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 empire.

View of the Mogao cliff face



The oasis town of Dunhuang is situated at the edge of the Gobi desert, in the west of the present-day Chinese province of Gansu. Despite its turbulent political history, Dunhuang prospered, both on its own account - it was in a fertile area known for its melons and grapes in particular - and because it became a major staging post for traders and for missionary monks and pilgrims of Buddhism and other religions. 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 a place of importance when it was under the control of the Western Xia kingdom (990-1227) and the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).

From the time of the Han to the end of the Yuan, a most important trade route developed from China to the West, which later became known by the marvellously evocative name, The Silk Road. The ancient traveller leaving China along this road would pass through Dunhuang before braving the many hazards of the journey westwards through East Turkestan (present-day Xinjiang). 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. 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, and also to south Asia. Persian and Sogdian merchants travelled the whole length, and were such familiar sights in the Chinese capitals Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) and Luoyang that they can frequently be found, for example, portrayed on Tang dynasty figurines. This route was also used by Buddhist monks from China and Korea travelling west in search of images and scriptures, and by ambassadors and princes from the west making the long journey to China. It was by means of the Silk Road that all manner of exotic imports reached China, as diplomatic gifts or through trade, and mainly in exchange for silks: vessels made of gold and silver and the techniques for working these metals; fine glass; fragrances and spices; exotic animals such as lions and ostriches; new fruits such as grapes; dancers, musicians and their instruments.

After the splendours of the Tang dynasty, however, trade along the Silk Road was severely curtailed, and Dunhuang was left in isolation. Later trade between China and Europe was entirely by sea. By the late nineteenth century, with the decline of Chinese imperial power, the whole of Central Asia, including Dunhuang, was a political void which invited foreign interest from many sides, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan. This provided the opportunity for the "rediscovery" of ancient cultures and treasures along the trade routes.


Buddha Triad, north wall, cave 427, Sui dynasty (581-618)



It was not just merchandise, technology and culture that passed along the Silk Road. From the early centuries AD, learned monks from the monastic centres of Central Asia imparted their knowledge and interpretations of the scriptures to their Chinese counterparts by way of these trade routes. Representatives of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian dualist religion, and of Nestorianism, an Eastern Christian sect, also reached China and established themselves there.

Founded in the sixth century BC, Buddhism soon began expanding northwards from the foothills of the Himalayas. In the third century BC, under its most influential convert, the Indian emperor Asoka, it was dispersed by missionaries across Central Asia, where it remained dominant for about a thousand years, until invaders in the seventh century AD brought in Islam. In China itself, Buddhism was introduced probably as early as the first century BC, with communities of Buddhist monks in existence by the first century AD. Learned Buddhist monks became valued as palace advisors, and it was through imperial and aristocratic patronage that Buddhism made its first substantial progress in the empire. Because of its vitally important position on the Silk Road, virtually every stage of this progress is chronicled in the caves at Dunhuang.


Nine-tiered verandah protecting the Northern Great Buddha of cave 96



By the fourth century, there was a growing Buddhist community at Dunhuang. Some twenty-five kilometres to the south-east of the town, at the edge of the Mingsha Shan or Dunes of the Singing Sands - named for the melodious sounds produced by the wind that blows through them - lies a river-bed. Bordering this is a long cliff, Mogaoku, which was even then probably regarded as a sacred place. It was here that a Buddhist monk, Yuezun, first set about carving a remote and almost inaccessible cave for solitary meditation high up the cliff face. Though this first cave, which was probably quite small, has not survived, hundreds of similar caves were cut and maintained, without serious interruption, for the next thousand years. Some 492 decorated caves, large and small, are extant today.

The caves that survive hardly conform to the western idea of monastic cells: they were all painstakingly adorned - every inch of wall and ceiling - with lavish ornament, narrative illustrations and countless images of Buddha and heavenly beings. The site, popularly known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, became a major centre for Buddhist pilgrims. Not only the local Buddhist monks and lay believers, but also rulers and administrators from near and far, sought to dedicate shrines to celebrate the Buddhist faith and to bear witness to their own status in society and the honours they had received from the Chinese empire.

