Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes

On March 14, 2011, in Beijing, Cool Places, Shanghai, by Jack Li
Attracted by China Buddhist culture, you may choose to Travel to Tibet when planning your China Tours. But you should also not miss the shining pearl on the Silk Road — Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes.

Dunhuang, located in the desert corridor of northwestern Gansu Province, lies close to the east of Xinjiang and to the west of Qilian mountain range. This is a 2,000-year old city and was an important resting place for merchants traveling along the Silk Road linking China with Central Asia. Today, this city attracts visitors for the most precious treasure of Buddhist Art known in the world — the Mogao Grottoes.  


The Mogao Grottoes, the most archaic Buddhist holy land, lies 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang in a river valley between the Sanwei Mountain and the Mingsha Mountain. According to a stone inscription of Tang Dynasty, the stone carvings there came into being in 360 AD, when a Buddhist monk named Yue Seng passed this place and saw a vision of thousands of golden Buddhas. Over the following 1,000 years, hundreds of caves were carved out of the steep sandstone cliffs in a layered honeycombs pattern and connected together by wooden walkways and ladders.    


Murals and statues      

The Mogao Grottoes’ 45,000 square meters of mural paitings and more than 2000 color statues are regarded as the greatest treasure-house of Buddhist art existing in the world. Those well preserved caves span a period of one thousand years, from the 4th to the 14th century, and visually present with vivid detail the culture of medieval China.      




Manuscripts and texts       

The Dunhuang hoard consisted of about 13,500 manuscripts, with printing and fragments included, of 19,200 items. It is the largest and most important group of oriental manuscripts ever found.       

Impressed writing exists in Dunhuang manuscripts from the early 5th to the 10th centuries and was a convenient method for Buddhist students to take note on their coples of a text during a lecture. Sometimes they wrote over these in ink after the lecture. The further discovery and study of such marks will help us to verify the pronunciation of classical Chinese and the method of Buddhist teaching.       



After the 14th century, the grottoes were abandoned. They were accidentally rediscovered in 1900 by a man called Wang Yuanlu who took refuge here while fleeing famine in Hubei Province. He stumbled upon the hidden monastery library, a priceless collection of scrolls, books, embroideries, paintings and scriptures left behind by monks living there and then driven by the army of the Western Xia in 1036. Lacking of interest by the corrupted government of Qing Dynasty, Wang sold those precious arts to British and French Sinologists case by case. Before 1949, this place had been continually plundered by warlords, local bureaucrats, officers and soldiers of KMT as well as western collectors.        

Dunhuang Mural in Britain

The desert and cliff on the upper side of the Grottoes are distinctive contrast to the lower green valley. But the valley still cannot protect the grottoes from being eroded by wind and rain. They are all severely damaged from inside and many have collapsed. Today, 492 grottoes are still standing. Each cave has a label attached to it, indicating its number, date and dynasty. The grottoes cover eight dynasties: the Northern and Western Wei Dynasty, the Sui Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty, the Five Dynasties, the Song Dynasty, the Western Xia Dynasty and the Yuan Dynasty.       


In 1987, UNESCO placed the Mogao Grottoes under the protection of the world cultural heritage list.      

If you are interested in such precious treasure and spectacular beauty, please book your China Flights and come to Dunhuang.

Jack Li

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