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The Caves Of Dunhuang

The Mogao Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, form a system of 500 temples[1] 25 km (16 mi) southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China. The caves may also be known as the Dunhuang Caves; however, this term is also used as a collective term to include other Buddhist cave sites in and around the Dunhuang area, such as the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, Eastern Thousand Buddha Caves, Yulin Caves, and Five Temple Caves. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years.[2] The first caves were dug out in AD 366 as places of Buddhist meditation and worship, later the caves became a place of pilgrimage and worship, and caves continued to be built at the site until the 14th century.[2][3] The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.

The Caves of Dunhuang

An important cache of documents was discovered in 1900 in the so-called "Library Cave", which had been walled-up in the 11th century. The contents of the library were subsequently dispersed around the world, and the largest collections are now found in Beijing, London, Paris and Berlin, and the International Dunhuang Project exists to coordinate and collect scholarly work on the Dunhuang manuscripts and other material. The caves themselves are now a popular tourist destination, but the number of visitors has been capped to help with the preservation of the caves.[4]

The caves are commonly referred to in Chinese as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (Chinese: 千佛洞; pinyin: qiānfó dòng), a name that some scholars have speculated to have come from the legend of its founding, when a monk Yuezun had a vision of a thousand Buddhas at the site. This name, however, may have come from the large number of Buddha figures at the site, or the miniatures figures painted on the walls of these caves as these figures are called "thousand Buddhas" colloquially.[5] The name Mogao Caves (Chinese: 莫高窟; pinyin: Mògāo kū) was used in the Tang dynasty, where 'Mogao' refers to an administrative district at the site during the Tang dynasty.[6] Mogao may mean "peerless" (literally "none higher", where "mo" means "none", and "gao" means "high");[7][8] an alternative reading may be "high in the desert" if "mo" is read as a variant of the Chinese term for "desert".[9] Mogao is also used as the name of a modern town that is administered by Dunhuang city: Mogao Town (莫高镇).[10][11] The Mogao Caves are also often referred to as the Dunhuang Caves after the nearest city Dunhuang, which means "blazing beacon" as beacons were used at the frontier outpost to warn of attacks by nomadic tribes.[12] The term Dunhuang Caves however is also used in a broader sense as a collective term for all the caves found in or around the Dunhuang area.[13]

By the Sui and Tang dynasties, Mogao Caves had become a place of worship and pilgrimage for the public.[17] From the 4th until the 14th century, caves were constructed by monks to serve as shrines with funds from donors. These caves were elaborately painted, the cave paintings and architecture serving as aids to meditation, as visual representations of the quest for enlightenment, as mnemonic devices, and as teaching tools to inform those illiterate about Buddhist beliefs and stories. The major caves were sponsored by patrons such as important clergy, local ruling elite, foreign dignitaries, as well as Chinese emperors. Other caves may have been funded by merchants, military officers, and other local people such as women's groups.

During the Tang Dynasty, Dunhuang became the main hub of commerce of the Silk Road and a major religious centre. A large number of the caves were constructed at Mogao during this era, including the two large statues of Buddha at the site, the largest one constructed in 695 following an edict a year earlier by Tang Empress Wu Zetian to build giant statues across the country.[18] The site escaped the persecution of Buddhists ordered by Emperor Wuzong in 845 as it was then under Tibetan control. As a frontier town, Dunhuang had been occupied at various times by other non-Han Chinese people. After the Tang Dynasty, the site went into a gradual decline, and construction of new caves ceased entirely after the Yuan Dynasty. By then Islam had conquered much of Central Asia, and the Silk Road declined in importance when trading via sea-routes began to dominate Chinese trade with the outside world. During the Ming Dynasty, the Silk Road was finally officially abandoned, and Dunhuang slowly became depopulated and largely forgotten by the outside world. Most of the Mogao caves were abandoned; the site, however, was still a place of pilgrimage and was used as a place of worship by local people at the beginning of the twentieth century when there was renewed interest in the site.

