During China's Cultural Revolution a group of students stood guard at a bridge spanning the Yi River in Henan Province to ward off attacks on a series of rock-carved caves.
Thanks to those students, one of the world's most imposing monuments entombing Chinese cultural and religious tradition, dating back more than 15 centuries, was saved: the treasure-rich Lung-men caves.
The rebirth of interest in the caves as well as many other efforts to unearth the past symbolize a resumption of cultural activities on an unprecedented scale in China in the wake of the Cultrual Revolution (1966- 76).
Less than a decade ago, museums were closed, archaeological excavations were halted, monuments in urgent need of restoration were left in disrepair. It was the Red Guard's creed that "the more knowledge one acquires the more reactionary one becomes."
But today archaeological digging abounds, yielding a great number of artifacts that fill several newly built museums.
The Lung-men caves, located about eight miles south of Loyang, were hollowed out of the rocky cliffs over four centuries, starting about 494. They consist of 1,352 grottos, 750 niches, and some 40 pagodas of various sizes. More than 100,000 Buddhist images were sculptured, the tallest ones towering more than 50 feet; the smallest, a couple of inches.
Recent diggings have also led to one of the most astonishing archaeological discoveries of all time: the tomb of Chin Shih Huang (259-210 BC), the Emperor who unified China and built the Great Wall. Emperor Chin conscripted 700,000 laborers and spent 36 years constructing a subterranean palace in which to spend eternity.
The Chinese say it may take two generations before the whole structure is unearthed. But what has been found so far defies the imagination. Thousands of clay soldiers well over 6 feet tall and for the most part perfectly preserved, wooden chariots, natural-size horses, and various types of arms have been recovered.
As many as 6,000 soldiers may be contained in the area being excavated, and this is but a beginning. The actual spot where the Emperor was put to rest is expected to produce splendid treasures and yield important information to historians and archaeologists about military strategy in China some 2,000 years ago.
The Chinese have established an Institure for the Repair of Ancient Buildings and an Institute for Research on the Preservation of Relics. Western specialists agree that they have done a remarkable job of restoring of buildings , statues, and artifacts thousands of years old.
"Had the Cultural Revolution lasted a few years longer," a chinese archaeologist said, "many of our country's monuments today would be beyond repair. Ten years of neglect has already done a great deal of damage."
Mistrustful of what is not Chinese, Peking authorities have so far not allowed foreign experts to participate in the new findings. But the ice is slowly beginning to melt. Contacts have been established with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The international groups has expressed hope that China will eventually join 53 countries in the World Heritage Convention.
The work undertaken by the Chinese during the past four years is of more than artistic or cultural significance to several countries of Southeast Asia. The number of Buddhist temples and monasteries has grown over the centuries to more than 800,000. Some of them are of great religious interest to Buddhists everywhere.
Officially, the religious aspect is being dismissed as "superstition." Stressed, instead, is that the laboring people of ancient China, by freeing themselves from the shackles of religious iconography and relying on real life as the source of artistic inspiration, succeeded in creating lifelike images.
The love that archaeologists (who barely earn enough to make ends meet) have for their jobs is touching, indeed. With full support from the authorities, these communists are striving to salvage not only symbols of a time when religion imbued the everyday life of the Chinese people, but also magnificent tombs of emperors and empresses from different dynasties, some imposing and of lasting historical value.
The days of the Cultural Revolution's willful neglect, its efforts to erase the past and build a new man upon its ruins, are gone.