ANNOUNCEMENT that two of China's most important cultural sites will be the focus of major preservation efforts also represents a breakthrough in international cooperation. Never before have the People's Republic of China, a private foundation (in this case, the Getty Trust here in Los Angeles), and a UN agency (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO) taken on a joint project of such importance.
The Mogao Grottoes, near the town of Dunhuang, and the Yungang Grottoes, near Datong, are the chosen sites. Both are among China's official national treasures - a designation given to only a few of the country's many historical sites. The thousands of sculptures and cave paintings at both sites make them prominent in the history of Buddhism, as well.
The Mogao Grottoes, located some 1,100 miles west of Beijing, contain 492 rock ``temples'' or caves, the oldest dating from about 400 A.D. They house some 484,200 square feet of wall paintings and more than 2,000 painted clay figures of Buddha.
The Yungang Grottoes near Datong, an industrial and coal mining city in northern China, contain rock temples dating from 460-524 A.D. in a 1,000-yard-long sandstone cliff.
The outcome of three years of dialogue about specific preservation needs in China, the project will begin its first phase this summer, and will last about 18 months. The project is intended as an educational tool. No cost estimates have been given. ``We hope the study of the particular problems here - natural and pollution damage, water seepage, and seismic instability - will help develop methods of treatment that can be applied to other sites around the world,'' says Luis Monreal, director of the Getty Conservation Institute.