Silk Road in Rare Books

Narratives on cultural heritage along Silk Road with figures and photographs from rare books.

The Allure of Dunhuang: The Mogao Grottoes

The Discovery of the Library Cave Attracts Foreign Explorers

In 19th century Europe, the brightly colored murals and Buddhist sculptures found in the Mogao Grottoes (also known as the Thousand-Buddhas Caves, Dunhuang or Mogao Caves) had remained largely unnoticed except by a small number of scholars. This all changed at the beginning of 20th century when explorers such as Britain’s Marc Aurel Stein, and France’s Paul Perillot conducted archaeological surveys of the caves one after another. They then brought back to Europe countless sutras, manuscripts, and silk paintings along with photographs of the murals. Because of this, the Mogao Grottoes suddenly drew much attention, and the manuscripts and objects the explorers brought back to their respective homelands triggered ongoing studies on Dunhuang (the so-called Dunhuanology).

The priceless manuscrips and objects had been stored in a small cave(1), which was discovered in 1900 by chance behind the northern wall of the passageway (甬道-corridor connecting the porch with the main cella) of Cave 16. Because of the thousands of scrolls it contained, this small cave came to be known as “the Library Cave” (grotto number 17), and the manuscripts discovered from the cave came to be called the Dunhuang Manuscripts.

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It was a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu(2) who played the key role in the phenomenal discovery of the Library Cave. Wang reached Mogao Grottoes after a period of wandering the countryside during a time of famine, and there spent his days sweeping out the piles of sand and dust flowing into the grottoes, or collecting donations in order to mend the grottoes. There are several versions to the episode of how he came to discover the Library Cave. One is that a sutra scribe in training, a certain Monk Yang noticed the hollow echoes that resounded when he hit the wall of the connecting corridor with his pipe. On the night of June 22, 1900), Wang and Yang removed the wall, and behind it they found a small cave filled floor-to-ceiling with ancient paintings and manuscripts.

Rumors of the discovery spread gradually, and finally reached the ears of the British explorer Aurel Stein. Upon hearing the news, Stein visited Wang, and realizing that the manuscripts discovered from the Library Cave were of significantly more importance than he had imagined, he attempted to purchase them by offering as much money as he could afford. However, he was unable to convince Wang for some time. After painstaking attempts to communicate with Wang in his broken Chinese, Stein gradually became acquainted with Wang, and in the end, was able to purchase thousands of manuscripts and paintings at the mere price of four 'horseshoes' silver (i.e. Chinese silver sycees). Upon his return to England, the items he had obtained from the Library Cave would already be on public display at the British Museum, where they were to cause great sensation.

The French explorer Pelliot, who visited Dunhuang the following year in 1908, was fluent in multiple languages. Unlike Stein, Pelliot could read the ancient manuscripts himself. Ensconcing himself within the Library Cave itself, he went through all the items one by one which were passed over by Stein and choosing only those of significant historical value, purchased approximately six thousand manuscripts . After Pelliot, came the the Japanese expedition team, led by Count Otani, which obtained hundreds more manuscripts, Ten thousand more manuscripts was purchased by the Russian team, and this was followed by the American, Langdon Warner, who removed parts of murals and stucco figures from the other caves and took them back to the United States.

Thus, since the discovery of the Library Cave, expedition teams of different nations have visited the Mogao Grottoes one after another. And, relics which were once so numerous they were placed in piles that reached up to the cave ceiling, were bought or taken in the blink of an eye by foreign archaeologists and adventurers to be carried forever out of the country. Today, to see these items, one would have to travel to many countries—to visit museums in such far-flung places as Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Korea, India and America. As most of the precious relics were carried far from their original location, it was this situation that eventually gave birth to what is one of the world’s truly international research fields of Dunhuanology.

The Deeping Mystery of the Library Cave

Cave 17, known as “the Library Cave,” was not created originally to store sutra scrolls, but was a shrine for a statue of a high-ranking priest. This leads, then, to questions of when, by whom, and for what reason the countless sutras and paintings were piled up in this cave, and sealed off, hidden behind a wall.

