Caves of the Singing Sands
Buddhist Art from the Silk Road

text by Roderick Whitfield; photographs by Seigo Otsuka

Textile & Art Publications, 1996

Please click on each of the illustrations on this page to view larger-scale images and extracts from the text

View of the Mogao cliff face - Introduction



The Mogao cave temples near the town of Dunhuang, at the edge of the Gobi desert in north-west China, are filled with one of the most extensive and exquisite collections of Buddhist paintings and sculptures in the world. Every surface of the walls and ceilings is covered with painted clay stucco, some 45,000 square metres in all: graceful acrobats of the sky scatter flowers and garlands, while dancers and musicians celebrate the beauties of the Buddhist Pure Lands; row upon row of miniature images of the Buddha, subtly varied in colouring or dress, adorn virtually every cave, and give the site its popular name of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. The Dunhuang caves remain one of the most perfectly preserved of the world's great religious sanctuaries. 



The oasis town of Dunhuang lay at a crucial junction of the Silk Road, that ancient braid of caravan trails stretching for more than 7,000 kilometres from China to the Mediterranean, which served as a highway not just for merchandise, but also for ideas - religious, cultural and artistic. By the 4th century AD, the Silk Road had brought Dunhuang both commercial prosperity and a growing Buddhist community. Some 25 kilometres to its south-east, at the edge of the Mingsha Shan or Dunes of the Singing Sands, lay a river bed bordered by a long cliff.


East slope of ceiling, Cave 285,Western Wei (535-556)

Detail from Buddha Triad
North wall, Cave 427, Sui (581-618)

  It was here, in the year 366 AD, that a local monk set about carving out a cave for solitary meditation. Over the next thousand years, hundreds of similar caves were cut into the same rock face - to become not bare monastic cells but richly endowed and adorned shrines. The site began to decline in the 12th century, and slipped into virtual obscurity until the early years of the 20th century. Some 492 decorated caves remain to this day.
The Author
Roderick Whitfield began his study of Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, in 1955, and subsequently studied Chinese art and archaeology at St John's College, Cambridge, and Chinese history of art at Princeton University. From 1968 to 1984 he was Assistant Keeper in the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, where he organised a number of exhibitions of Chinese painting and curated the loan exhibition Treasures from Korea. He is the author of The Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection at the British Museum, in which he discussed the Buddhist paintings and prints on silk, hemp cloth and paper brought to London from Dunhuang by Sir Aurel Stein at the beginning of this century.

Heavenly Being
East slope of ceiling, Cave 285, Western Wei (535-556)


Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara
South wall, Cave 45, High Tang (705-780)

  The Photographer
Seigo Otsuka, a photographer renowned in Japan, was born in 1946 in Harbin, north-west China. He studied at the Tokyo Institute of Polytechnics, specialising in photography. As principal photographer, he has participated in numerous overseas research projects with the NHK Broadcasting team, and he has co-authored a number of other publications. A member of the Photographers' Organisation of Japan, he continues to specialise in quality art and travel photograph on a freelance basis.


In this, the first publication of its kind in the West, the magnificent Dunhuang murals can be viewed in superb colour plates, with a remarkable choice of views, to offer the reader a brilliantly illuminated view of the art of the caves. Forty of the best preserved caves, from among the earliest to the latest, are recorded in unprecedented detail, supplemented by extensive commentaries.


Mourning Potentate
North wall, Cave 158, Middle Tang (781-847)

Detail from the Procession of Zhang Yichao
South wall, Cave 156, Late Tang, completed 865

  This new work, revised and expanded from the original Japanese edition, is published in two volumes. Volume 1 features 400 colour plates of outstanding definition, while the essays to the plates, newly written for this edition in an accessible narrative form, are presented in Volume 2.



Cave 272

"One of the most impressive publications on the site...Awe-inspiring. The two-volume set is a collector's fetish, and a subtle device for converting the uninitiated to the wonders of Buddhist art, China and the Silk Road."
Eastern Art Report, Vol. IV, no. 3, 1996

"Dunhuang is one of China's greatest artistic treasures... The next best thing to being there ...is [this] two-volume work by Roderick Whitfield... Only through such international efforts as [this book] can the English-speaking world understand and appreciate the true greatness of this site. Being there is not enough."
Far Eastern Economic Review, 16 January 1997

"This handsomely produced 2-volume set is the first comprehensive study of the Dunhuang cave-shrines published in English, and perhaps the most intelligently constructed book on the subject in any language. It is at once compact and all-inclusive."
Orientations magazine, April 1997

"An excellent starting place for those interested in the [Dunhuang] caves and their artworks... The illustrations, which range from large views to details, are of a very high quality... Folded into this is a great deal of information about the historical and religious context of the art."
Archaeology magazine, November 1997


English language edition
Published: 1996
First edition 1,500 copies
- 356 pages, hardbound in cloth with slipcase
- Large-format, 364 x 297 mm (14 x 12 in) two-volume set
- Volume 1, Plates: 260 pp, with 400 superb colour reproductions
- Volume 2, Text: 96 pp, with new 60,000-word text by Roderick Whitfield, Percival David Professor of Chinese and East Asian Art, SOAS, University of London
- Over 80 other illustrations, line drawings and plans of the caves
- Outstanding high-quality reproductions and printing on Japanese art paper

ISBN: 978-1-898406-05-1

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