Dunhuang is a city (pop. 187,578 (2000)) in northwestern Gansu province, Western China. It was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road. It was also known at times as Shāzhōu , or 'City of Sands', a name still used today. It is best known for the nearby Mogao Caves.
It commands a very strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route and the main road leading fromIndia via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia,as well as controlling the entrance to the narrow Gansu Corridor which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an (today known as Xi'an) and Luoyang.
Dunhuang, being surrounded by high mountains,has an arid, continental climate. The annual average temperature is 9.48 °C(49.1 °F), but the monthly daily mean temperature ranges from 24.6 °C(76.3 °F) in July down to −8.3 °C (17.1 °F) in January. The city is extremely hot in summer and cold in winter, and usually has sharp temperature differences between day and night. Precipitation occurs only in trace amounts and quickly evaporates.
There is evidence of human habitation in the Dunhuang area as early as 2,000 BC, possibly by people recorded as the Qiang in Chinese history. Dunhuang was one the frontier garrison towns established by the Emperor Wu after the defeat of Xiongnu, and the Chinese built fortifications at Dunhuang and sent settlers there. In 121BC, following General Huo Qubing’s military victory over the Xiongnu, the Chinese fortified and settled here. From Jiayuguan and the Great Wall the Silk Road caravans wound their way westwards towards the cotton-producing oasis town of Dunhuang. The Wall was extended to Dunhuang and a line of fortified beacon towers stretched westwards into the desert. By the 4 Century AD the Silk Road had made Dunhuang a cultural melting pot. The name Dunhuang, or Blazing Beacon, refers to the beacons lit to warn of attacks by marauding nomadic tribes. During the Sui andTang dynasties, it was a major point of communication between ancient China andCentral Asia. By the Tang Dynasty it became the major hub of commerce of the Silk Road. Early Buddhist monks arrived at Dunhuang via the ancient Northern Silk Road, the northernmost route of about 2,600 kilometres (1,600 mi) in length, which connected the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an westward over the Wushao Ling Pass to Wuwei and on to Kashgar. For centuries, Buddhist monks at Dunhuang collected scriptures from the West, and many pilgrims passed through the area, painting murals inside the Mogao Caves or "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas." A small number of Christian artifacts have also been found in the caves, testimony to the wide variety of people who made their way along the Silk Road.
The commercial prosperity provided a basis for a flourishing and diverseBuddhist community. Most Buddhist monks came to China from India and Central Asia by way of the Silk Road. As the westernmost Chinese station on the route,Dunhuang became the ideal place for these foreign monks to learn the Chinese language and culture before entering central China.
Foreign monks and their Chinese disciples formed the earliest Buddhist communities at Dunhuang in the late 3 and early 4 centuries. Many Buddhist sutras were translated at Dunhuang and then distributed into central China. Monk Zhu Fahu, a famous translator of Buddhist texts, organized his translation team at Dunhuang and became known as“The Bodhisattva of Dunhuang”. Enormous economic and human resources were used to produce Buddhist sutras and to build places of worship, including thousands of cave temples.
Mogao Grottoes (Mogao Ku)
Some 25 kilometres SE of Dunhuang, at the edge of the Mingsha Shan or Dunes of the Singing Sands, lies a river bed bordered by a long cliff. It was here, in the year 366AD that a local monk set about carving out a cave for solitary meditation. Over the next thousand years, hundreds of similar caves were cut into the same rock face - to become not bare monastic cells but richly endowed and adorned shrines – one of the most extensive and exquisite collections of Buddhist art in the world.
Within 492 caves and grottoes, every surface of wall and ceiling is covered with painted clay stucco (25,000 square metres of wall paintings and more than 3000 painted sculptures). Graceful acrobats of the sky scatter flowers and garlands, while dancers and musicians celebrate the beauties of the Buddhist Pure Lands. Row upon row of miniature images of the Buddha, subtly varied in colouring or dress, adorn virtually every cave, and give the site its popular name of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.
The paintings were the legacy of pilgrim monks on their way to India and of merchants and nobles who made their artistic contributions as a blessing for their caravans and salvation for their souls. These well preserved caves span a period of one thousand years, from the 4 to the 14 centuries, and represent the culture of medieval China in vivid detail. The discovery in 1900 of a secret library cave, which was sealed around the mid-C11 and remained untouched for nine hundred years, has further made Dunhuang an extremely important site for the studies of medieval Chinese civilization. The site began to decline in the C12 , and slipped into virtual obscurity until the early years of the C 20 when the
monk Wang Yuanlu settled here. The first cave he opened is #16, in the adjacent cave, #17, he found more than 40,000 manuscripts, 6,500 of which he sold to Aurel Stein.
Northern & Western Wei & Northern Zhao Caves
The art of this period is characterised by its attempt to depict the spirituality of those who had achieved enlightenment and transcended the material world through their asceticism. Wei statues are slim, ethereal figures with finely chiselled features, clearly displaying Indian influence. A good example is cave 257, which depicts the story of the Buddha who, as Deer King, was betrayed by a man whose life he saved. Also caves 249 & 428.
A transition period in which graceful Indian curves start to give way to the more rigid Chinese style. The finest examples of this period are #150, 244, 410, 420 and 427.
A time of Buddhist prominence reflected in the proud bearing of Tang Buddhist figures. Some 230 of the caves were carved during this period including caves 96 and 130 which contain massive 34.5 and 26 meter Buddha figures. The Buddha in cave 158 is post-Tang.
Singing Sand Mountain (Mingsha Shan) & Crescent Moon Lake (Yueyaquan)
A tiny lake, hidden amongst the dunes and a mountain of pure sand – watching sunrise or sunset from the top is particularly spectacular.