As for the question of when, the fact that all the sutras and paintings found from the Library Cave dated back to periods earlier than 11th century, is considered a determining factor in discussing when the wall was sealed.

On such grounds, researchers such as Pelliot first proposed the theory that, shortly before the Tunguts, who were the founders of the Xixia Kingdom, or Western Xia Dynasty 西夏 (1032-1227) invaded Dunhuang; the Buddhists of Dunhuang sealed the precious documents within a small cave, in preparation for the attacks. However, as it became clear that the Tungut rulers were actually ardent Buddhists who invested much energy in building the Mogao Grottoes, an alternate theory was proposed. The new theory suggested that the Xixia Kingdom did not attack Dunhuang, but rather that they sealed the cave in order to protect Buddhist manuscripts from attacks by the Muslims. More specifically, at the end of 10th century, the Muslim kingdom of Karakhan (originally founded in Kashgar) has sent its army eastward. After thirty years of battle, they had invaded the center of Buddhism in Central Asia, Khotan, and destroyed its Buddhist monument. Xixia, fearing Dunhuang would be next, ordered the Dunhuang Buddhists to seal the manuscripts in the Library Cave. This was the main argument of the new theory, and the fact that the mural on the corridor wall of Cave 16 c (The one leading to the sealed the Library Cave) dates from the Xixia period, is one of the points supporting this theory.

Contrary to such theories based on the notion that the cave was sealed in preparation for attacks, another prevailing theory is that the manuscripts were abandoned. This theory is based on the fact that the manuscripts found from the Library Cave tend to be fragments and remnants of sutras, or are used on both sides of the paper suggesting their lesser significance. Thus, this other argument proposes that the Buddhists who could not bring themselves to burn the used sutra scrolls, manuscripts, banner paintings, and paintings with Buddhist themes, gathered and sealed them in one location.

No additional discoveries have been made to prove the authenticity of any of these theories, and researches continue to study the cave from various new perspectives still today.

The Latest Discovery at Mogao: The Northern District Caves

The Library Cave is located in the Southern District of the Mogao Grottoes, which stretches approximately 1700 meters in the north-south direction. A total of 487 caves[a] are located in the Southern District, most of which are decorated with murals and stucco figures. Presently the Southern District is opened to the public, and thus the publicly shared images of the Mogao Grottoes are those associated with the Southern District caves.


However, Mogao Grottoes actually consists of another area, the North District(3) (Present Photograph(4)), which is off-limit to the public. The North District includes 248 caves[4], and in contrast to the South District caves, there are no murals or statues in the caves except for the five created during the Yuan dynasty (元朝) period. The unadorned caves of the Southern District neatly line the cliff as if holes in a beehive. The traditional explanation for this difference between the caves in the two districts had been that the North District caves were used as the residential quarters for the painters who had gathered at the site in order to complete the South District caves.

However, the excavation conducted between 1988 and 1995 revealed that the North District included caves for meditation, dormitory caves (which were the living quarters for the monks), and caves for the deceased. There are about 82 meditation caves, which are about 3㎡ in area with low ceiling, no decoration except for a stage in the middle for meditation. The 50 or so dormitory caves are slightly bigger than the meditation caves with ceilings that are high enough for daily living, complete with dirt floor and a chimney. There are about 25 caves for the deceased, where bones of a single person or a multiple sets of bones thought to be families with some relics have been found. The caves that are barely large enough to accommodate a single person show signs of being sealed up from the outside and are thought to have been used as places where monks meditated in a sitting position, slowly reducing their food intake gradually in order to achieve “sitting death,” or death while sitting in meditation which was regarded an ideal death for a monk.

Thus, while the South District caves decorated with Buddhist statues and murals were busy with worshippers and Buddhist rituals, in the North District, monks conducted arduous sitting meditations in a quiet environment, lived their daily lives, and were buried. The Mogao Grottoes thus originally was a cave temple consisting of two districts, the South, and the North.

