Mogao Grottoes Travel Guide
Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art.
The Mogao Grottoes, twenty-five kilometers southeast of Dunhuang City, contain the largest and richest treasure trove of stone carvings and mural paintings in China. Carved out along a 1,500-meter precipice, the 492 grottoes stretch from south to north on the eastern slope of Rattling Sand Mountain (Mingshashan) and are divided into five levels.
They contain 45,000 square meters of murals 2,415 painted statues, and five wooden structures. The colored paintings of the Mogao Grottoes feature hold lines, bright colors, and superb composition. Those made during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) are particularly brilliant. Themes of the murals range fro Buddha portraits and Buddhist stories to fairy tales and pictures of worshipers. A large number of historical documents dating from the Middle Ages were also discovered in a cave where Buddhist scriptures were stored. The study of these valuable materials, along with paintings and statues, has become a subject of worldwide research.
Long History of Construction
In l39 and ll9 BC, Zhang Qian, envoy of the Han Dynasty, went to the Western Regions twice and opened up the "Silk Road" across the Asian continent, stimulating cultural and economic exchanges between ancient China and the West As a hub of communications along the road, Dunhuang became a connuence of cultural streams from both the East and the West, and thus rapidly attained great prosperity. The Chinese characters "dun"and" huang"just mean greatness and prosperity respectively.
It was through Dunhuang that Buddhism spread from the Western Regions to the interior of China.The construction of the Mogao cave-temples was begun in 366 AD. During the Sui and the earlier Tang periods, the work reached its height. In the Song period, the Western Xia(Tangut kingdom)in the northwest was still engaged in cutting and renovating the grottoes, though the Mogao Caves were then on the decline due to the fact that Dunhuang had fallen into economic depression and the land "Silk Road" was no longer an important line of communications. From the Yuan period onward, no grottoes were cut there, and the Mogao Caves gradually became unfrequented and were finally abandoned, becoming little-known among the common people.
Discovery of the Cave-Temples
In the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty,the Mogao Caves began to draw attention again.In the 26th year of the Guangxu reign (l900 AD), the Taoist priest Wang Yuanlu discovered by chance a sutra-keeping vault with more than 40,000 documents, hand written scriptures and cultural relics of different periods preserved in a good condition. This discovery was held to be the most valuable in the history of world culture in the 20th century.
It created a worldwide sensation. Thereafter, British, French, Japanese, Russian and American adventurers came in one after another and seized treasures and cultural relics in the Mogao Caves. In l943, the site was nationalized, and the Dunhuang Art Research Institute was established locally, which marked the commencement of the preservation and research work on the Mogao Caves.
Invaluable Treasury of Art
Painted sculptures and murals form the cream of Mogao art. The former number more than 3,000,the largest Buddha standing as tall as over 30 m, while the smallest yingsu applique measuring only some dozen centimeters. The latter are so great in quantity that their combined height amounts to more than 30 km; the subjects include Jatakas, scenes in Buddhist sutras, Buddhist figures, donors and decorative designs. Both types were created from the Sixteen States Period to Yuan times, covering more than a thousand years. Over a half of the works were made in the Sui and Tang periods.
Buddhist art was the main aspect of ancient Chinese art, and Buddhist sculptures and murals were inevitable products of the spread of Buddhism. Unfortunately, many works of Buddhist art have vanished due to natural and man-made damage. Neverthekss,as Dunhuang was located in the dry desert of north western China and the Mogao Caves became untraveled after their fall, there were favorable conditions for painted sculptures and murals to be preserved perfectly, thus we can see splendid masterpieces created at the golden age of the Buddhist art, which are seldom found elsewhere, That is why the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang figure prominently in the history of art.