During late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Western explorers began to show interest in the ancient Silk Road and the lost cities of Central Asia, and those who passed through Dunhuang noted the murals, sculptures, and artifacts such as the Stele of Sulaiman at Mogao. There is an estimated half a million square feet of religious wall murals within the caves.[19] The biggest discovery, however, came from a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu who had appointed himself guardian of some of these temples around the turn of the century and tried to raise funds to repair the statues.[20]

Some of the caves had by then been blocked by sand, and Wang set about clearing away the sand and made an attempt at restoration of the site. In one such cave, on 25 June 1900, Wang followed the drift of smoke from a cigarette, and discovered a walled up area behind one side of a corridor leading to a main cave.[21][22] Behind the wall was a small cave stuffed with an enormous hoard of manuscripts. In the next few years, Wang took some manuscripts to show to various officials who expressed varying level of interest, but in 1904 Wang re-sealed the cave following an order by the governor of Gansu concerned about the cost of transporting these documents.

Stein and Pelliot provoked much interest in the West about the Dunhuang Caves. Scholars in Beijing, after seeing samples of the documents in Pelliot's possession, became aware of their value. Concerned that the remaining manuscripts might be lost, Luo Zhenyu and others persuaded the Ministry of Education to recover the rest of the manuscripts to be sent to Peking (Beijing) in 1910. However, not all the remaining manuscripts were taken to Peking, and of those retrieved, some were then stolen. Rumours of caches of documents taken by local people continued for some time, and a cache of documents hidden by Wang from the authorities was later found in the 1940s.[25] Some of the caves were damaged and vandalized by White Russian soldiers when they were used by the local authority in 1921 to house Russian soldiers fleeing the civil war following the Russian Revolution.[26] In 1924, American explorer Langdon Warner removed a number of murals as well as a statue from some of the caves.[25][27][28] In 1939 Kuomintang soldiers stationed at Dunhuang caused some damage to the murals and statues at the site.[29]

The situation improved in 1941 when, following a visit by Wu Zuoren to the site the previous year, the painter Zhang Daqian arrived at the caves with a small team of assistants and stayed for two and a half years to repair and copy the murals. He exhibited and published the copies of the murals in 1943, which helped to publicize and give much prominence to the art of Dunhuang within China.[30] Historian Xiang Da then persuaded Yu Youren, a prominent member of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), to set up an institution, the Research Institute of Dunhuang Art (which later became the Dunhuang Academy), at Mogao in 1944 to look after the site and its contents. In 1956, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, took a personal interest in the caves and sanctioned a grant to repair and protect the site; and in 1961, the Mogao Caves were declared to be a specially protected historical monument by the State Council, and large-scale renovation work at Mogao began soon afterwards. The site escaped the widespread damage caused to many religious sites during the Cultural Revolution.[31]

Today, efforts are continuing to conserve and research the site and its content.[32][33] The Mogao Caves became one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987.[2] From 1988 to 1995 a further 248 caves were discovered to the North of the 487 caves known since the early 1900s.[34]

The Dunhuang Academy entered a period of "scientific conservation" for the Mogao Caves in the 1980s and began exploring "digital conservation" as early as 1993. Since 2010, it has completed photographic acquisition of 120 caves, image processing of 40 caves, panoramic roaming of 120 caves, and 3D reconstruction of 20 painted sculptures in the Mogao Caves. The Dunhuang Academy also introduced I-m-Cave, a multi-touch desktop system for virtual tours of the Mogao Caves, which presents a relationship between currently damaged artifacts and their virtual restored versions that cannot be experienced during a real tour.[35]

The Library Cave was walled off sometime early in the 11th century.[36] A number of theories have been proposed as the reason for sealing the caves. Stein first proposed that the cave had become a waste repository for venerable, damaged and used manuscripts and hallowed paraphernalia and then sealed perhaps when the place came under threat. Following this interpretation some suggested that the handwritten manuscripts of the Tripitaka became obsolete when printing became widespread, the older manuscripts were therefore stored away.[38] Another suggestion is that the cave was simply used as a book storehouse for documents which accumulated over a century and a half, then sealed up when it became full.[39]Others, such as Pelliot, suggested an alternative scenario, that the monks hurriedly hid the documents in advance of an attack by invaders, perhaps when Xi Xia invaded in 1035. This theory was proposed in light of the absence of documents from Xi Xia and the disordered state in which Pelliot found the room (perhaps a misinterpretation because unbeknownst to him the room was disturbed by Stein months before). Another theory posits that the items were from a monastic library and hidden due to threats from Muslims who were moving eastward. This theory proposes that the monks of a nearby monastery heard about the fall of the Buddhist kingdom of Khotan to Karakhanids invaders from Kashgar in 1006 and the destruction it caused, so they sealed their library to avoid it being destroyed.[40]

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