Set on the edge of the Gobi desert, Dunhuang may seem like an unlikely place to find an oasis of Buddhist art. With towering sand dunes in the background, the caves here reflect the power of divine inspiration.
One summer day in 1900, Wang Yuanlu, an unassuming Taoist priest who lived nearby stumbled into a cave that had been covered by a rockslide. His accidental discovery would lead to one of the most significant collection of Buddhist artifacts ever uncovered.
Inside the cave were artifacts dating from the 4th to 14th century, a complete collection spanning approximately a thousand years tracing the development of Buddhism from its initial arrival in China. A cornucopia of documents on subjects ranging from history, treatises on politics, the military and science, to Buddhist sutras and even personal documents such as tax receipts were discovered preserved within a dry dark cave. In fact, so much material has been found that the discovery has led to a new branch of academic study called Dunhuang Studies.
Unfortunately most of the documents are now in museums and collections scattered across world, like the invaluable, the earliest printed book, which is now held in the British Library. While the documents may have been purloined, the caves still hold a treasure trove of statues and wall paintings.
Today Dunhuang is a relaxed town in Gansu Province with the Mogao Caves where the famed carvings are located, 25km to the southeast. Once an important oasis town on the Silk Road, Dunhuang lies close to the border of Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang. In 111 BC, under the Han dynasty, the Great Wall was extended here.
From the present day city it's hard to picture the importance of ancient Dunhuang. Its strategic position meant that it was an important transit point for the spreading of Buddhism, which entered China during the 3rd century AD. As Buddhism developed, so did the city. During the 4th century, Dunhuang was the last stop for Chinese Buddhist pilgrims on the road to India and the first stop for arriving missionaries.
In AD 366, Le Zun, a Chinese monk on his way to India, had a divine vision of Buddha, which led him to believe he was on holy ground. In his fervor, he began carving out the first caves at the 1.6km long sandstone cliff face. Development continued through 10 dynasties and reached a peak during the Sui and Tang dynasties. Though the Sui dynasty lasted a short 38 years, Emperor Wendi was a fervent Buddhist and during his reign 101 caves were carved, over twice as many as the previous 180 years.
Dunhuang Memorable Experience
Going for a bumpy camel ride around the Crescent Moon Lake and Mingsha Shan.
Quietly going from cave to cave and seeing the exquisite artistry that the devout pilgrims of the past instilled into the barren site.