet arrived, and the desert sky was pitch-black. Priest Wang held his oil lamp high, strode rhythmically in excitement, sat crossed-legged in a meditative pose, and unfolded a scroll. The sound of the ocarina became fuller and richer and the texture of the music more complex, as several other instruments joined in.

Below is the opening scene of the award-winning, theatrical dance-drama Dunhuang, My Dreamland, created by China’s state-sponsored Lanzhou Song and Dance Theatre in 2000. 


Figure 1a: Poster Side A of Dunhuang, My Dreamland


Figure 1b: Poster Side B of Dunhuang, My Dreamland

The scene locates the dance-drama in the rock sanctuaries that today are known as the Dunhuang Mogao Caves, housing Buddhist art accumulated over a period of a thousand years, one of the best well-known UNESCO heritages on the Silk Road. Historically a frontier metropolis, Dunhuang was a strategic site along the Silk Road in northwestern China, a crossroads of trade, and a locus for religious, cultural, and intellectual influences since the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.). Travellers, especially Buddhist monks from India and central Asia, passing through Dunhuang on their way to Chang’an (present day Xi’an), China’s ancient capital, would stop to meditate in the Mogao Caves and consult manuscripts in the monastery's library. At the same time, Chinese pilgrims would travel by foot from China through central Asia to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, playing a key role in the exchanges between ancient China and the outside world. Travellers from China would stop to acquire provisions at Dunhuang before crossing the Gobi Desert to continue on their long journey abroad.


Figure 2: Dunhuang Mogao Caves

This article approaches the idea of “abroad” by examining the present-day imagination of journeys along the Silk Road—specifically, staged performances of the various Silk Road journey-themed dance-dramas sponsored by the Chinese state for enhancing its cultural and foreign policies since the 1970s (Kuang).

As ethnomusicologists have demonstrated, musicians, choreographers, and playwrights often utilise historical materials in their performances to construct connections between the past and the present (Bohlman; Herzfeld; Lam; Rees; Shelemay; Tuohy; Wade; Yung: Rawski; Watson). The ancient Silk Road, which linked the Mediterranean coast with central China and beyond, via oasis towns such as Samarkand, has long been associated with the concept of “journeying abroad.” Journeys to distant, foreign lands and encounters of unknown, mysterious cultures along the Silk Road have been documented in historical records, such as A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms (Faxian) and The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Xuanzang), and illustrated in classical literature, such as The Travels of Marco Polo (Polo) and the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West (Wu). These journeys—coming and going from multiple directions and to different destinations—have inspired contemporary staged performance for audiences around the globe.

Home and Abroad: Dunhuang and the Silk Road

Dunhuang, My Dreamland (2000), the contemporary dance-drama, staged the journey of a young pilgrim painter travelling from Chang’an to a land of the unfamiliar and beyond borders, in search for the arts that have inspired him.


Figure 3: A scene from Dunhuang, My Dreamland showing the young pilgrim painter in the Gobi Desert on the ancient Silk Road

Far from his home, he ended his journey in Dunhuang, historically considered the northwestern periphery of China, well beyond Yangguan and Yumenguan, the bordering passes that separate China and foreign lands. Later scenes in Dunhuang, My Dreamland, portrayed through multiethnic music and dances, the dynamic interactions among merchants, cultural and religious envoys, warriors, and politicians that were making their own journey from abroad to China. The theatrical dance-drama presents a historically inspired, re-imagined vision of both “home” and “abroad” to its audiences as they watch the young painter travel along the Silk Road, across the Gobi Desert, arriving at his own ideal, artistic “homeland”, the Dunhuang Mogao Caves. Since his journey is ultimately a spiritual one, the conceptualisation of travelling “abroad” could also be perceived as “a journey home.”

Staged more than four hundred times since it premiered in Beijing in April 2000, Dunhuang, My Dreamland is one of the top ten titles in China’s National Stage Project and one of the most successful theatrical dance-dramas ever produced in China. With revenue of more than thirty million renminbi (RMB), it ranks as the most profitable theatrical dance-drama ever produced in China, with a preproduction cost of six million RMB. The production team receives financial support from China’s Ministry of Culture for its “distinctive ethnic features,” and its “aim to promote traditional Chinese culture,” according to Xu Rong, an official in the Cultural Industry Department of the Ministry. Labeled an outstanding dance-drama of the Chinese nation, it aims to present domestic and international audiences with a vision of China as a historically multifaceted and cosmopolitan nation that has been in close contact with the outside world through the ancient Silk Road. Its production company has been on tour in selected cities throughout China and in countries abroad, including Austria, Spain, and France, literarily making the young pilgrim painter’s “journey along the Silk Road” a new journey abroad, off stage and in reality.

