Art China Hebei Planning Shaanxi Shanxi Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Fundraiser and Video Lectures

So, as most of you probably know, over the last months I’ve been having a fundraiser to get back to China for another mural collecting trip:

This fundraiser has now achieved its target, and I’m flying to Beijing tomorrow, January 1st. So, expect more murals from here on out. To that end, I made the below series of youtube videos introducing the project and the artistic traditions of Yu County. Hope you enjoy!



The Summer’s Catch

Above: The mountain-top temple and resident Daoist priest of Yellow Flower Mountain 黃華山, where I spent a very pleasant night in June.

In this post I’m just going to stick up a few of the more interesting frescoes I was able to collect this summer. In light of recent fundraising efforts, this should hopefully give folk a better idea of what I spend my time doing and photographing when out in the field. There’s not space here (nor would it be interesting to anyone) for me to put up everything I got this summer, so these are just some highlights.


1) A Goddesses Temple 娘娘廟, in Late-Qing Style

Previously I had only got one, heavily damaged side-wall iconography for the Goddesses, even though they are one of the most common of the Xuan-Da cults. It’s also possibly one of the most ancient – I haven’t actually tallied this up, but many of the oldest buildings sitting around in Yu County are Goddess Temples.

On the advice of the Director of the Yu County Museum, however, I was able to locate and photograph an iconography which has two out of three walls intact. The place though was very sad to be in. The temple is located within the grounds of a chicken farm, the ground is covered in feces both human and avian, and the air is abuzz with flies. The building is disintegrating to the point where it’s literally dangerous to be photographing inside; I kept bumping my head on the collapsing beams and sending little cataracts of dust down onto the floor.

Below: The Front Wall, showing three Goddesses and their attendants.

Below: The left wall, showing the Goddesses processing out, I believe to grant children to women. The Goddesses are the only Xuan-Da gods that habitually travel by horse-drawn cart; one wonders if there’s a connection to the old depictions of the Queen Mother of the West in her chariot…

I’m not going to post a gallery link or a location, as these things are vulnerable to theft. If you want to see all the photos, you can email me I suppose. Here are some other details:


2) A Second Goddesses Temple 娘娘廟, at Cock’s-Crow Station 雞鳴驛

I had the chance to look at a second Goddesses iconography, this time well-preserved in the eponymous temple at the Cock’s Crow Postal Station 雞鳴驛 just south of Xuanhua. This is a first attempt at seriously fresco-ing and fortress-ing outside of Yu County and its immediate surrounds. The main hall has something I didn’t even know existed: a paneled iconography showing the apotheosis of the main Goddess, the Jade Mist Primordial Worthy 碧霞元君. By bribing the Daoist with 200 kuai in the collection box I was able to take pictures of this. The room was quite dark so the quality of the pictures is bad, but I believe I got the main events of the story and the cartouches. At some point I’ll try to work out what the textual source is. All the frescoes from Cock’s-Crow Station are located here; these are reasonably well protected in an entrance-fee charging tourist site, so it doesn’t seem like a problem to stick them up online.

Below: The left wall.

Below: The right wall.

Below: The Goddess at an early stage in her career, where she seems to possess only a robe and a parasol. Here she is meditating in the forest and receiving gifts and teachings from a sage.

Below: A detail from one of the later panels, showing the Goddess again on her cart or chariot, being drawn by a phoenix 鳳凰.

Much more attractive though were the flanking halls. According to the explanatory plaque there, these frescoes are late-Ming or early-Qing, although the Cultural Bureau people I talked to there admitted that there wasn’t firm proof of this. I’d prefer to remain agnostic since the style doesn’t closely line up with other things I’ve seen; Qing generally would seem like a safe bet.

Below: The left wall.

Below: The right wall.

Below: Details from both sides.

Below: The Goddesses again in their phoenix-pulled chariots.

The opposite flanking hall is devoted to a god which I’d never encountered before: the “God [Surnamed] Zhang” 張仙. According to Baidu Baike, the God [Surnamed] Zhang is a common attendant of the Goddesses who fulfills a similar function – traveling through the world to grant children.

