Dunhuang Caves In China


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The Mogao Grottoes contain priceless paintings, sculptures, some 50,000 Buddhist scriptures, historical documents, textiles, and other relics that first stunned the world in the early 1900s.

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 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.

SUMERIAN SCULPTURE

THE WARKA VASE

The detailed drawing above was made from tracing a photograph (from Campbell, Shepsut) of the temple vase found at Uruk/Warka, dating from approximately 3100 BCE. It is over one meter (nearly 4 feet) tall. On the upper tier is a figure of a nude man that may possibly represent the sacrificial king. He approaches the robed queen Inanna. Inanna wears a horned headdress.

The Queen of Heaven stands in front of two looped temple poles or “asherah,” phallic posts, sacred to the goddess. A group of nude priests bring gifts of baskets of gifts, including, fruits to pay her homage on the lower tier. This vase is now at the Iraq Museum in Bagdad.

“The Warka Vase, is the oldest ritual vase in carved stone discovered in ancient Sumer and can be dated to round about 3000 B.C. or probably 4th-3rd millennium B.C. It shows men entering the presence of his gods, specifically a cult goddess Innin (Inanna), represented by two bundles of reeds placed side by side symbolizing the entrance to a temple.

The Code of Hammurabi 18th Century BCE


Of the several law codes surviving from the ancient Middle East, the most famous after the Hebrew Torah is the Code of Hammurabi, sixth king of the Amorite Dynasty of Old Babylon. It is best known from a beautifully engraved diorite stela now in the Louvre Museum which also depicts the king receiving the law from Shamash, the god of justice. This copy was made long after Hammurabi’s time, and it is clear that his was a long-lasting contribution to Mesopotamian civil ization. It encodes many laws which had probably evolved over a long period of time, but is interesting to the general reader because of what it tells us about the attitudes and daily lives of the ancient Babylonians. In the following selection, most of the long prologue praising Hammurabi’s power and wisdom is omitted.

What do these laws tell us about attitudes toward slavery? What indication is there that some Babylonian women engaged in business? Clearly men had more rights than women in this society; but what laws can you identify that seem aimed at protecting certain rights of women? Which laws deviate from the egalitarian standard of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?” What qualities does this text say a ruler should have to enable him to write new laws?

. . . Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind. . . .

15: If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates [to escape], he shall be put to death.

16: If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the [police], the master of the house shall be put to death.

53: If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the [grain] which he has caused to be ruined.

54: If he be not able to replace the [grain], then he and his possessions shall be divided among the farmers whose corn he has flooded.

108: If a [woman wine-seller] does not accept [grain] according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water. (1)

109: If conspirators meet in the house of a [woman wine-seller], and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the [wine-seller] shall be put to death.

110: If a “sister of a god”[nun] open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

129: If a man’s wife be surprised [having intercourse] with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water, but the husband may pardon his wife and the king his slaves.

130: If a man violate the wife (betrothed or child-wife) of another man, who has never known a man, and still lives in her father’s house, and sleep with her and be surprised [caught], this man shall be put to death, but the wife is blameless.

131: If a man bring a charge against [his] wife, but she is not surprised with another man, she must take an oath and then may return to her house.

132: If the “finger is pointed” at a man’s wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for [the sake of her] husband. (2)

138: If a man wishes to separate from his wife who has borne him no children, he shall give her the amount of her purchase money and the dowry which she brought from her father’s house, and let her go.

141: If a man’s wife, who lives in his house, wishes to leave it, plunges into debt [to go into business], tries to ruin her house, neglects her husband, and is judicially convicted: if her husband offer her release, she may go on her way, and he gives her nothing as a gift of release. If her husband does not wish to release her, and if he take another wife, she shall remain as servant in her husband’s house.

142: If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: “You are not congenial to me,” the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house. (3)

143: If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water.

195: If a son strike his father, his hands shall be [cut] off. (4)

196: If a [noble-]man put out the eye of another [noble-]man, his eye shall be put out. (5)

197: If he break another [noble-]man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

198: If he put out the eye of a [commoner], or break the bone of a [commoner], he shall pay one [silver] mina.

199: If he put out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

200: If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

201: If he knock out the teeth of a [commoner], he shall pay one-third of a [silver] mina.

In future time, through all coming generations, let the king, who may be in the land, observe the words of righteousness which I have written on my monument; let him not alter the law of the land which I have given, the edicts which I have enacted; my monument let him not mar. If such a ruler have wisdom, and be able to keep his land in order, he shall observe the words which I have written in this inscription; the rule, statute, and law of the land which I have given; the decisions which I have made will this inscription show him; let him rule his subjects accordingly, speak justice to them, give right decisions, root out the miscreants and criminals from this land, and grant prosperity to his subjects.

Hammurabi, the king of righteousness, on whom Shamash has conferred right (or law) am I. My words are well considered; my deeds are not equaled; to bring low those that were high; to humble the proud, to expel insolence.

Translated by L. W. King (1915), edited by Paul Brians.