Dunhuang on Silk Road — Exceptional Museum on Gobi Desert, With Mogao Grottoes Next to Moon Crescent Spring

Dunhuang in Gansu Province of China, Photo from Official Site of Dunhuang.

What is Dunhuang?


Dunhuang is an important county-level city on the Silk Road, a commercial road that connects China and the west since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), with exceptional military, religious, economic, artistic, and cultural values.  


It used to be a garrison city of the Chinese Han Empire, a trade city between the east and west, and an important place for the dissemination of Buddhism. 


Located in the Gansu Province of China, Dunhuang is a city with important ancient military sites, exceptional Buddhist art gallery Mogao Caves, as well as other grand historic relics, and magnificent Gobi Desert and Yardang Landform views. 


Dunhuang Yardangs, Photo by Wang Jie. 


Important History of Dunhuang.


In ancient history, Dunhuang had been inhabited by people of Rongqiang, Wusun, Yuezhi, Xiongnu (or the Huns), and then by the Han Empire after 121 BC.

In 115 BC, the Silk Road was opened up by Zhang Qian, under command of Emperor Wu of Han.

Map of the Silk Road of the Han Dynasty, Retrieved from http://bakkeac.weebly.com/ch-24---silk-road.html 

In 111 BC, Dunhuang was officially established as a frontier garrison city, to where the Great Wall was extended, and two important military fortresses, the Jade Gate Pass (Yumen Guan) and Yang Pass (Yangguan Pass) were constructed at the same time. 

Scourer of the Han Dynasty Unearthed from Yumen Pass Remains, Belonged to Soldiers that were Garrisoning there — Dunhuang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

After the Han Dynasty was ended in 220 AD, many short-term regimes had ruled Dunhuang.

In 366 AD, the first cave of the Mogao Grottoes was built, and more caves were added later under the reign of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 — 534) and the Sui Dynasty (581 — 618). 

Dunhuang reached its peak in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) when over 1000 caves were constructed in Mogao Grottoes. 

After the Tang Dynasty was ended, Dunhuang had been ruled by Western Xia, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties. 

Part of Tang Dynasty Mural "Guan Wu Liang Shou Jing Bian" in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes, Photo by Dongmaiying.

In 1524, Jaijing Emperor decided to retreat, by abandoning Dunhuang and commanding civilians to migrate eastward to Jiayu Pass (Jiayu Guan), a grand military site in the east of Dunhuang. The prosperous Dunhuang started to decline in the endless Gobi Desert.

In 1725, Dunhuang was included and reestablished as a town, under command of Yongzheng Emperor, and many civilians were migrated there since then. 

In 1986, Dunhuang was granted as a State-list Famous Historical and Culture City. 

What is the cultural importance of Dunhuang?


  • Important garrison town in the northwest of the Han Empire;

  • Big trading city on the Silk Road;

  • Blending of cultures from different ethnic groups;

  • UNESCO World Heritage Site Mogao Grottoes, the grand Buddhism Art Gallery that holds exceptional historic, artistic, religious, and cultural values. 


Relic Site Xuanquanzhi of the Han Dynasty, A Post Station and State Guesthouse Along with the Silk Road

What is and How the Dunhuang Library Cave was Sealed, Discovered, and Lost Valuable Relics?


Dunhuang Library Cave, or Cang Jing Dong, is a small secret stone chamber behind the 16th cave of Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, which preserved over 50,000 scrolls, painting, and embroidery masterpieces. 

The Dunhuang Manuscripts that contained documents from 405 to 1002, writing in characters of many different ethnic groups are included. 

Besides religious documents, Dunhuang Manuscripts also included astronomy, calendar, history, philosophy, military, geography, local chronicles, medication, folk customs, poems, literature, and so on.


Details of Part of the Dunhuang Star Map of the Tang Dynasty — British Museum

Around the 11th century, those scrolls and relics were stocked in this chamber and sealed. The most accepted reason was to avoid war and chaos during that period. 

Centuries later, Wang Yuanlu arrived in Dunhuang. Seeing this exceptional holy place had been abandoned and in declination, he decided to stay and started to clean, fix, and rebuilt the Mogao Grottoes. 

In the year 1900, he discovered the secret, ancient Dunhuang Library Cave.

He carried some of the manuscripts to officials and local governors, but none of them showed interest nor financial support.


He then tried to write to the Empress Dowager Cixi, still, no one from the Qing's government cared about these valuable documents. 

Wang Yuanlu was disappointed and sealed those scrolls back to this cave again. 

The Door of the Dunhuang Library Cave or Cangjing Dong, Now Numbered the 17th Cave of Mogao Grottoes.

