Mogao Caves — Exceptional Buddhist Art Wonders on Silk Road

Mogao Caves in Dunhuang of Gansu Province

Mogao Caves in Dunhuang of Gansu Province

What are the Mogao Caves?

Mogao Caves, or Mogao Grottoes, is an exceptional Buddhist art wonder constructed since 366 in Dunhuang, an important city along the Silk Road.

As a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage, Mogao Caves preserved large numbers of murals, sculptures, scrolls, and other relics with unparalleled historic and cultural values.

 
Sculptures and Murals (713 — 766) in the 45th Cave of Mogao

Sculptures and Murals (713 — 766) in the 45th Cave of Mogao

When and why were the Mogao Caves built?

In the year 366, when a Buddhist named Yue Zun was traveling in Dunhuang, suddenly, in the middle of the capacious desert, some golden lights were shed on a cliff, which looked like thousands of Buddhas.

He was impressed by the spectacular scenery and believed that this was the holy place where he wanted to practice Buddhism.

Then he built a Buddhist cave on this cliff.

 
Mogao Caves in Cliff of Dunhuang, Photo from Official Site of Mogao Grottoes.

Mogao Caves in Cliff of Dunhuang, Photo from Official Site of Mogao Grottoes.

Afterward, more caves were constructed there and formed the Mogao Caves.

Mogao means the high point in the desert, or peerless. It was also named Thousand Buddha Grottoes, which concluded the large numbers of invaluable Buddhist art collections there.

Roof Decoration (618 — 712) of the Mogao Cave 329

Roof Decoration or Zaojing (618 — 712) of the Mogao Cave 329, Photo by Dongmaiying.

Important Data of Mogao Caves.

  • Mogao Caves were firstly constructed in 366, and lasted for about 1000 years;

  • There are 492 well-preserved caves today;

  • Over 45,000 square meters of murals from different dynasties covered the walls of these caves;

  • More than 2000 painted sculptures, vary from 34.5 meters to 2 centimeters tall, are preserved in Mogao Caves;  

  • Over 50,000 scrolls, painting, and embroidery masterpieces, dating from 405 to 1002, including the world's easiest printed book (Diamond Sutra printed in 868), had been concealed and discovered there.

 
Mural Meiren Pusa (618 — 712) in the 57th Cave of Mogao Grottoes

Mural Meiren Pusa (618 — 712) in the 57th Cave of Mogao Grottoes.

History of Mogao Caves.

Located in Dunhuang, an important city along the Silk Road, the destiny of the Mogao Caves matches the prosperity and declination of Dunhuang.

After the first cave was constructed in 366 AD, more grottoes were built there with the support of sincere Buddhism believers, from royals to civilians.

Mogao Caves reached their peak during Sui (581 — 618) and Tang (618 — 907) dynasties, when trades and communications on Silk Road were extremely prosperous, and Dunhuang was commerce and religious center.

 
Murals of the Mid Tang Dynasty (762 — 827) in the 237th Cave of Mogao Grottoes.

Murals of the Mid Tang Dynasty (762 — 827) in the 237th Cave of Mogao Grottoes.

It started to decline with the fall of the Tang Dynasty; centuries later, it got abandoned under the command of the Jiajing Emperor in 1524, and these artistic wonders were fading in the endless desert.

The city Dunhuang was included and reestablished as a town of the Qing Dynasty in 1725 during the Yongzheng Emperor's reign, but the Mogao Caves didn't get the attention that it deserves.

In 1900, the sealed Library Cave with tens of thousands of invaluable relics were discovered, which encountered huge losses and dispersed all over the world.

In 1987, Mogao Caves was listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.

Sculptures and Murals in The 427th Cave of Mogao Grottoes (581 — 618).

Sculptures and Murals in The 427th Cave of Mogao Grottoes (581 — 618).

What cultural aspects that the Mogao Caves show?

As an exceptional wonder on the Silk Road, artworks and documents of Mogao Caves show many cultural aspects of China from the 4th to the 14th century.

 

What is Mogao Library Cave and Dunhuang Manuscripts?

Dunhuang Library Cave, or Cang Jing Dong, is a small secret stone chamber behind the 16th cave of Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, sealed around the 11th century to most likely to avoid wars of that period, preserved over 50,000 invaluable scrolls, painting, and embroidery masterpieces.

The Dunhuang Manuscripts concealed in this cave 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

What happened after discovered the sealed Library Cave and the extremely valuable relics inside?

In 1900, the sealed Library Cave was discovered by Wang Yuanlu, who had been cleaning, fixing, and rebuilding the declined Mogao Caves.

He reported to officials, governors, even wrote letters to the Empress Dowager Cixi, but no one from the ruling class of the Qing Dynasty showed interest in this discovery.

Wang Yuanlu then disappointedly sealed 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 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.

Besides having preserved some remaining scrolls, the Qing government did nothing useful to stop the outflow, until the empire ended in 1912.

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)

Some of those invaluable relics of Mogao Caves that were dispersed all over the world have been well preserved and researched, while others were destroyed.   

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.

During the next few decades of chaotic wars, Mogao Caves still didn't get the sufficient protection that they deserve.

From 1940 to 1942, famous artist Zhang Daqian stayed there and copied murals in the Mogao Caves, and did excellent jobs moving those exceptional artistic paintings to the canvas.

However, some murals of Mogao Caves have more than one layer. To see these covered frescoes, Zhang Daqian scratched off some valuable murals on the top layers, which caused wide critics and controversies.

Copied Painting of Mogao Murals by Zhang Daqian

How the Mogao Caves are preserved today?

After a long time of being buried, robbed, and broke, Mogao Caves finally welcomed its guardian Chang Shuhong (1904 — 1994), who arrived in 1943 and established the 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.

Mogao Caves was enlisted as one of the State Priority Protected Sites of China in 1961, and as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 1987.

However, despite all top-level protections, tourists and exposures to humidity, temperature, and lights still are causing irreversible damages to those historic and elaborate artworks.

Therefore, not all caves are open to tourists today, and visitors are not allowed to take photos nor stay too long time in open caves.

At the same time, more modern technologies are used to display the wonders of the Mogao Caves, including copied caves, digital websites (https://www.e-dunhuang.com/), movies, theaters, videos, etc.

Sculptures and Murals (618 — 712) in the 328 Cave of Mogao Grottoes

Sculptures and Murals (618 — 712) in the 328 Cave of Mogao Grottoes