Dunhuang, My Dreamland was not the first, nor is it the last, staged performances that portrays the Chinese re-imagination of “journeying abroad” along the ancient Silk Road. It was created as one of many versions of Dunhuang bihua yuewu, a genre of music, dance, and dramatic performances created in the early twentieth century and based primarily on artifacts excavated from the Mogao Caves (Kuang). “The Mogao Caves are the greatest repository of early Chinese art,” states Mimi Gates, who works to increase public awareness of the UNESCO site and raise funds toward its conservation. “Located on the Chinese end of the Silk Road, it also is the place where many cultures of the world intersected with one another, so you have Greek and Roman, Persian and Middle Eastern, Indian and Chinese cultures, all interacting. Given the nature of our world today, it is all very relevant” (Pollack). As an expressive art form, this genre has been thriving since the late 1970s contributing to the global imagination of China’s “Silk Road journeys abroad” long before Dunhuang, My Dreamland achieved its domestic and international fame. For instance, in 2004, The Thousand-Handed and Thousand-Eyed Avalokiteśvara—one of the most representative (and well-known) Dunhuang bihua yuewu programs—was staged as a part of the cultural program during the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. This performance, as well as other Dunhuang bihua yuewu dance programs was the perfect embodiment of a foreign religion that arrived in China from abroad and became Sinicized (Kuang).


Figure 4: Mural from Dunhuang Mogao Cave No. 45

A Brief History of Staging the Silk Road Journeys

The staging of the Silk Road journeys abroad began in the late 1970s. Historically, the Silk Road signifies a multiethnic, cosmopolitan frontier, which underwent incessant conflicts between Chinese sovereigns and nomadic peoples (as well as between other groups), but was strongly imbued with the customs and institutions of central China (Duan, Mair, Shi, Sima). In the twentieth century, when China was no longer an empire, but had become what the early 20th-century reformer Liang Qichao (1873–1929) called “a nation among nations,” the long history of the Silk Road and the colourful, legendary journeys abroad became instrumental in the formation of a modern Chinese nation of unified diversity rooted in an ancient cosmopolitan past. The staged Silk Road theme dance-dramas thus participate in this formation of the Chinese imagination of “nation” and “abroad,” as they aestheticise Chinese history and geography. History and geography—aspects commonly considered constituents of a nation as well as our conceptualisations of “abroad”—are “invariably aestheticized to a certain degree” (Bakhtin 208). Diverse historical and cultural elements from along the Silk Road come together in this performance genre, which can be considered the most representative of various possible stagings of the history and culture of the Silk Road journeys.

In 1979, the Chinese state officials in Gansu Province commissioned the benchmark dance-drama Rain of Flowers along the Silk Road, a spectacular theatrical dance-drama praising the pure and noble friendship which existed between the peoples of China and other countries in the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.). While its plot also revolves around the Dunhuang Caves and the life of a painter, staged at one of the most critical turning points in modern Chinese history, the work as a whole aims to present the state’s intention of re-establishing diplomatic ties with the outside world after the Cultural Revolution. Unlike Dunhuang, My Dreamland, it presents a nation’s journey abroad and home. To accomplish this goal, Rain of Flowers along the Silk Road introduces the fictional character Yunus, a wealthy Persian merchant who provides the audiences a vision of the historical figure of Peroz III, the last Sassanian prince, who after the Arab conquest of Iran in 651 C.E., found refuge in China. By incorporating scenes of ethnic and folk dances, the drama then stages the journey of painter Zhang’s daughter Yingniang to Persia (present-day Iran) and later, Yunus’s journey abroad to the Tang dynasty imperial court as the Persian Empire’s envoy.

Rain of Flowers along the Silk Road, since its debut at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on the first of October 1979 and shortly after at the Theatre La Scala in Milan, has been staged in more than twenty countries and districts, including France, Italy, Japan, Thailand, Russia, Latvia, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and recently, in 2013, at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

“The Road”: Staging the Journey Today

Within the contemporary context of global interdependencies, performing arts have been used as strategic devices for social mobilisation and as a means to represent and perform modern national histories and foreign policies (Davis, Rees, Tian, Tuohy, Wong, David Y. H. Wu). The Silk Road has been chosen as the basis for these state-sponsored, extravagantly produced, and internationally staged contemporary dance programs. In 2008, the welcoming ceremony and artistic presentation at the Olympic Games in Beijing featured twenty apsara dancers and a Dunhuang bihua yuewu dancer with long ribbons, whose body was suspended in mid-air on a rectangular LED extension held by hundreds of performers; on the giant LED screen was a depiction of the ancient Silk Road.