In 1907, Marc Aurel Stein heard about this cave and arrived in Dunhuang.


Though Wang Yuanlu refused to sell those documents in the Dunhuang Library Cave at the beginning, Stein managed to trick Wang to give up and purchased over 9000 pieces of scrolls and other relics with little money, most of them now are preserved in the British Museum.  

In 1908, Paul Pelliot picked and bought the most valuable 6000 ancient classics and transported them back to France, which are now in the La Bibliothèque Nationale de France. 

In the next few years, Russians, Japanese, and Americans came and took away more scrolls, cut off many frescoes, as well as painted sculptures. 

Statue of the Tang Dynasty from the 328th Cave of Mogao Grottoes — Harvard Art Museums (Photo by Dongmaiying)

During this period, besides preserved some remaining scrolls, the Qing government did nothing useful to stop the outflow, until the empire ended in 1912. 

In the next few decades of chaotic wars, Dunhuang and Mogao Grottoes still didn't get the sufficient protection that they deserve.  

Wang Yuanlu used all the sold money to fix and rebuild the grottoes and later was widely criticized for being a traitor who caused huge loss to national treasures.


After having realized the enormous values of the scrolls and relics that he sold out, he got depressed, lost sanity in some gossips, and passed away in 1931. 

Until in 1943, Chang Shuhong (1904 — 1994), the guardian of Dunhuang, arrived and established Dunhuang Academy, and dedicated his life to protecting this place.

Copy Painting of Dunhuang Murals by Chang Shuhong and His Wife Li Chengxian.

What are the valuable cultural sites of Dunhuang?


Mogao Grottoes

Mogao Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the biggest Buddhism artistic palace with great religious and aesthetic values.

It has over 700 cave temples, inside of which preserved about 450,000 square meters’ murals and 2415 statues.


Panoramic of Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang

Remains of Yang Pass or Yangguan Pass

Constructed around 107 BC, Yangguan Pass was an important gate on the Silk Road and a defense site on the northwest border of the Han Empire. 

Remains of the Yang Pass or Yangguan Pass of Han Dynasty in Dunhuang, Photo by Sun Zhicheng.

Remains of Jade Gate Pass or Yumen Pass

Yumen Pass, also named Xiaofangpan City, built between 116 BC and 105 BC, was another important gate on the Silk Road, and military garrison site of the Han Empire. 

Remains of Jade Gate Pass or Yumen Pass or Xiaofangpan City in Dunhuang.

Remains of Hecang City

Hecang City, also named Dafangpan City, was a military warehouse town to provide resources to soldiers garrisoning on the northwest borders during the Han, Wei, and Jin Dynasties (about 104 BC — 420 AD).

Remains of Hecang City or Dafangpan City in Dunhuang, Photo by Li Wenbo.

What are impressive natural scenic views of Dunhuang?

Mingsha Mountain or Echo Sands Mountain

Next to the Mogao Grottoes, the Mingsha Mountain is also named Singing Sands Mountain, which creates different types of hum in the endless Gobi Desert. 

Documented thousands of years ago, its mysterious sound had been connected to many legends and stories, such as a deity's treasure was hidden under the mountain, or armies of Han and Xiongnu are still fighting after they were buried under the sands. 


Mingsha Mountain or Echo Sands Mountain, Photo from Official Site of Dunhuang.

Moon Crescent Spring or Yueya Quan

The Moon Crescent Spring is at the foot of Mingsha Mountain and has been a magnificent scenery since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD).

This over 2000 years old oasis had never been buried by sands and has impressed and provided for countless people. 

Moon Crescent Spring or Yueya Quan, Photo from Official Site of Dunhuang.

Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark or Ghost City

The 251 square kilometers' large Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark consisted of a series of Yardangs with different colors and shapes, such as castles, hills, famous buildings, fleets, soldiers, animals, humans, etc. 

It is a magnificent natural museum. 

Locals also call it the Ghost City, for the mysterious sounds spread out when the wind is blowing, and for the natural statues that look like an abandoned city, which are especially mystical and scary at night.

Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark or Ghost City, Photo from Official Site of Dunhuang.

What are the famous specialties of Dunhuang?


Dunhuang Pears that Taste Quite Sweet After Their Peels Turned Dark.

Luminous Cups or Ye Guang Bei that Are Made of Local Jade.

Fun Facts about Chinese Culture and History

  • Facebook Fun withChinese Culture
  • Twitter Fun withChinese Culture
  • G+ Fun withChinese Culture
  • YouTube Fun withChinese Culture
  • Pinterest Fun withChinese Culture
  • Instagram Fun withChinese Culture
© All Rights Reserved