Below: The left wall.

Below: The right wall.

Below: Some details; I’m not sure who all of these characters are or what they’re doing precisely.

As above, since these are reasonably well protected, you can check out the whole gallery from Cock’s-Crow Station here. Hopefully I’ll be able to return there at some point in the future with a better camera to get the images in the dark, but for now it’s enough to have basic documentary photos.


3) The Temple of the Six Gods 六神廟

This temple is located south-east of the Yu County seat. It’s also a gov’t protected site and has been anthologized in “Temple Frescoes from Yu County” 蔚縣寺廟壁畫, so I’ll make the whole set available here. A lot of the images seem notably unattractive to me (a sort of beige-green color scheme prevails), but it certainly is a uniquely well-preserved set of frescoes. The really special ones among them are the two halls which preserve western-influenced images. The first is the Hall of the God of Wealth:

Below: The God of Wealth hall, left wall.

Below: The God of Wealth hall, right wall.

The second Western-influenced depiction is from the Kui-Star hall 魁星殿. Besides the interesting depictions of the Mansions of the Western Seas 西洋樓, I’ve also never seen a clear surviving image of the Kui-Star in Yu County, and only one other image of Wenchang 文昌.

Below: The Kui-Star hall, left wall.

Below: The Kui-Star hall, right wall.

Below: Kui-Star 魁星, the many-armed demon treading on the left, and Wenchang 文昌, the green-clothed official riding on the right.

As stated above, you can look through the entire gallery of the Six Gods’ Temple here.


4) More Western-Influenced Perspectival Drawings

Apropos to my perennial attempts to produce a paper about this, I spent some time, effort, and car-hire money getting around Yu County to take photos of Western-influenced frescoes in various places. Some of these are new to me, while others are places that I’d been before but due to access or inexperience hadn’t taken good photos. Almost all of these are in vulnerable situations so I’m not going to link to galleries or give the locations of any.

Below: Two walls of an opera stage, showing the Mansions of the Western Seas 西洋樓.

Below: A ruined building which locals claimed was a Goddesses Temple 娘娘廟, although it looks more like a stage to me. The walls are mostly destroyed but a few pretty details in the upper part of each side remain:

Below: A Ming dynasty opera stage, now sadly damaged. I’d never managed to go inside of this before; previously it had always been locked and the frescoes could only be photographed by sticking a hand in through a gap in the boards. This time when myself and a friend visited, the back door was hanging open. The images inside show the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions 四望亭 and the Mansions of the Western Seas 西洋樓.

Below: A very unusual Temple to the Three Purities 三清寺. It’s possible that the frescoes were painted even after the Cultural Revolution, the style is quite odd to me. Nevertheless the “science fiction” scenes on either side of the entrance-way are fun.

Below: This was actually photographed by some of my volunteers, Hannah Theaker and Becky Davis, last winter. Nevertheless it’s cool; in the course of renovating the below opera stage, the workers pealed back the plaster and mud on the walls and revealed the two beautiful frescoes below. When another one of my volunteers, Alex Chavarria, visited this July, the images had already been vandalized with a spray-paint bottle.


5) Opera Stage Drawings of the Romance of the Investiture of the Gods

In late July I paid a student named Alex Chavarria, originally from LA but studying in Beijing, to head up to Yu County with a tripod and a good camera and photograph a few things for me. Mostly he was working on gatehouse inscriptions, but he also did some very nice work taking pictures of frescoes as well. I’d seen and photographed the below images before, but I hadn’t been able to actually get into the stage where they were (it’s kept fenced off), and so Alex’s photos represent the first detailed images I’ve got of this.

The image depicts all of the heroes of the Romance of the Investiture of the Gods 封神演義, dueling amidst storm and strife. These are not nearly so well protected as they could be, so I’m not going to give the location. As always, if you want to see the full gallery, please email me.

Below: The left wall.

Below: The right wall.

