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The ancient manuscripts of Dunhuang

The ancient manuscripts of Dunhuang


Dunhuang is situated in the north western part of Gansu province in the west of China. The ancient town occupied a strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route and the main road leading from India to Mongolia via Lhasa, as well as controlling the entrance of the Hexi Corridor which led to the heart of the northern Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) and Loyang. Dunhuang’s unique position also meant that it was a meeting point of various cultures. This is very evident in the Dunhuang manuscripts.

The Dunhuang Manuscripts are a cache of around 20,000 important scrolls found in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang. The Dunhuang manuscripts date to between the 5 th and 11 th centuries A.D., and were sealed up in a chamber in a cave, hidden for about 900 years. The re-discovery of these precious documents, however, was made completely by accident. Although Dunhuang used to be an important city on the Silk Route during the Middle Ages, it was a backwater by the early 20 th century. As a result of this decline, the numerous Buddhist shrines in the Mogao Caves were in a state of disrepair. This prompted an itinerant Taoist monk by the name of Wang Yuanlu to appoint himself as the caretaker of the caves, and to make an attempt at restoring the derelict shrines.

Entrance to Mogao Caves, China

Entrance to Mogao Caves, China. Source: BigStockPhotos

The story goes that one day, Wang Yuanlu noticed his cigarette smoke wafting toward the back wall of a large cave shrine (Cave 16 as it is known today). He decided to knock the wall down to see what was behind it. To his amazement, he found a mountain of documents piled in a secret chamber. Although Wang was unable to read the ancient scripts, he knew that they were incredibly valuable. Thus, the monk decided to contact the local officials and offered to send his findings to the provincial capital. As the Chinese authorities were short of cash and preoccupied with the ongoing Boxer Rebellion, a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement which took place in China towards the end of the Qing dynasty, they refused Wang’s offer. News of the discovery, however, did not stay in Dunhuang, but soon spread along the caravan routes of Xinjiang. The Hungarian-born explorer and Indologist, Aurel Stein, who was on his second archaeological expedition to Central Asia, was one of the first to hear of it.   

After a delicate process of negotiation, Stein managed to convince Wang to sell him about ten thousand scrolls for 130 pounds by claiming that he was following in the footsteps of Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk who made a journey from China to India during the 7 th century A.D. in search of sacred Buddhist texts. Stein’s purchase of these manuscripts sparked a scramble by other European powers to get their hands on the ancient texts, and 10 years later, about 20% of the original material remained when the Chinese authorities transferred the remaining documents to Beijing.

One of the scrolls in the Dunhuang collection

One of the scrolls in the Dunhuang collection. Photo source.

Although the Dunhuang Manuscripts contain mostly Buddhist texts, there were other forms of sacred texts as well. These include Taoist, Nestorian Christian, and Manichaean texts. In addition, there were also secular texts that dealt with various areas of knowledge, such as mathematics, history, astronomy and literature. One of the significant aspects of the Dunhuang Manuscripts can be seen in the large amount of folk literature in it. As this form of literature is about the lives of ordinary people, it provides a unique perspective on their experiences, the way they associated with the wider society and the government, as well as their relationships with family and friends. These insights have led to the revision of some commonly held views about farmers and the governance of agricultural communities. Such developments are promising, as scholars are able to gain a better view of Chinese society during that era. Furthermore, the International Dunhuang Project, which began in 1994, has allowed scholars from around the world to view digital copies of the various documents of the Dunhuang Manuscripts now residing in various museums. This would certainly lead to new and exciting discoveries in the future.

Featured image: Crescent Lake, 6km south of the city of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, China. Source: BigStockPhoto

By Ḏḥwty


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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