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Dunhuang and the Cave of Manuscripts

Dunhuang has 492 caves, with 45,000 square meters of frescos, 2, 415 painted statues and
five wooden-structured caves.
The Mogao Grottoes contain priceless paintings, sculptures, some 50,000 Buddhist
scriptures, historical documents, textiles, and other relics that first stunned the world in the
early 1900s.
Dunhuang is an oasis town in Chinese Central Asia west of Xian, a former capital of China.
To the west of Dunhuang lies the Taklamakan Desert. The silk road coming from the west
split to follow the northern and southern borders of the desert where there were many small
Dunhuang was the town where the two branches of the silk road rejoined for the final leg
into China's capital.
The cave-temples near the town of Dunhuang form what is arguably the world's most
extraordinary gallery of Buddhist art: a gallery whose magnificent mural paintings and
stucco sculptures were not collected from distant sources but were created in situ over a
period of nearly a thousand years. Moreover, one particular cave contained a sealed library
whose contents, consisting of written documents, silk paintings and woodblock prints,
reflect contacts with every major Buddhist centre of both Central Asia and the Chinese
The town was founded by Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty in 111 BC as one of the four
garrison commanderies which assured Chinese control over the trade routes to the western
regions. For several hundred years after the collapse of the Han empire (206 BC-220 AD),
the area was subjected to successive waves of invasions, which often caused great
upheaval. For example, in 439, conquest of the area by the Northern Wei (386-535) led to a
relocation of thirty thousand of its inhabitants to the dynastic capital in Shanxi province.
In 781, during the Tang dynasty (618-906), Dunhuang surrendered to the Tibetans after ten
years' resistance. When Chinese rule was restored in 848, one local family assumed power,
to be followed in the tenth century by other powerful clans. Dunhuang was last considered

This route was also used by Buddhist monks from China and Korea traveling west in search of images and scriptures. This provided the opportunity for the "rediscovery" of ancient cultures and treasures along the trade routes. Silk was traded along this seven thousand kilometre braid of caravan trails from China right across Asia to the eastern Roman empire on the shores of the Mediterranean. for example. a most important trade route developed from China to the West. fragrances and spices. with the decline of Chinese imperial power. including Dunhuang. the whole of Central Asia. was a political void which invited foreign interest from many sides. portrayed on Tang dynasty figurines. France. The ancient traveler leaving China along this road would pass through Dunhuang before braving the many hazards of the journey westwards through East Turkestan (present-day Xinjiang). dancers. as diplomatic gifts or through trade. which later became known by the marvelously evocative name. however. It was by means of the Silk Road that all manner of exotic imports reached China. trade along the Silk Road was severely curtailed.a place of importance when it was under the control of the Western Xia kingdom (9901227) and the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). and also to south Asia. The Silk Road. fine glass. and mainly in exchange for silks: vessels made of gold and silver and the techniques for working these metals. Dunhuang has a special place in history because of its location close to the parting of the northern and southern routes that skirted the impassable Taklamakan desert. musicians and their instruments. and were such familiar sights in the Chinese capitals Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) and Luoyang that they can frequently be found. and Dunhuang was left in isolation. including Britain. After the splendours of the Tang dynasty. technology and culture that passed along the Silk Road. By the late nineteenth century. It was not just merchandise. new fruits such as grapes. Later trade between China and Europe was entirely by sea. learned monks from the monastic centres of Central Asia imparted . Persian and Sogdian merchants travelled the whole length. Russia and Japan. From the time of the Han to the end of the Yuan. Germany. From the early centuries AD. and by ambassadors and princes from the west making the long journey to China. exotic animals such as lions and ostriches.

where it remained dominant for about a thousand years. 25 km southeast of Dunhuang. The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang. Representatives of Zoroastrianism. the Indian emperor Asoka.D. popularly known as the Thousand Buddha Caves.000 colored sculptured figures and five wooden eaves overhanging the caves. In China itself. more than 2. an Eastern Christian sect. the 492 caves are well preserved. were carved out of the rocks stretching for about 1. Learned Buddhist monks became valued as palace advisors. .600 meters along the eastern side of the Mingsha Hill. In the third century BC. A Tang Dynasty inscription records that the first cave in the Mogao Grottoes was made in 366 A. the ancient Persian dualist religion. it was dispersed by missionaries across Central Asia. and of Nestorianism. with communities of Buddhist monks in existence by the first century AD. Despite erosion and man-made destruction.000 square metres. Founded in the sixth century BC. Buddhism was introduced probably as early as the first century BC. Buddhism soon began expanding northwards from the foothills of the Himalayas. until invaders in the seventh century AD brought in Islam. also reached China and established themselves there. Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the Mogao Grottoes on the World Heritage List in 1987. virtually every stage of this progress is chronicled in the caves at Dunhuang. and it was through imperial and aristocratic patronage that Buddhism made its first substantial progress in the empire. with frescoes covering an area of 45.their knowledge and interpretations of the scriptures to their Chinese counterparts by way of these trade routes. The United Nations Educational. Because of its vitally important position on the Silk Road. under its most influential convert.

It was crammed with ancient manuscripts and printed documents.000 sutras. dancing and acrobatics. manuscripts. In 1961 the Grottoes were listed by the State Council as one of China's key historical and cultural sites. Its discovery coincided with a period of great international archaeological research in the area and Sir Aurel Stein was the first to gain access in 1907. Documents and paintings from other Silk Road towns are to be found more widely in museums and libraries throughout Europe and Asia. literary works. Petersburg. Thereafter archaeologists from France. The 'Cave for Preserving Scriptures'. Sergei Feodorovich Oldenburg and other archaeologists. London and St. it is the greatest and most consummate repository of Buddhist art in the world. temples. Russia and China were drawn to Dunhuang and the great majority of manuscripts and documents from this one cave are now in Beijing. courtyards. Many pavilions. Paris. The site lay empty and ignored until a secret sealed-up cave was discovered at the end of the 19th century. documents and paintings covering a period from the 4th to the 11th centuries. Much of the Hand-copied ancient books. towers. was discovered by a Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu in 1900. Buddhist and secular decorative art works. Repairs were carried out from 1963 to 1965. pagodas. The Dunhuang Art Academy was established by Chang Shuhong later. Chinese scholars such as Luo Zhenyu and Wang Guowei cultivated the study of Dunhuang culture by publishing a number of books in 1910. The cave contains more than 50. These precious relics are of great historical and scientific value. palaces.According to archaeologists. Between 1906 and 1919 the Dunhuang grottoes was looted. Paul Pelliot. and ancient manuscripts were removed by Aurel Stein. . It was one of China's most significant archaeological finds. Other paintings depict Chinese and foreign musical performances. towns and bridges in the murals provide valuable materials for the study of Chinese architecture.

along with documents in Khotanese. All this material is included in The International Dunhuang Project and will be entered onto the Project database. thousands of Tibetan and Tangut manuscripts. . Sogdian and Eastern Turkic. the British Library Stein collection includes several thousand woodslips and woodslip fragments with Chinese writing.000 paper scrolls and fragments from this cave at Dunhuang. Prakrit wooden tablets in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts.Apart from 14. Uighur.

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