Below: Details from both walls:


5) One More Late-Qing Dragon King Temple 龍王廟

This is from the same village as the above images, and probably the hand of the same artist as well. It’s not that different from other Dragon King processions, but it’s very well preserved, and these things are not so common that one isn’t always happy to have another one. According to Alex, the temple-keeper told him that one wall was in danger of collapse, and for this reason a great deal of things had to be kept piled against it.

Below: The structure looks Ming-dynasty to me, although the images inside are certainly not.

Below: Left wall, left side.

Below: Left wall, right side.

Below: Details. Note the lovely Qing-dynasty shawm-band procession at the base.


5) Other Things

There are a few other interesting highlights that I won’t stick up here now, mainly because they’re too complicated and I want to post fully about them later on when I have time.

  1. I went back to gNyan Thog dGon in Rebgong and got better photos of both the Maitreya Hall (focusing on the few cartouches) and the ceiling images of the Earth-Subduing Chapel. These are both for a paper I’m hoping to write this fall, based on previous posts here.
  2. With the introduction of the head of the Yu County Museum, I was able to get in and photograph the Images of the Hundred Trades 百工圖 held in the Lord Guan Temple 關公廟 of Xiayuan Village 夏原村. I’m going to edit these, translate the cartouches and steles, and put them all up here at some point, but if you want to see the gallery you can look at it here.
  3. This didn’t actually happen this summer, but. Last winter in January my volunteers Hannah Theaker and Becky Davis got permission to photograph the walls of the Monastery of the Peaceful Sage 安賢寺 in Guangling. I’d done a bit of this before but never completely. This is an incredibly dense and detailed set of Water-and-Land 水陸 murals which have no cartouches, so it’s very hard to tell what’s what. There are also a large number of side-chapels with other topics that are sometimes hard to determine.The rooms unlit so it’s often difficult to photograph in there; they did a much better job than I would have. You can check out the galleries here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Plus of course a huge amount of damaged material and inscriptions etc., which I won’t bother sticking up here now. So, as I stated at the start, if you want me to continue funding volunteers and ultimately to go back there myself to do this full time for a while, please consider donating at the Gofundme page!

Art China Gansu Hebei

Objects Belonging to Langdon Warner in the Possession of the Fogg Art Museum

Above Top: Langdon Warner on a camel at Kara-Khoto in 1923. Image from “Langdon Warner Through His Letters”.
Above Middle: Langdon Warner ~1910, or roughly thirty years old. Image from “Langdon Warner Through His Letters”.
Above Bottom: The Tang dynasty Boddhisattva removed by Langdon Warner from Cave 328 at Mogao and carted, wrapped in his under-clothes, all the way back to Xi’an, thence by train to the coast, and from there to America and the Fogg Art Museum.


Apologies for the very long hiatus in updates. I’m back in Boston now briefly, via Berkeley, China, Amdo, Berkeley again, and soon to be Berkeley once more. In the next few posts I’m going to try to shoot up a few of the collections I’ve been able to make over the last six months or so.

Langdon Warner (1881-1955) got his start as an archaeologist and art historian in Asia in 1903, when he was participated as a volunteer at the excavations at Anau in what’s now Turkmenistan, then the Russian Empire. His career did not truly begin, however, until 1906. In this year the Boston MFA and Harvard University decided that they needed expertise in the art of Japan. For this purpose two young men were selected and sent to that country to study the language and the high arts; one of those men was Langdon Warner. From this year until 1952, Langdon Warner made eighteen trips into Asia. Japan and Japanese art was always his passion, but he travelled elsewhere as well: most famously the two Fogg Expeditions to Dunhuang in 1923-25, but also long stays in Beijing, journeys to Longmen, to Yungang, to Ankor Wat, to Korea, as well as a ride north across Mongolia and into Russia during the First World War, where he served as an American liaison with the Czech Legion during their Trans-Siberian anabasis. By the outbreak Second World War, he had retired from adventurous collecting and was teaching at Harvard. (He never became a full professor; so far as I know he never even had a doctorate.) During the war years he taught a course on Japanese language and culture in Washington DC, and for a brief period at the war’s end became one of the “Monuments Men” in Japan and Korea.

