The Tun Huang Lu--Dunhuang and Its Region in the Late T'ang Period

This interesting anonymous description was found in the manuscripts of Cave 17 at Mogao outside of Dunhuang. It provides a good sense of the geography, major religious sites and some of the local folklore and religious beliefs. The text embodies a logical route progressing around the city, although occasionally its evidence is somewhat confusing (e.g., in its discussion of the Yang Guan and Yumen Guan).

It is important to realize that location of the main settlement and the name of the town and district changed over time. The first name mentioned, Hsiao-ku is a town about 11 miles northeast of the modern Dunhuang. The author refers to Dunhuang as Sha-ch'eng or by a generic name. Although it tends to refer to a broader administrative district, Sha-chou also came to be used as an equivalent for Dunhuang. In the sixth century, the name Kua-chou was applied and then Ming-sha hsien (referring to the sand dunes described in the text). Beginning in the T'ang period in the seventh century, the name generally was either Dunhuang or Sha-chou; it was under the latter name that Marco Polo knew the city.

The translation is that by Lionel Giles, published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1915, pp. 41-47. For his detailed notes on an earlier version of his translation, see loc. cit., 1914, pp. 703-724.

For orientation in the areas south of the city, especially in the vicinity of the Mogao Caves, consult this sketch map. It is an image map with "hot-spots" linked to some separate pages containing views and description of notable features. Also I have created links to those same pages from within the text of the Tun Huang Lu itself.


The town of Hsiao-ku [Toil-for-corn] was originally Y-tse [Fishing-pool]. In the time of Hsiao [Wu] Ti of the Han dynasty Ts'ui Pu-i taught the people to labour in the fields and grow corn, whence the name. Later on it was made a district city (hsien).

The Erh-shih spring is three days' journey eastward from the town of Sha-chou. In the Han penod Li Kuang-li's army when on the march was suffering greatly from thirst. Having prayed to the spirit of the mountain, he pricked the mountain-side with his sword, whereupon a stream of water gushed out and flowed away to the west for several tens of li into the Huang-ts'ao [Yellow Grass] Lake. At a later date there was a general who drank of the water when he was very thirsty, which caused him to fall dead beside the spring. In consequence of this the water ceased to flow, only rising up to the level of the ground. Ever afterwards, when many people came to drink, the flow of water was abundant; when few came the supply was scanty ; if there was a great multitude from the city, which consumed large quantities, the water poured forth in a tumultuous stream; and these phenomena continue down to the present day.

The Erh-shih temple, which stood by the roadside, has long been in ruins. Stones from it have been piled up together, and to this spot travellers come with their camels and horses in order to pray for good luck. Going east, you pass into the territory of Kua-chou.

South of the city of Sha-chou, at a distance of 25 li, are the Mo-kao caves. The way thither takes you through a stony desert with undulating ground, and when you reach your destination there is a sharp descent into a valley. To the east of this point stands the San-wei Mountain, to the west the Hill of Sounding Sand. In between there is a stream flowing from the south, called the Tang-ch'an [Tunnel-spring].

In this valley there is a vast number of old Buddhist temples and priests' quarters; there are also some huge bells. At both ends of the valley, north and south, stand temples to the Rulers of the Heavens, and a number of shrines to other gods; the walls are painted with pictures of the Tibetan kings and their retinues.

The whole of the western face of the cliff for a distance of 2 li, north and south, has been hewn and chiselled out into a number of lofty and spacious sand-caves containing images and paintings of Buddha. Reckoning cave by cave, the amount of money lavished on them must have been enormous. In front of them pavilions have been erected in several tiers, one above another [see the 1908 photo showing the facade of cave 96, housing the "northern" Great Buddha]. Some of the temples contain colossal images rising to a height of 160 feet, and the number of smaller shrines is past counting. All are connected with one another by galleries, convenient for the purpose of ceremonial rounds as well as casual sight-seeing.

On the hill to the south of this there is a spot where the Bodhisattva Guan-yin once made herself visible. Whenever people from the city go to visit it they make the journey on foot, both going and returning ; that is the way in which they express their reverence.

The Hill of Sounding Sand is 10 li away from the city. It stretches 80 li east and west, and 40 li north and south, and it reaches a height of 500 feet in places. The whole mass is made up entirely of pure sand. This hill has strange supernatural qualities. Its peaks taper up to a point, and between them there is a mysterious hole which the sand has not been able to cover up. In the height of summer the sand gives out sounds of itself, and if trodden by men or horses the noise is heard many tens of li away. It is customary on the tuan-wu day (the Dragon festival on the fifth of the fifth moon) for men and women from the city to clamber up to some of the highest points and rush down again in a body, which causes the sand to give forth a loud rumbling sound like thunder. Yet when you come to look at it the next morning the hill is found to be just as steep as before. The ancients called this hill the Sounding Sand; they deified the sand and worshipped it there.

