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

Dunhuang in Gansu Province of China

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

 

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

Dunhuang Yardangs, Photo by Wang Jie. 

 

Important History of Dunhuang.

 

In ancient history, Dunhuang had been inhabited by the 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

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

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 ended in 220 AD, many short-term regimes ruled this area.

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, this region 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

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 this area and commanding civilians to migrate eastward to Jiayu Pass (Jiayu Guan), a grand military site in the east of the city.

 

The prosperous Dunhuang started to decline in the endless Gobi Desert.

In 1725, it was included and re-established as a town, under command of the Yongzheng Emperor, and many civilians migrated there since then. 

In 1986, Dunhuang was granted 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 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

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

 

History and Story of Dunhuang Library Cave.

 

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

The Dunhuang Manuscripts contained documents from 405 to 1002, written 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.

Dunhuang Star Map of the Tang Dynasty

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. 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 or financial support.

 

He then tried to write to Empress Dowager Cixi, still, no one from the Qing 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

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.

 

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, and cut off many frescoes, as well as painted sculptures. 

Statue of the Tang Dynasty from the 328th Cave of Mogao Grottoes

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

During this period, besides preserving 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 losses 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 gossip, and passed away in 1931. 

Until 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.

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

 

Valuable Cultural Sites

 

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 are preserved about 450,000 square meters of murals and 2415 statues.

Panoramic of Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang

Panoramic of Mogao Grottoes

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. 

阳关遗址 孙志成.jpg

Remains of the Yang Pass or Yangguan Pass of Han Dynasty, 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 Jade Gate Pass or Yumen Pass or Xiaofangpan City.

Remains of Hecang City

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

Remains of Hecang City or Dafangpan City in Dunhuang

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

 

Impressive Natural Scenic Views

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 being hidden under the mountain, or armies of Han and Xiongnu still fighting after they were buried under the sands. 

Mingsha Mountain or Echo Sands Mountain in Dunhuang

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

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 in Dunhuang

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

Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark or Ghost City

The 251 square kilometers large 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

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

 

What Are the Famous Specialties of Dunhuang?

Dunhuang Pears

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

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

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