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The Library Cave and its Museum
Author: Published:2014.3.22 Views:



Wang Yuan-lu


Aurel Stein

In 1900, a Daoist priest Wang Yuan-lu (1849-1931), who self-appointed himself guardian of the cave-temples in Dunhuang, accidentally discovered a sealed up cave (present-day Cave 17, known as the Library Cave) containing a huge priceless treasure of more than 50,000 manuscripts.

Most of these manuscripts dated between the 4th and the 11th centuries are Buddhist, as well as Daoist, Manichean and Nestorian Christians. The manuscripts, on paper, silk, wood and other materials, are paintings, printings, and writings in many languages, including Sanskrit, Tibetan, Tangut, Uyghur, Khotanese, Kuchean, Sogdian, Mongolian and even Hebrew in addition to Chinese. The contents cover religion, history, literature, astronomy, astrology, and private or official correspondence.

During the tumultuous years between the late 19th and the early 20th century in China, thousands of cultural artifacts were carried off by foreigners. Long before the Dunhuang treasure was found, this “international race” for treasure had already started.


Sergei Oldenberg


Paul Pelliot

In Dunhuang, Wang was deceived and bribed by the foreign archaeologists to give away the priceless manuscripts, paintings and statues for a small “donation”. The Hungarian-British Aurel Stein (1862-1943) is unquestionably the most villainous of the archaeologists, followed closely by Paul Pelliot (1878-1945) of France, and Albert von Le Coq (1860-1930) of Germany, Langdon Warner (1881-1955) of the USA, Sergei Oldenberg (1863-1934) of Russia, and Otani Kozui (1876-1948) and Zuicho Tachibana of Japan.

Other than the manuscripts, Oldenberg also removed 16 murals and 61 fragments from the caves. Warner even used a special chemical solution for detaching the wall-paintings to remove several pieces of murals, and a three foot Tang statue of kneeling Bodhisattva. In his word it was a “rescue” which was and is still the most popular euphemism for plundering Otani Kozui and/or smuggling in most of these nefarious enterprises. Fortunately he was stopped by the local people on his second trip planning to “rescue” more.


Langdon Warner

After the involvement of the Chinese government, the caves with their magnificent murals and polychromed statues have been saved; however considerable archaeological artifacts had already been removed from China. The collections now are scattered throughout museums and institutes, or in the hands of private collectors in different countries. Only a very small part of the manuscripts found in the Library Cave remains in China.

Opposite the Library Cave is a museum dedicated to the discovery of the Cave. The building was originally the Daoist Trinity Palace (also known as The Lower Temple), the residence of WangYuan-lu. Exhibits in the museum include narratives and photos of the discovery of the treasures and their fate. Some of the artifacts that remain in China are also displayed. It demonstrates how the Dunhuang treasures were scattered all over the world.

It is an unforgettable event in Chinese history.



Some of the manuscripts to be carried off by Stein in the entrance corridor of Cave 16, in front of the Library Cave.

Paul Pelliot sorting through manuscripts