Northern end of the Mogao cliff face, pitted with caves for shelter
The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, popularly known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, were carved out of the rocks stretching for about 1,600 meters along the eastern side of the Mingsha Hill, 25 km southeast of Dunhuang.
A Tang Dynasty inscription records that the first cave in the Mogao Grottoes was made in 366 A.D. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the Mogao Grottoes on the World Heritage List in 1987.
Despite erosion and man-made destruction, the 492 caves are well preserved, with frescoes covering an area of 45,000 square metres, more than 2,000 colored sculptured figures and five wooden eaves overhanging the caves.
According to archaeologists, it is the greatest and most consummate repository of Buddhist art in the world.
Many pavilions, towers, temples, pagodas, palaces, courtyards, towns and bridges in the murals provide valuable materials for the study of Chinese architecture. Other paintings depict Chinese and foreign musical performances, dancing and acrobatics.
The ‘Cave for Preserving Scriptures’, was discovered by a Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu in 1900. The cave contains more than 50,000 sutras, documents and paintings covering a period from the 4th to the 11th centuries. It was one of China’s most significant archaeological finds. These precious relics are of great historical and scientific value.
Detail from the Procession of Zhang Yichao
In 1961 the Grottoes were listed by the State Council as one of China’s key historical and cultural sites. Repairs were carried out from 1963 to 1965.
Between 1906 and 1919 the Dunhuang grottoes was looted. Much of the Hand-copied ancient books, manuscripts, literary works, Buddhist and secular decorative art works, and ancient manuscripts were removed by Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Sergei Feodorovich Oldenburg and other archaeologists.
Chinese scholars such as Luo Zhenyu and Wang Guowei cultivated the study of Dunhuang culture by publishing a number of books in 1910. The Dunhuang Art Academy was established by Chang Shuhong later.
The site lay empty and ignored until a secret sealed-up cave was discovered at the end of the 19th century. It was crammed with ancient manuscripts and printed documents. 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. Thereafter archaeologists from France, Russia and China were drawn to Dunhuang and the great majority of manuscripts and documents from this one cave are now in Beijing, Paris, London and St. Petersburg. Documents and paintings from other Silk Road towns are to be found more widely in museums and libraries throughout Europe and Asia.
Apart from 14,000 paper scrolls and fragments from this cave at Dunhuang, the British Library Stein collection includes several thousand woodslips and woodslip fragments with Chinese writing, thousands of Tibetan and Tangut manuscripts, Prakrit wooden tablets in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts, along with documents in Khotanese, Uighur, Sogdian and Eastern Turkic. All this material is included in The International Dunhuang Project and will be entered onto the Project database.
Ananova – May 2004
A Chinese star chart possibly dating from the 7th century AD mapped the heavens with an accuracy unsurpassed until the Renaissance, according to research.
The Dunhuang chart is the oldest manuscript star map in the world and one of the most valuable treasures in astronomy.
The fine paper scroll, measuring 210 by 25 centimetres, (82 by 10 inches) displays no less than 1,345 stars grouped in 257 non-constellation patterns.
Such detail was not matched until Galileo and other European astronomers began searching the skies hundreds of years later – and they had the advantage of telescopes.
The chart includes very faint stars that are extremely difficult to find with the naked eye. It also represents the sky as a sphere projected on a cylinder, a modern technique first adopted in Europe in the 15th century.
The first part of the document consists of a collection of predictions based on shapes of clouds – evidence of the important role divination played in ancient China.
Dr Francoise Praderie, from the Paris Observatory, who studied the map with fellow French astronomer Dr Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud, said: “The origin of the star chart’s manufacture and real use remains unknown. One can conjecture that it was used for military and travellers’ needs and probably also for uranomancy – divination by consulting the heavens – as suggested by the cloud divination texts preceding the charts.
“The long tradition in China of searching the sky for celestial omens has therefore led to an early and unsurpassed precision in star catalogues.”