Political changes of dynasty, and even the religious persecutions which devastated Buddhist institutions within China, never seemed to hamper the pace at which new caves were opened and decorated. Dunhuang, in the far west, was simply too remote for even the great persecution of Buddhism in the Huichang era (842-845) to be effective, the area having then been under Tibetan, rather than Chinese, control for some sixty years. The prayers of travellers and merchants for a safe passage through the hazards of the desert crossing - or to render thanks for the same - and the devout wishes of Chinese residents anxious to secure their own return to the heartland of China were sufficient reasons for new dedications. In every case, these dedications reflected changes in the nature of Buddhist teachings and beliefs, whether these changes had been introduced from India and Central Asia or were Chinese developments.

Personal devotion is attested in the great number of images of popular Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara (Guanyin), who offered salvation from every kind of danger and misfortune simply through the recitation of his name. Such dangers could be vividly portrayed in paintings, and provided the opportunity for the artists to depict everyday activities and people of every kind, from Chinese officials to Sogdian merchants, from highway bandits to the official guards at city gates.

After the emergence of powerful local clans in the tenth century, when some of the largest caves were dedicated, the eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed a scaling-down of activity at the site. The last few caves are the work of the fourteenth century, during the Yuan dynasty. No new caves were cut during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, although sundry restorations were undertaken during the latter period, and visitors' inscriptions show that the site remained in use. The first western visitors, in 1878, were the Hungarian Count Széchenyi Béla and his two companions, Lajos Lóczy and Gustav Kreitner, both of whom wrote a short accounts of the caves.


Northern end of the Mogao cliff face, pitted with caves for shelter



Fortunately, since the beginning of the twentieth century, the site of Dunhuang has experienced a veritable renaissance. This began with the discovery, in 1900, of the library containing thousands of manuscripts and paintings, which had been sealed up in the early eleventh century. Distance and lack of resources made it impossible for Chinese scholars to explore its contents: the first archaeological explorer from the west to reach the caves was another Hungarian, Marc Aurel Stein. His interest was aroused by his friend Lóczy's description of the caves and by word of the hidden library, as well as by the Han dynasty watchtowers along the line of the Great Wall just to the north of Dunhuang. After Stein came the French sinologist Paul Pelliot, followed in turn by others from Russia, Japan and, eventually, China. The manuscripts and paintings they obtained are now in leading academic institutions such as the British Museum and the British Library in London, the Musée Guimet and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the National Museum of India in New Delhi, and the Beijing National Library. Scholars have found these materials to be a treasure trove of information not only on the history of Buddhism and Buddhist art, but also for popular literature and economic and social history.

Since the 1940s, with the foundation of the institute now known as the Dunhuang Academy, work on the caves and their contents has proceeded at an ever-increasing pace. A full-time staff, under the directorship of Duan Wenjie, have completed accurate registers of the caves and the subjects depicted in them, and publish a quarterly journal. International conferences are held at the site, in conjunction with the conservation monitoring and protection of the murals and stuccoes, a process in which the Getty Conservation Institute and Japanese specialists are also taking part.

This book provides a detailed photographic record of forty of the Dunhuang caves, from the earliest caves extant, through to some of the latest. The spectacular colour plates presented in this volume provide a rare opportunity to savour some of the excitement of visiting this remote site and to admire a selection from the two thousand stucco figures and the stunning expanse of some 45,000 square metres of wall-painting that remain at Dunhuang. Close study of the illustrations, in combination with the accompanying text in Volume 2, offers the reader a chance to re-discover some of the history and development of Buddhism, one of the world's foremost religions, through its extraordinary and most beautiful art.

All text and illustrations © Textile & Art Publications 1996:
not to be reproduced without permission.

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