The Mogao Caves (莫高窟, mògāo kū), 25km southeast of Dunhuang, are one of the great archeological discovery stories of the East. The first-known Buddhist temples within the boundaries of the Chinese empire, supposedly established in 366 AD by a monk called Lie Zun, they were a centre of culture on the Silk Road right up until the fourteenth century, and contain religious artworks spanning a thousand years. Chinese Buddhism radiated out to the whole Han empire from these wild desert cliffs, and with it – gradually adapting to a Chinese context – came the artistic influences of Central Asia, India, Persia and the West.
Of the original thousand or more caves, over six hundred survive in recognizable form, but many are off-limits, either no longer considered to be of significant interest or else containing Tantric murals that the Chinese reckon are too sexually explicit for visitors. Of the thirty main caves open to the public, you are likely to manage only around fifteen in a single day.
What makes the caves so interesting is that you can trace the development of Chinese art over the centuries, from one dynasty to the next. Some grasp of the caves’ history is essential to appreciate them properly, but be warned: restorations and replacements in the modern era have complicated the picture, and many of the statues, in particular, are not original. You may hear your guide blaming the ugly replacements on the Qing dynasty – in other words on the monk Wang Yuan Lu – but some of them are a good deal newer than that. The caves are all clearly labelled with numbers above the doors.
The Mogao cave treasures
The Mogao cave treasures
The story of Mogao’s development, then subsequent abandonment and rediscovery, is an intriguing one. Before the arrival of Buddhism from India, the Chinese – Taoist and Confucian – temple tradition had been mainly of buildings in wood, a material well adapted to most Chinese conditions. The idea of cave temples came to China from India, where poverty, lack of building materials and the intense heat had necessitated alternative methods.
The emergence of the complex of cave temples at Mogao dominated early Chinese Buddhism, as pilgrims, monks and scholars passing along the Silk Road settled and worked here, translating sutras, or holy texts. Merchants and nobles stopped too, endowing temples to ensure the success of their caravans or to benefit their souls, as they did in varying degrees all along the Silk Road. Huge numbers of artists and craftsmen were employed at Dunhuang, often lying on high scaffoldings in the dim light provided by oil lamps. The workers usually lived in tiny caves in the northern section of Mogao furnished with small brick beds and were paid a pittance – in one collection of Buddhist scriptures, archeologists discovered a bill of indenture signed by one sculptor for the sale of his son.
Under the Tang, which saw the establishment of Buddhism throughout the Chinese empire, the monastic community reached its peak, with more than a thousand cave temples in operation. Thereafter, however, as the new ocean-going trading links slowly supplanted the Silk Road, Mogao (and Dunhuang) became increasingly provincial. At some point in the fourteenth century, the caves were sealed and abandoned.
Although Mogao’s existence remained known to a few Buddhist scholars, it was only in 1900 that a wandering monk, Wang Yuan Lu, stumbled upon them by accident and decided to begin the work of excavation. He at once realized their significance and made it his life’s work to restore the site, excavating caves full of sand, touching up the murals, planting trees and gardens and building a guesthouse. This work he undertook with two acolytes and financed through begging expeditions.
The reconstructions might have gone on in relative obscurity were it not for the discovery of a bricked-up hidden chamber (cave 17), which Wang opened to reveal an enormous collection of manuscripts, sutras and silk and paper paintings – some 1000 years old and virtually undamaged. News of the cache soon reached the ears of the Dunhuang authorities, who, having appropriated a fair haul for themselves, decided to reseal them in the cave on the grounds that it would be too expensive to transport them. So it remained for a further seven years, until the arrival in 1907 of the Central Asian explorer and scholar Aurel Stein. Stein, a Hungarian working for the British and the Indian Survey (in other words, a secret agent), had heard rumours of the caves and been offered items for sale. In good Howard Carter tradition, he persuaded Wang to reopen the chamber. This is how Stein later described what he saw:
The sight the small room disclosed was one to make my eyes open; heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly 10 feet and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet – an unparalleled archeological scoop.
This was no understatement. Examining the manuscripts, Stein found original sutras brought from India by the Tang monk and traveller Xuanzang, along with other Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit, Sogdian, Tibetan, Runic-Turkic, Chinese, Uyghur and other languages unknown to the scholar. Amid the art finds, hardly less important were dozens of rare Tang-dynasty paintings on silk and paper – badly crushed but totally untouched by damp.
Eventually, Stein – donating the equivalent of £130 to Wang’s restoration fund – left Mogao for England with some seven thousand manuscripts and five hundred paintings. Later in the year a Frenchman, Paul Pelliot, negotiated a similar deal, shipping six thousand manuscripts and many paintings back to Paris. And so, virtually overnight, and before the Beijing authorities could put a stop to it, the British Museum and the Louvre had acquired the core of their Chinese manuscript and painting collections. Not all the caves were looted, however; a fresh batch of 248 was only located in 2001, though the scrolls and artefacts they contained have yet to be fully assessed.
Today, fuelled perhaps by Greek claims on the Elgin marbles, the Chinese are pressing for the return of all paintings and manuscripts in foreign collections. It is hard to dispute the legitimacy of these claims, though it was only in 1961 that Mogao was declared a National Monument. Had the treasures not been removed, more would almost certainly have been lost in the chaotic years of the twentieth century. A large party of White Russians used the caves as a barracks in 1920, crawling their names over the frescoes. Fortunately, despite the massive loss in terms of manuscripts and scrolls, the artwork and statuary at the caves themselves are still fabulously preserved. The cave art was not damaged during the Cultural Revolution – protected, it is said, on a personal order from Premier Zhou Enlai.