Rediscovered Libraries, Part Two: Dunhuang

Some manuscripts, like those that have begun to resurface in Timbuktu, never really disappeared, but were instead hidden and passed down through the generations in private hands. Others, though, have spent centuries being truly lost, only to emerge unexpectedly back into the spotlight.

One such library is the collection of manuscripts produced in Dunhuang during the Middle Ages. Although now well within Chinese borders, Dunhuang began as a frontier outpost at the western edge of Chinese territories in the 2nd century BCE. Over the next centuries, the influence of Buddhism transformed the settlement into a centre of religious learning and the arts. At first, only a few monks lived as hermits here, but the establishment of monasteries and the excavation of over 1,000 caves for meditation and religious observance, not to mention the burgeoning Silk Road trade, made Dunhuang into a premier destination for religious pilgrims.

A map of the Central Asian area around Dunhuang (at the eastern end of the map). The areas in red were exposed to Tibetan Buddhist influences, (

Some of this mediaeval heritage was readily visible in 1900, although Dunhuang’s importance had largely been forgotten. These included the many murals and sculptures decorating the caves, as well as their elaborate entrances.

Dunhuang mural celebrating a military victory. (Wikimedia Commons)

It may be because of these obvious signs of cultural heritage that a Taoist man named Wang Yuanlu appointed himself the guardian of the caves. As part of his efforts, he attempted to clear sand from those which had fallen out of use, and in the process discovered a long-forgotten cache of manuscripts. Some were bound in scrolls, others in bundles, and they filled what has now been dubbed the Library Cave from floor to ceiling. Despite the obvious value of the find, Wang was told to reseal the Library Cave by the local governor, where the manuscripts remained for several years.

Paul Pelliot in the Library Cave in 1908.

When European explorers and archaeologists came into the area to collect antiquities, however, the caves were reopened and a large number of manuscripts were sold, making their way into the collections of European museums. Others were claimed by Chinese authorities. These manuscripts, in a wide range of Central Asian languages and covering as many subjects, revolutionised what scholars thought it would be possible to know about the region’s history. In fact, these fragments were so numerous that the task of cataloguing them is still ongoing.

Together, the stories of Timbuktu and Dunhuang confirm that our knowledge of the past is never static. New sources do come to light, although perhaps not as frequently as they disappear, and each time libraries like these are rediscovered, they offer a rare opportunity for us to expand the boundaries of our knowledge and bring us closer to the world’s vibrant history.

Learn More:

Dunhuang is registered as a UNESCO world heritage site, with its own information page.  Much work to collate and publicise the manuscripts found in Dunhuang is conducted through the International Dunhuang Project, which has several accessible pages explaining more about Dunhuang’s history.


9 thoughts on “Rediscovered Libraries, Part Two: Dunhuang

    • Thanks! I’ve got a whole list of sites in Central Asia that I’d love to visit, but Dunhuang is certainly near the top. Have you heard of the mummies of Urumqi? They’re ancient, well-preserved, and have wonderful textiles. Turfan would also be wonderful!

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  2. Hi Marissa,
    The discovery of Dunhuang is a fascinating story. Aurel Stein was I think the first European to realise the significance of the site and its manuscripts and rather shamefully tricked the guardian to obtain probably the lion’s share of the material which he brought back to England.

    Some previous unknown texts by Bodhidharma have been discovered which are important from a Buddhist practitioner’s perspective; the earliest Chinese printed book (a text of the Diamond Sutra) was found here and is now on display in the British Library in London. In addition a number of texts were unearthed which showed the interpenetration of Tibetan and Chinese Chan Buddhism at this stage, probably due to the movement of Buddhist monks and ideas along the Silk Road.

    • Hi Peter,

      Dunhuang, like most of the discoveries made along the Silk Route, really fires the imagination! You’re right that Aurel Stein was the first to the area, but I think Paul Pelliot was very close behind him with a French team of archaeologists, which just goes to show how much imperial status had been invested in collection and discovery!

      When I first read about the discovery, it did seem like the monk was exploited, but Wikipedia (not always the best source…) indicated that Chinese authorities had in fact been notified, but were uninterested. In cases like these, I find it difficult to draw the line between mutual self-interest and imperialising exploitation, and I think a lot of the underhandedness in this case was between European competitors, rather than between the European expeditions and the Chinese authorities. That said, some of the European archaeologists in the area (although not usually Stein,) did more damage by removing artworks than by leaving them in place.

      As for the influences of Buddhism, I’m unfortunately not well informed. My research into this period was primarily focused on Manichaeism, but you’re right that a lot of religious traffic moved along the trade routes. Influence could also have come, however, from the imperialist expansion of Tibet in the 8th and 9th centuries, which caused conflict with Chinese outposts. Some of these oasis towns, flipping between two political masters and two forms of Buddhism, would seem like good places for influence too. What do you think?

      Have you seen the sutra in the British Museum? I’m ashamed to say that last time I visited, I didn’t know about their central Asian collections, and spent most of my time looking at the Sutton Hoo treasures.


      • Hi Marissa,
        I think there was quite a struggle by the old imperial powers to get their hands on some of the Dunhuang material as it ended up being split across museums in UK, France, Germany and Russia.

        I’m sure that the political changes helped as well as the movement of ideas carried by monks. For example, I understand that there are Chan texts written in Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist tantric texts written in Chinese. So there was much more fluidity than we previously thought. But I write as a Buddhist rather than a historian!

        I have seen the printed copy of Diamond Sutra which is in the British Library (NB this is a separate institution from the British Museum). By the way, you would really love the British Library. It has a room (Sir John Ritblat Gallery) dedicated to some of its greatest treasures which include the Lindisfarne Gospels, and many other medieval items:

      • Hi Peter,

        I seem to be having quite a day for typos and misreadings, so apologies for that. I have yet to visit the British Library, which for a mediaevalist is a pretty unpardonable oversight, but I would love to see the Lindisfarne Gospels someday, as well as the Dunhuang materials, of course.
        I find it so fascinating that printing was in use in the Far East long before it had been taken up anywhere else, particularly since there were far more scripts in use in Asia than in Europe. I’m sure it was a powerful tool in spreading Buddhism, but haven’t run across too many references to it in my reading.


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