Category of site: Cultural site
Located on south-east of the Dunhuang oasis, Gansu province, the Mogao caves, also known as the Thousand-Buddha Caves, are the world’s largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art. They are located at a strategic point along the Silk Road, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences.
According to historical records, the carving of the caves started in 366 AD and continued for about 1,000 years. The 492 well-preserved cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures, are well-known for their statues and wall paintings. The painted clay figures vary greatly in size, with the largest one being 33 meters high and the smallest only 10 centimeters.
Painted clay sculptures and murals in the Mogao Grottoes have mainly Buddhist themes, but they also include human figures, reflecting various societies and cultures of different times. Besides, they also demonstrate painting styles of different times in layout, figure design, delineation and coloring, as well as the integration of Chinese and Western arts.
In 1900, a total of 4,500 valuable cultural relics dating from 256 AD to 1002 were found in the Buddhist Sutra Cave, including silk paintings, embroidery and documents in rare languages such as ancient Tibetan and Sanskrit. This is regarded as one of the world’s greatest Oriental cultural discoveries.
The Mogao Caves were added to the list in December 1987.
The Mogao Caves, bearing exceptional witness to the civilizations of ancient China during the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties, are important evidence of the evolution of Buddhist art in the northwest region of China, providing an abundance of vivid materials that depict various aspects of medieval politics, economics, culture, arts, religion, ethnic relations, and daily dress in western China, so they are of unmatched historical value. The unique artistic style of Dunhuang art derives not only from the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian and Gandharan customs, but also from an integration of the arts of the Turks, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities. The Mogao Caves, an outstanding example of a Buddhist rock art sanctuary, have represented a unique artistic achievement and played a decisive role in artistic exchanges between China, Central Asia and India.
The discovery of the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves in 1990, together with the tens of thousands of manuscripts and relics it contained, has been appraised as the world’s most exceptional discovery of ancient oriental culture. This important heritage offers invaluable reference for studying the complex history of ancient China and Central Asia.
The Mogao Grottoes show examples of various types of art, such as architecture, painting and statuary. The group of caves at Mogao displays a unique artistic achievement both by the organization of space into 492 caves created on five levels and by the production of more than 2,000 painted sculptures, and approximately 45,000 square meters of murals, among which are many masterpieces of Chinese art. By inheriting the artistic traditions of the central and western regions of China and absorbing the merits of ancient arts from India, Greece and Iran, ancient Chinese artists created Buddhist art works with strong local features. These art works are treasures of human civilization, providing valuable material for studies of the politics, economy, culture, religion, ethnic relations and foreign exchanges of China in olden times. Besides, there are also about 50,000 items of scriptures, documents, paintings and weavings written in several languages spanning the period from the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280) to Northern Song Dynasty (690-1127).
Cave 302 of the Sui Dynasty includes one of the oldest and most vivid scenes of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, which displays a camel pulling a cart typical of trade missions of that period. Caves 23 and 156 of the Tang Dynasty depict workers in the fields and a line of warriors respectively. Cave 61 of the Song Dynasty, the famous landscape of Wutai Mountain, is an early instance of artistic Chinese cartography. It depicted everything, including mountains, rivers, cities, temples, roads and caravans.
So far there are 492 grottoes, with murals and painted clay figures. There are meditation grottoes, Buddha hall grottoes, temple grottoes, vault-roofed grottoes and shadow grottoes. The largest grotto is 40 meters high and 30 meters wide, whereas the smallest is less than one foot high.
Painted clay figures
These are the main treasures of the Dunhuang Grottoes. The figures are in different forms, including round figures and relief figures. The tallest is 34.5 meters high, while the smallest is only 2 centimeters. These painted clay figures show such a great variety of themes and subject matter, as well as advanced techniques, that the Mogao Grottoes are generally regarded as the world’s leading museum of Buddhist painted clay figures.
The murals in the Mogao Grottoes display Buddhist sutras, natural scenery, buildings, mountain and water paintings, flower patterns, flying Apsaras (Buddhist fairies) and ancient farming and production scenes. There are 1,045 murals extant, with a total area of 45,000 sq m. They are artistic records of historical changes and customs and traditions from the 4th to the 18th centuries.
In 1900, about 50,000 cultural relics were found in a sanctum sealed behind the northern wall of Grotto No 16. These articles included Buddhist sutras, documents, embroidery works and paintings from the 4th to the 12th centuries. Apart from ancient Chinese documents, there were also documents in other ancient languages, including Tibetan, Sanskrit and Uygur. The subjects of these documents include religion, literature, contracts, ledgers and official files. This discovery, which attracted world attention, is of great research value for supplementing and emending ancient Chinese documents.
The Sui Dynasty (518-618) was a golden age for Buddhism in Chinese history. And the Mogao Grottoes experienced their heyday of construction during this dynasty.
Born and brought up in a Buddhist nunnery, Emperor Yang Jian, founder of the Sui Dynasty, was an enthusiastic Buddhist. After he united the whole country, he made Buddhism the national religion. About 5,000 temples were built, thousands of Buddhist sculptures were carved, and there were some 500,000 Buddhist monks and nuns. His son Emperor Yang Guang was also keen on Buddhism. He had 1,000 copies of the Fahua Sutra published and established a school of Buddhism.
In this period, a large number of grottoes were carved at Mogao. The most common form of grotto dating from this dynasty is the inverted conical grotto. A typical example is the seven-layer conical tower in Grotto No 303, converted from a central tower pillar. Murals in this period were freed from the limit of foreign arts and demonstrated a liberated dynamic creativity. Generally, they show three major features.
First, murals depicting how Buddhists underwent arduous training and endured humiliation for progress in this life receded, and murals depicting easy ways to become a Buddha and attain Paradise began to occupy prominent positions in the grottoes. Second, Avalokitesvara was no longer an accompanying figure for Sakyamuni Buddha. Instead, she was depicted separately and with more grandeur. The appearance of the separate Avalokitesvara marked progress in China’s Buddhism. Third, as secularization of Buddhist art began to emerge, figures in murals in this period were more lifelike.