He was also my grandfather. His son, Caleb Warner, is 94 years in 2017, and still living now in an Assisted Living Facility in Bedford MA. Caleb Warner’s daughter, Langdon Warner’s grand-daughter, is my mother.

Roughly two years ago, our family was contacted by the Fogg Museum at Harvard. It turned out that when Langdon Warner died, he had left a large number of objects in the possession of the museum, originally lent to them for teaching purposes. Although they had remained in the museum for over sixty years, the ownership still technically resided with LW’s heirs. We of course immediately stated that we would gift the objects to the museum where they already were, but we did ask as our only condition that we could arrange a viewing of the objects for family interest. This happened in January 2017.

Most of the items are minor pieces – a collection of Korean kiln cast-offs, small Chinese bronze objects presumably from the Beijing antique shops, some interesting clay figurines, a Japanese dharmapāla, some rubbings possibly from Xi’an, and sundry other odds and ends. Langdon Warner’s wife, my great-grandmother née Lorraine Roosevelt, also collected and wrote about Asian art; items probably gathered by her included some Korean kiln cast-offs and scraps of fabric perhaps once intended for clothing. I’ve put all the photos given to us by the museum up here, as well as some of my own highlights.

It’s also my strong opinion that if Langdon Warner wasn’t the most illustrious or successful of the Silk Road explorers, he was far and away the best writer. I’ve never seen PDFs of LW’s two “travel books” online, so I’ve stuck up links to my PDF copies here. Click to download, “Long Old Road in China” and “Langdon Warner Through His Letters“. Always my favorite excerpt, describing his entrance into the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang:

Chapter XIV (p 138): The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas

“After all these years and all these miles, and the hours spent examining the reproductions of M. Pelliot’s photographs, there was nothing to do but gasp. Hardly in ten days, during which I never left the caves except for food, could I bring myself to the task of critical study. For the holy men of fourteen centuries ago had left their gods in splendour on those walls. Tens of thousands of them, walking in slow procession, seated calm on flowering lotus blossoms, with hands raised to bless mankind, or wrapt in meditation or deeper still sunk in thoughtless Nirvana. They were the very gods whose existence I had only guessed. Sir Aurel Stein shows one or two in his book, and Professor Pelliot has five volumes of them and another volume still to come. Learned gentlemen, in books costing seventy-three shillings and sixpence net, discuss the ancestry and progeny of the Chinese pantheon and base their findings upon their study of these reproductions.

But in the very presence, such things are not. These dim figures, half faded from the walls in an irreligious age, and lit only by a half-reflected twilight from the winter sun outside, are a company of elder gods who have not left the earth with their noble companions long since fled. They people those high halls in silence so profound and full of meaning that for the first time I understood why I had crossed an ocean and two continents, plodding beside my cart these weary months, to assure myself of their presence. It was not so much active realizing of their surpassing beauty that made me satisfied and dulled my critical sense: it was this reality of the unreal. They were there not as living beings, certainly not as dead ones. I, who had come to attribute dates and glibly to refute the professors and to discover artistic influences, stood in the centre of the chapel with my hands dug deep in my pockets and tried to think. Surely I, an American and no Buddhist, in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and twenty four, had been vouchsafed a vision… It grew dark and I strolled back to my room wondering.

It was veritably Chien Fo Tung, the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, for big and little, half-obliterated or almost perfect, there were tens of thousands of figures on those walls. Many of the most superb were so nearly gone that one must stand at a distant and discreet angle to know that they were there at all. They seemed to be retiring gradually from the light of common day. Perhaps they were already gone to the peak of the Sumeru Mountain, whence the storks fly off with pine boughs in their long bills and where there is a gentle rain of lotus petals all the sunless, shadowless day, which stretches nightless to eternity. Often it seemed as if they were indeed gone and had left but shadows and pictures of themselves on the walls. And yet among the shadows and the pictures I came on figures which gave forth a sombre glow and looked through and past my gaze with such ineffable, dispassionate calm that I knew them to be there in the very spirit, a spirit much more themselves than the blood and flesh which made up my body and was the real I. …”

The things I liked from the Fogg collection:

Below: Bronze Belt Buckles:

Below: A TLV mirror. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by these things, but never held one in my hands before that.

