Dunhuang and the Cave of ManuscriptsDunhuang 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The Mogao Grottoes contain priceless paintings, sculptures, some 50,000 Buddhist scriptures, historical documents, textiles, and other relics that first stunned the world in the early 1900s.
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 oases.
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 empire.
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 marvelously evocative name, The Silk Road. 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). 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 traveling 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.
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.