The Disintegration Cultural Heritage and Issues Concerning its Preservation


Survey reports complied by foreign explorers sto the region, such as Stein or Pelliot, include photographs of the Mogao Caves at the beginning of 20th century. Stein’s Serindia, which was first published in 1921, contains photographs giving us a very good idea of what the site looked like 100 years ago(5) (present day photograph(6)). At the time, the facades of the caves had collapsed, revealing their interiors, which decorated with murals (Mogao Grottoes in 1907(7)). And, at that time, there was no choice but to use the ladders in order to reach the caves (Rows of Cave Shrines with Decayed Porches(8)).

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Although Dunhuang at the time Stein visited was a totally dilapidated temple, it was also an active temple where many people visited to worship. Stein records its bustle as follows.

The good folk of Tun-huang have indeed remained to this day attached with particular zeal to such forms of worship as represent Buddhism in the queer medley of Chinese popular religion. My first rapid visit to the “Thousand Buddhas” had shown me that the cave temples, notwithstanding all apparent decay, were still real cult places “in being.” This was impressed upon me still more by the great annual religious fair which… drew the villagers and townspeople of the oasis by the thousands to the site.

The ”annual religious fair” described in this passage is the festival celebrating the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha held every April eighth of the lunar calendar. This festival continues till this day, and on this day alone when the caves are opened towards the public for free, over five thousand worshippers visit the Mogao Grottoes.

In contrast to the religious pilgrims and believers who flocked to the temple in past times, in today’s world, the great bustle of present day Dunhuang is due to tourists who travel to Dunhuang from all over the world after having being mesmerized by Dunhuang’s allure. This has caused serious questions to be asked concerning the preservation of this cultural heritage. What should be done to protect the cultural heritage of Dunhuang from the impact of the ever-rising number of tourists and other environmental changes?

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First, it can be said that the cultural heritage of Dunhuang has been affected not just by human impact but by natural disasters, such as flooding and other environmental changes. By looking at the photographs taken by Stein a hundred years ago, such as one of the cave interior(9)), one can learn much about how the original state of the murals and stucco figures have been ruined due to natural disaster. For instance, in the Sahasrabhuja Image Painted in Cave 3(10), one can see elements of the high standards of Yuan era paintings in the skillful lines and the massive modeling. However at present, most of the paint has peeled off, leaving no resemblance of the image in the photo (reference materials [4] and [5]).


In addition to the environmental impact, present day Mogao also suffers under the effects of tourism. Although the caves were already quite damaged at the time of Stein’s visit, years later, the crumbled facades were restored and connected by corridors, and doors were placed in front of each cave for protection (Present Photograph(11)). Furthermore, attempts continue being made to minimize the effects of the impact made by the visiting tourists through various measures, such as protecting the walls with glass partitions, or restricting the number of caves allowed for public viewing. However, it is difficult to prevent completely the damage and peeling away of the murals caused by such human and environmental impact.

The murals and stucco figures remaining in the caves have been exposed to constant and varied environmental changes, and are destined to vanish gradually as time passes. Protecting this vulnerable cultural heritage, which is so susceptible to environmental change in the face of rushing tourists who are enchanted by Dunhuang’s allure, is a challenge which should not be ignored in considering the future of Dunhuang.

[a] The number of caves differs depending on source and this fluctuation is based on variations in counting methods. The most commonly used number, 492, was derived because the researchers of Dunhuang Academy concentrated mostly on the Southern District caves while they took counts. However at the present, five of the caves included in this number are considered to belong to the Northern District, which brings the number down to 487. 248 caves has been counted in the Northern district presently, and thus the total count of the caves in the entire Mogao Grottoes derived by adding the numbers in the Southern District, 487, and the Nothern District, 248, is 735.

To Learn More

English Edition : 2008-06-10
English Revised Edition : 2010-04-14
Japanese Edition : 2005-06-22
Author : Takako Muramatsu, Makiko Onishi, Asanobu Kitamoto
Translator : Suijun Ra ; English adaptation by Leanne Ogasawara

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