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Mogao Cave 17 (Late Tang 848-907AD)
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Figure 1: opening of Cave 17 on Cave 16’s corridor

    This cave, entered through the north side of the corridor in Cave 16, was discovered by the Taoist monk Wang Yuan-lu who appointed himself guardian of Mogaoku. He discovered its opening while cleaning off the sand on the wall in 1900. It was indeed the stunning world renowned Library Cave which had stored more than fifty thousand manuscripts, paintings and prints on silk and paper for about 900 years. It remains a mystery why these treasures were hidden here.


Figure 2: Hong-bian’s true portrait 

    This cave was originally built as a memorial chapel dedicated to the eminent monk Hong-bian (?-862?). He was chief of monks in the Hexi area from 830, and had helped the local magnate Zhang Yi-chao restore Chinese control. He was recommended to be the then Tang emperor’s master, but died before leaving for the capital Chang-an (present-day Xi-an). A stele about him was inlaid into the west wall in 851 when he was honoured by the emperor. His stucco statue (Figure 2), a true portrait with unique character, is on the low altar which looks like a meditation bed. His face looks very human, not like the ideal Buddha or Bodhisattva, and is very vigorous, calm and serene.

This statue had been moved to another cave and is back in its original location now. His ashes, in a purple silk bag, were in the statue. It has been removed and is now kept in the local Dunhuang Museum.



Figure 3: The painting on the north wall 

Besides the rich hidden treasures, the wall paintings in this small cave are also outstanding. On the north wall, behind Hong-bian’s statue, is a striking painting serving as the background. On the western side are a tree with twisted trunk in a lively shade and a young attendant holding a staff standing under it (Figure 3, left). On the eastern side is a priest, Hong-bian’s other attendant, holding a ceremonial fan for the master. The two trees are different shapes, and their branches form a natural arch as the master’s canopy. A priest’s travelling bag (design similar to today’s ladies’ handbags) and a water flask hang on the branches. The drawing was executed in ink outline, simple but rigorous. This mural, especially the two attendants, is an excellent example demonstrating the skilful technique used in painting human figures in the Tang.

   The discovery of the cave and its treasures had attracted scholarly attention world wide. Almost 80% of its contents were pillaged by foreigners and are now scattered throughout various museums and other institutions, or in the hands of private collectors in Britain, France, USA, Germany, Russia, Japan and other countries.


Figure 4: Paul Pelliot sorting manuscripts, Cave 17, 1910 

Among the foreigners who came to carry off the treasures from the cave, the Hungarian-British Auriel Stein was the first and he took the most, but the best were removed by Paul Pelliot, a Frenchman, who was a Sinologist.