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The History of Dunhuang
Author: Published:2014.3.27 Views:

Dunhuang is an oasis surrounded by desert and gravel in northwestern China. It was the main (and only) gateway to and from China on the route, known as the Silk Road, between China, Western Asia and the sub-continent of India.

The name “Silk Road” is somewhat misleading. For, not only did this great highway crossing China, Central Asia and the Middle East consist of a number of roads, it also carried a good deal more than just silk.


Map of the Silk Road

Before the third century BC, it was inhabited by the people of Yuezhi (whose descendents became the Indo-Scythian rulers of northwestern Indiabetween the 1st and the 5th century),Wusun and Xiongnu (a confederation of nomadic tribes from Central Asia).

In the 2nd century BC, a brave young man,Zhang Qian (张骞), went twice from China to the then remote and mysterious regions of the west. His journeys were among the most important in history, because he documented valuable information on its history and geography, leading Chinato discover Europe thus giving birth to the Silk Road.

Dunhuang was established as a garrison in 111 BC, by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, to extend military power and for the benefits of trade. Dunhuang was the frontier, at the west end of the Hexi (west of the Yellow River) Corridor. A long wall, which became part of the Great Wall, was erected to its north and two barriers (Yangguan or Yang Pass and Yumenguan or Jade Gate Pass) were built to its west. Many watchtowers still remain to this day.

The imperial court also moved people from metropolitan Chinato settle here and stationed troops to guard and farm the land. From then on, Dunhuang became a vital military outpost. As a doorway to Central Asia, it had also grown into a commercial centre, bringing exotic imports such as medicine, spices, wine, rugs, fragrant woods, “Heavenly Horses” (the steeds), etc. and exporting silk, porcelain, etc. Because the trade brought huge wealth to China, a ceaseless struggle ensued between the Chinese and others for control of this economic artery. Periodically, this route would fall into the hands of independent feudal rulers. It did not matter who controlled this area, it was always full of peril for the caravans as they might be attacked by brigands or suffer from starvation or lack of water. Despite the hazards, the Silk Road thrived.

When metropolitan China was in turmoil during the Southern & Northern Dynasties (the 3rd to the 6th century), Dunhuang was relatively stable and became a centre of refuge. Its population increased and civilization flourished. During this long period, a group of local Confucian scholars rigorously developed their philosophy. Also, Indian culture, especially Buddhism, was introduced into this area at this time.

The turbulent period generated a strong desire for a strong, enduring political ideology. People were longing for a better world. Buddhism, particularly the Mahayanist paradise, could offer some satisfaction. On the other hand, Buddhism believes that everyone can attain enlightenment and become a Buddha through his own effort. Life is suffering, but one can get rid of the suffering and gain eternal bliss through practice. This belief matches the similarConfucius saying that “Everyone can be a sage”, as well as the Daoist philosophy which focuses on how to get rid of worldly suffering which people experienced too much during war. The Buddhist meditation and the Daoist, especially Zhuang Zi's, contemplation also have much in common. Moreover, the Buddhist monastic life is similar in some ways to the hermit life of the traditional Chinese intellectuals. So Buddhism slowly overcame the rejection by some and integrated into the main stream of Chinese culture.

In Dunhaung, a native-born Yuezhi monk, Fahu (Dharmaksema) was very active in the third century. He was a superb translator, preaching and translating scriptures for many years, earning the name “Bodhisattva of Dunhuang”. He promoted the teachings of Avalokitesvara and might have contributed to make this bodhisattva the most popular.

In the meantime, Buddhist missionaries and pilgrims who were in search of original sources, scriptures and holy sites, began to travel between China, Central Asia and Indiathrough Dunhuang. Thus, a growing Buddhist community was established in Dunhuang and Buddhist buildings, such as stupas and monasteries, were erected. A new style of architecture — cave construction atMogao in Dunhuang then began.

The earliest cave, according to records, was constructed by a travelling monk, Lezun (orYuezun), in 366 AD. When he arrived at this mountain, he suddenly saw golden rays shining as if thousands of Buddhas were appearing on the cliff. He then excavated a cave and settled there. After him came the Chan (dhyana/meditation) master Faliang who opened a second cave next to Lezun’s. These caves, probably in the centre of the present-day central cave area, no longer exist. The earliest monasteries here are believed to be built by these two monks as well. More serious undertakings were made possible with the support of local Buddhists, populace and elite. Cave construction became a trend for a thousand years, but the only surviving examples from the earliest period of activity are three caves believed to be opened in the Northern Liang (421-439). They are small, but the decorations are very delicate and well organized. Besides Buddhism, some other foreign religions, like Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism, also reached Chinavia the Silk Road together with their art and literature.

