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Dunhuang

Dunhuang or Tunhwang (both: dōōn-hwäng), town, extreme NW Gansu prov., China. Crescent Lake, a noted tourist attraction surrounded by high sand dunes, is there. The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (Mogao Caves) are at nearby Qianfodong. The town and its environs were long a gateway between central Asia and China, and the frescoes in the caves, painted from the 5th cent. to the 13th cent., show Indian, Greco-Roman, and Iranian influences. Closed for centuries, the caves were reopened in 1900. There, Sir Aurel Stein, an English archaeologist, discovered a library of some 15,000 manuscripts, including the Diamond Sutra, reputed to be the first (AD 868) printed book. China reclaimed the caves in the 1940s and in 1979 they were opened to the public. By the 2000s, however, the paintings were threatened by human-generated damage, and now only a few of the hundreds of caves are open to tourists.

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Tun-huang

Tun-huang (Dunhuang). Town in NW of Kansu province in China, a major staging post on the Silk Road trading route. Because it was the point of access to China for Buddhist missionaries travelling on the overland route from India, it became an important Buddhist centre. The major remains of this presence are in the Mo-kao (Mogao) Caves, also known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, the oldest Buddhist shrines in China.

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Dunhuang

Dunhuang (town in NW China): see TAN-HUANG.

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Dunhuang

DUNHUANG

Dunhuang, on the far western border of the Han empire, was founded as a garrison commandery in 111 b.c.e. Some twenty-five kilometers southeast of the town, a long range of barren rocky hills meets a group of high sand dunes. A small stream, running from south to north, has cut the gravel conglomerate to form a cliff one and a half kilometers long, and irrigates a grove of trees and a few fields. Here, from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, there was almost continuous cutting and decoration of cave sanctuaries, most of which have survived intact. Now a World Heritage site, Dunhuang was thrust into international prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century with the discovery of a sealed library and the removal to several institutions worldwide (British Museum in London, Musée Guimet in Paris, National Museum in New Delhi, State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, etc.) of thousands of Buddhist manuscripts and hundreds of paintings on silk and hemp cloth.

During the millennium of activity at the site, however, it would seem that the caves at Dunhuang served a number of very different purposes, whether Buddhist or secular, official or private, and that they represent the hopes and fears of many individuals, be they rich or poor, local residents or passing travelers. Traditionally, the first caves were opened in 366 by the Buddhist monks Yuezun and Faliang for the purpose of meditation. The lonely situation of the site, then known as Miaoyan or the Wonderful Cliff, perhaps implying that it possessed a reputation as a sacred site even in its pre-Buddhist phase, was admirably suited to the scriptural requirement that places of meditation be located well away from centers of population.

The earliest caves extant today, near the middle of the cliff and high above ground level, date from the fifth century. Elements of style and iconography originating somewhat earlier in Kizil, on the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert, blend with typically Chinese architectural features in these early caves. In most there is a square central pillar, with the main image facing the entrance. The walls and ceilings were coated with clay plaster on which were depicted both narrative scenes from the previous lives of Śākyamuni and the legends of his historical life, and the three thousand buddhas of the Bhadrakalpa in serried rows of seated figures.

Dunhuang was not only the gateway to the Western Regions beyond Chinese territory, but it was a site of such magnificence that its fame spread rapidly throughout the region and the Chinese empire, especially after the unification under the Sui dynasty (589–618).

See also:Bianwen; Bianxiang (Transformation Tableaux); China, Buddhist Art in; Silk Road

Bibliography

Dunhuang Research Academy, ed. Chūgoku Sekkutsu: Tonkō Bakkōkutsu (Chinese Cave Temples: The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang), 5 vols. Tokyo and Beijing: Heibonsha and Wenwu Press, 1982.

Dunhuang Research Academy, ed. Dunhuang shiku yishu (The Art of the Dunhuang Caves), 20 vols. Nanjing, China: Jiangsu Fine Arts Press, 1994.

Dunhuang Research Academy, ed. Dunhuang shiku quanji (Complete Collection of the Dunhuang Caves), 28 vols. Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 1999.

Giès, Jacques, ed. The Arts of Central Asia: The Pelliot Collection in the Musée Guimet, tr. Hero Friesen. London: Serindia, 1996.

Wang, Eugene Y. Shape of the Visual: Imagining Topography in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.

Whitfield, Roderick. The Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection at the British Museum, 3 vols. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1982–1985.

Whitfield, Roderick. Dunhuang: Caves of the Singing Sands. London: Textile and Art Publications, 1996.

Whitfield, Roderick; Whitfield, Susan; and Agnew, Neville. Cave Temples of Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2000.

Roderick Whitfield

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