In March 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping introduced the initiatives “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” during his journeys abroad in Kazakhstan and Indonesia. These initiatives are now referred to as “One Belt, One Road.” The State Council lists in details the policies and implementation plans for this initiative on its official web page, In April 2013, the China Institute in New York launched a yearlong celebration, starting with "Dunhuang: Buddhist Art and the Gateway of the Silk Road" with a re-creation of one of the caves and a selection of artifacts from the site. In March 2015, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic planning agency, released a new action plan outlining key details of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Xi Jinping has made the program a centrepiece of both his foreign and domestic economic policies. One of the central economic strategies is to promote cultural industry that could enhance trades along the Silk Road.

Encouraged by the “One Belt, One Road” policies, in March 2016, The Silk Princess premiered in Xi’an and was staged at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing the following July. While Dunhuang, My Dreamland and Rain of Flowers along the Silk Road were inspired by the Buddhist art found in Dunhuang, The Silk Princess, based on a story about a princess bringing silk and silkworm-breeding skills to the western regions of China in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) has a different historical origin. The princess's story was portrayed in a woodblock from the Tang Dynasty discovered by Sir Marc Aurel Stein, a British archaeologist during his expedition to Xinjiang (now Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region) in the early 19th century, and in a temple mural discovered during a 2002 Chinese-Japanese expedition in the Dandanwulike region.


Figure 5: Poster of The Silk Princess

In January 2016, the Shannxi Provincial Song and Dance Troupe staged The Silk Road, a new theatrical dance-drama. Unlike Dunhuang, My Dreamland, the newly staged dance-drama “centers around the ‘road’ and the deepening relationship merchants and travellers developed with it as they traveled along its course,” said Director Yang Wei during an interview with the author. According to her, the show uses seven archetypes—a traveler, a guard, a messenger, and so on—to present the stories that took place along this historic route. Unbounded by specific space or time, each of these archetypes embodies the foreign-travel experience of a different group of individuals, in a manner that may well be related to the social actors of globalised culture and of transnationalism today.


Figure 6: Poster of The Silk Road


As seen in Rain of Flowers along the Silk Road and Dunhuang, My Dreamland, staging the processes of Silk Road journeys has become a way of connecting the Chinese imagination of “home” with the Chinese imagination of “abroad.” Staging a nation’s heritage abroad on contemporary stages invites a new imagination of homeland, borders, and transnationalism. Once aestheticised through staged performances, such as that of the Dunhuang bihua yuewu, the historical and topological landscape of Dunhuang becomes a performed narrative, embodying the national heritage.

The staging of Silk Road journeys continues, and is being developed into various forms, from theatrical dance-drama to digital exhibitions such as the Smithsonian’s Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang (Stromberg) and the Getty’s Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road (Sivak and Hood). They are sociocultural phenomena that emerge through interactions and negotiations among multiple actors and institutions to envision and enact a Chinese imagination of “journeying abroad” from and to the country.


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Author Biography

Lanlan Kuang, University of Central Florida Center for Ethnic and Folk Literature and Art Development, Ministry of Culture, PRC

Lanlan Kuang is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar who specialized in the arts and humanities of China. She has a PhD from Indiana University, Bloomington’s Folklore and Ethnomusicology Institute and is currently teaching aesthetics and Asian humanities at the University of Central Florida's Philosophy Department. Kuang has won awards for her ethnographic research and documentary films in China since 1997. She was appointed merit research fellow by China's Ministry of Culture for her contributions on safeguarding folk arts and heritage culture. In 2012, she initiated the China-U.S. Ethnic Cultural Exchange & Joint Research Initiatives, the first and only overseas research base for the Center for Ethnic and Folk Literature and Art Development, Ministry of Culture of China and oversees projects such as the annual Sino-American University Student Digital Microfilm Competition, which now has become an official part of the Shanghai International Film Festival and Miami International Film Festival. In addition to her new book on the expressive arts from along the Silk Road, The Dunhuang Performing Arts in Global Context (Social Science Academy Press, 2016), Kuang is currently working on a book chapter for Music and Consciousness 2 (Oxford University Press).