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Notes on the History of Dunhuang

Dunhuang (in older sources, Tun-Huang), located at the western end of the Gansu (Hexi) Corridor and at the eastern end of the Taklamakan Desert, was very important historically. For many periods of Chinese and Inner Asian history, it marked the western limit of direct Chinese administrative control and military authority. Located near one of the important nodes of the routes across Eurasia, Dunhuang experienced a variety of cultural influences. For example, perhaps the most important early translator of Buddhist scriptures in China, the monk Kumarajiva from Kucha in the Tarim Basin, worked at Dunhuang before he went to Ch'ang-an. The famous Buddhist monks Faxian and Xuanzang passed through Dunhuang en route to (or from) India in their quest for new knowledge of Buddhism at its source. We know that Soghdian merchants from Ferghana were there, as were Nestorian Christians. During the period of the T'ang Dynasty, for many decades Dunhuang was under Tibetan control; later Uighurs and others controlled the region.

While the history of Dunhuang and its region has much in common with that in other cities in Inner Asia, part of its distinction lie in the degree to which life in Dunhuang has been documented. Much of that documentation came to the attention of scholars only at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the expeditions of Aurel Stein  (front center in photo) and others. In the first instance today when we think of Dunhuang, we think of the Mogao Caves near the town, a complex of hundreds of Buddhist sanctuaries, a great many of which contain remarkably well preserved religious art from about the late fifth century (CE) on. At Mogao in 1900, a local caretaker monk uncovered a treasure trove of manuscripts and paintings, most of which ended up in European collections after Stein and others purchased or otherwise obtained them. Toward the middle of the twentieth century, the systematic study of the art and inscriptions in the caves began, providing additional information on local culture and history. Apart from the evidence at Mogao, considerable written material for the early history of the region has been found in the ruins of Han-era fortifications. Taken together with the information in dynastic historical records, these sources often allow much more detailed study of the Dunhuang region than can be obtained for many other areas of China.

Yet surprisingly, there is no readily available synthesis of Dunhuang's history as a center on the Silk Road. We might hope to view the history of the Silk Road through the lens of Dunhuang and its history, but to do so requires pulling together materials from a variety of sources. The pages here are intended as a start in that direction. So far pages are provided here on the following topics:

1. Dunhuang as a military outpost.

2. Dunhuang in the late T'ang period: The Tun Huang Lu. Note that this page links to various pages containing images of the region around the Mogao Caves.

3. Dunhuang social, economic and political history.

  • The Silk Road Foundation has a variety of materials on Dunhuang. Note especially two web pages by Prof. Ning Qiang:
    1. Introduction to Dunhuang Cave Art
    2. Main themes of Dunhuang Art

  • A valuable resource available in electronic form is the book by Dr. Duan Wenjie, former director of the Dunhuang Research Institute: Dunhuang Art Through the Eyes of Duan Wenjie.

  • An interactive interior panorama of the important Mogao Cave 285 at Dunhuang previews a large project to put images of the caves on-line. (Quicktime is required to view the cave.)

    © 1999 Daniel C. Waugh