Near by, to the south, is the Kan-ch'an River. Tracing it southward from the Hill of Sand, we find its original source to be in the Great Snowy Mountains (the Nan-shan range). It enters the Tun-huang district through the territory of Shou-ch'ang hsien in the south- west. On account of its fertilizing properties it is commonly called Kan-ch'an [Sweet-spring].

The Chin-an [Golden Saddle] Mountain is situated to the south-west of the Hill of Sand. It has snow on it throughout the summer. There is a shrine there of high spiritual potency which people dare not approach. Every year the local chief sacrifices to the god of the mountain with his face turued in that direction, and offers up a fine horse, which he drives into the recesses of the mountain. But if he ventures too near he immediately provokes a destructive hail-storm, with thunder and lightning.

South-west of the city stands the Li Hsien-wang temple, that is to say, a temple dedicated to the ancestors of Chao Wang of the Western Liang State. In the ch'ien-feng period (A.D. 666-8) a lucky stone was picked up close beside this temple; its colour was bluish-green, and it bore a red inscription in the ancient character, to wit: "I can foretell thirty generations, I call foretell 700 years." Today this temple is known as the "Li temple."

West of the city is the Yang Barrier, which is the same as the ancient Y-men (Jade Gate) Barrier. It was because Yang Ming, when Governor of Sha-chou, resisted an Imperial warrant for his arrest and fled over the border by this gate, that it afterwards came to be known as the Yang Barrier. It connects China with the capital of Shan-shan [Lou-lan], but the natural obstacles of the route and its deficiency in water and vegetation make it difficult to traverse. The frontier-gate was afterwards shifted to the east of Sha-chou.

Eighty-five li west of the city is the Y-n [Beautiful Woman] Spring. The stories that have been handed down about it are largely fictitious. Every year a youth and a maiden used to be conducted to this spot by the people of the district and sacrificed together to the spirit of the pool. This ensured a plentiful harvest, but if the ceremony was omitted the crops were spoilt. Although the parents were bitterly distressed at having their children thus torn from them, the boy and girl who had been chosen by the spirit would cheerfully take each other by the hand and drown themselves.

In the shen-lung period (A.D. 705-6) the Governor Chang Hsiao-sung on arriving at his post made inquiries about this custom from the inhabitants of the district. They gave him particulars, whereupon the Governor exclaimed in anger: "I won't have this bogy in the fountain injuring us with its miraculous tricks!" So he had an altar erected, and sacrificial victims prepared alongside the spring. Then he called out: "I prithee reveal thy true form, that I may sacrifice to thee in person. The spirit forthwith changed into a dragon and came out of the water, whereupon the Governor drew his bow and shot the creature in the throat; then he whipped out his sword and cut off its head. This, on a subsequent visit to the Palace, he presented to the Emperor, Hsan Tsung, who showed great admiration for his exploit and graciously bestowed on him the tongue of the dragon, with a decree that he should receive the title of Lung-she Chang Shih (Mr. Chang of the Dragon's tongue). This is entered in the official records.

One li north-west of the district city there is a monastery and a thick clump of old trees. Hidden amongst them is a mound, on the top of which is erected a miniature palace, complete in every part.

There was formerly a sub-prefect of Sha-chou, one Chang Ch'iu, who, when already advanced in years, took a fancy to the spot and settled down to live there. Although not a man of wide scholarship, he was exceedingly earnest and painstaking, for after the country had passed through many years of revolution, and but few men were left to practise the instructor's calling, he collected the younger generation together in order to expound to them the great principles of government. But God could not spare him long for the people to enjoy his bounty.

The Alabaster Mountains are 256 li to the north of the city. The alabaster is found among the rocks on the Wu [Black] and the Feng [Beacon] Mountains. In the 19th year of k'ai-huang (A.D. 599) the Black Mountain turned white. The fact has been verfied and found to be no empty fable. The Taoist monk Huang-fu Te-tsung and others, seven in all, were sent there to make sacrifices libations. And ever since then the monutain has had all the appearance of being a snow-covered peak.

The town of Ho-ts'ang is 230 li north-west of the city. In ancient times a military magazine stood here.

The Great Wall, built under the former Han dynasty, passes 63 li to the north of the city and runs due west out into the desert.

Going north, you enter the territory of I-chou [Hami].


1999 Daniel C. Waugh