Below: Fabric samples, perhaps collected for sewing projects by Lorraine:

Below: One of Lorraine’s Korean celadon pieces:

Below: The torso of the Japanese Dharmapāla:

This below here is actually my favorite set of pieces, and the catalyst of a small but very good adventure, were these wood-blocks. The label on the back reads, “Used to impress designs on clay doorways of farmhouses. West Kansu Province, China, 1925”, and the Chinese on the blocks gives apotropaic characters and recipes.

The odd thing, however, was this block, set with the others, but in a totally different style, with much finer workmanship. The figure didn’t look like any Gansu-nese village iconography I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen more than most people. The block also wasn’t labeled as being from Gansu like the other two.

I brought this to my friend at Berkeley, Ryosuke K. Ueda, who after a quick search online identified the block as representing Akiba Gongben 秋葉権現, the patron deity and fire-prevention spirit of the Akihabara District of Tokyo. Langdon Warner or someone else must have purchased the block in Tokyo and then stuck it together with the two Gansu-nese blocks, to illustrate the common technique of woodblock printing apotropaic charms. Afterwards, the exact provenance of the Japanese block was lost.

Here are the rest of the pictures, as provided by the university. You can view the file concordance they gave us here.

Amdo Art China Gansu Tibet

Tibetan Briefcase Art



The below is a collection of Tibetan book-holders. I took the photos where they were hung and stacked in the entry-way of the main prayer hall of rGan Gya dGon Pa, on the plateau north of Labrang, while bumping around on a fortressologizing trip with my dad this summer. Afterwards I spent a long time looking to buy one in various places. They are hard to find now, and good ones have to be commissioned specially from craftsmen. The best ones here have been individually hand painted on each panel, and the wooden frame enameled with silver. Other than rGan Gya, where it seemed that every monk had one, I have not seen them in common use elsewhere.

These things are called by are different names in different places. In Labrang they are called Shog Bu Ba Li, in Rebgong they are called Lag Shing, and in Lhasa-dialect they are Shing Leb. Tibetan books (dPe Cha) are long, flat, and loose-leafed. The idea is that you bind the book with cloth, press them between these two boards, and bind the whole thing tight with a cord. I think they are an eminently lovely way to carry your books around.




























Amdo Art Tibet

More Tibetan Doors and Windows


A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to spend two nights in a place called gYu Thog Monastery, in ‘Dzam Thang rDzong of south-eastern Amdo. (The place can be found on the maps as 四川壤塘縣魚托寺). The monastery is one of the few bKa’ rGyud sect institutions in eastern Tibet, and houses several hundred monks. The people I met were extremely kind and hospitable to a foreign traveler who arrived both sunburned and soaking wet, and who was unable to walk for most of the next day due to blisters.



Although the area considers itself part of Amdo, the architectural influence of nearby Khams is everywhere obvious. The traditional houses are built usually built of white-painted stone and red-painted timber, in three stories accessed by stairs or ladders. The lowest story is (traditionally) used as a barn for yaks and sheep. The middle story is living spaces and the third story is a cavernous attic often open on one or two sides, used for storage and for drying grain. In the more modern houses, the first story has become a sort of garage for motorcycles and boots, while the second and third stories contain bed rooms and big multi-use living rooms with central cooking stoves and duvets for sleeping.

As is my usual habit, I went around the place one rainy morning with a camera and a stick for dogs, collecting pictures of doors and windows. Traditionally such windows would have been made of a wooden grill with an outer covering of boards to be closed when foul weather threatened – one or two examples of this can be seen below. In the present day (despite the traditional form, none of these houses are particularly old) glass is commonly used. The results are below; I put what I thought were the prettiest examples at full scale.








Finally, just because I don’t think I ever put these up on this blog before (although they’ve been on the sidebar), here is another collection of doors and windows from places around Khams. These were taken over the course of a walking trip in winter and spring 2009. They represent a variety of different regional styles, from all over both northern and southern Khams.