Between the 4th and the 6th century, Dunhuang was under the nomadic rulers in the Sixteen Kingdoms period (366-439). In 439, it became part of theNorthern Wei. Even though its emperor moved the majority of the population to the new capital (now Datong, Shanxi Province) to be closer to metropolitan Chinain order to get rid of their Xianbei (nomadic) traditions, cave construction still flourished and at least 32 caves were opened at that time. In the following periods of the Western Wei (534-556) and Northern Zhou (557-581), there were several occasions of anti-religious persecution. However, Dunhuang was too far from metropolitan China, and the Mogao caves seem to have escaped the oppression. Several remarkable caves were opened during this period.

The Sui Dynasty (581-618) only lasted for 37 years, but it reunified the whole empire and concluded the turbulence. Its political and cultural systems created a very strong foundation for theTang Dynasty (618-907). The two Sui emperors were among the greatest patrons of Buddhism in China. Buddhism flourished across the empire as countless monasteries and stupas were built. Cave construction reached new heights in the following years. The art and civilization of the Silk Road achieved its greatest glory during the Tang as the empire reached its golden age in Chinese history. The bright-coloured statues and complex scenes in the murals are magnificent. During the early Tang right after the Sui, the empire was expanding and became very strong. The Great Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin, reigned 627-649) strengthened the military force of theHexi area, thus guaranteeing a continuous and steady development of Dunhuang’s economy and culture. After that, Empress Wu Zetian (reigned 683-704) was in power for a half century. She usurped the throne by using Buddhism to support her claim to rule, claiming herself as the reincarnation of the future Buddha Maitreya, whose statues were built far and wide under her orders. The country prospered until her grandson Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 705-755) lost power. Between 781 and 847, because of the declining Tang Empire, Dunhuang was ruled by the Tibetans (Tubo) who were just as zealous as the Chinese in building monasteries and opening caves.

Taking advantage of disaffection among the Tibetans, a local magnate,Zhang Yichao, re-established Chinese rule in 847. He gained control over all eleven districts inHexi with his own army called the “Gui-yi Jun (Insurrection for Allegiance Army)”, based in Dunhuang. He pledged loyalty to the Tang court and was knighted as Commissioner ofHexi in return, while he actually strengthened Dunhuang’s local defense to assure its independence. He also established a hereditary system and later, due to the lack of a descendant, power was transferred to the Cao family which continued to rule until 1036, when submission was made to the Western Xia (1036-1227). To consolidate their power, the Zhangs and Caos formed alliances with the surrounding kingdoms such as the Khotan and different sections of the Uyghur through marriage. They all supported Buddhism and were dedicated to opening caves, with oversized images of their family members painted in the caves to assert their political power.

At the end of the Tang, a vast area in northern Chinawas ruled by the Liao kingdom (907-1125) of the Khitan nationality, while another substantial area was controlled by the Western Xia, the Tanguts. Dunhuang fell to the Uyghurs in the 12th century for about fifty years, then it was conquered by the Tanguts and finally in 1227, succumbed to the Mongols who established theYuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

During this period, some caves were still constructed in Dunhuang, but soon tapered off. Another trade route by sea was developed and the Yuan Empire expanded much further west, making Dunhuang no longer strategic allowing to languish. The gradual drying up of the rivers, which supplied water to the oasis, affected local living conditions. As well, the sudden arrival of the proselytizing warriors of Islam from far-off Arabia stopped the multi-cultural activities. These factors caused Dunhuang to fade into history.

In the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the government gave up this area and moved the population to the east, leaving Dunhuang as a herding grassland until two hundred years later. An outpost was set up again in 1723 and upgraded to a garrison two years later. People moved back to farm and rebuild this historically significant centre.

When China was in turmoil in the late Qing (1638-1911), a Daoist monk accidentally discovered the sealed “Cave Library” in 1900, which contained more than 5,000 pieces of manuscripts, silk and paper paintings, embroideries, etc. Why this cave was sealed with so many treasures inside still remains a mystery. This discovery resulted in archaeological raids by foreign expeditions during the first quarter of the 20th century and thus allowed Dunhuang to reclaim its rightful eminent place in the sweep of China’s cultural history and establish its place in the global pantheon of cultural centres.