Library Cave at Dunhuang - Buddhist Scholarly Cache

A Thousand Years of Buddhist Writings

Mogao Grottoes
Mogao Grottoes. Maria Ly

When the Library Cave, known as Cave 17 from the Mogao Cave Complex at Dunhuang, China, was opened in 1900, several tons of an estimated 50,000 manuscripts, scrolls, booklets and paintings on silk, hemp and paper were found literally stuffed into it. This treasure trove of writings was collected between the 9th and 10th centuries CE, by Tang and Song dynasty Buddhist monks who carved the cave and then filled it with ancient and current manuscripts on topics ranging from religion and philosophy, history and mathematics, folk songs and dance.

Fast Facts: Library at Dunhuang Cave

  • Location: In a cave on a cliff near Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China 
  • Discovered: Early 20th century by Wang Yuanlu, a Daoist monk
  • Dated: Manuscripts date between the 3rd–10th century CE, library was collected between 9th and 10th centuries CE
  • Number of Manuscripts: About 50,000, weighing several tons 
  • Languages: About 20, mostly Chinese, but also Tibetan, Sanskrit, Tangut, Khotanese, Kuchean, Sogdian, Uighur, Turkic, and Mongolian
  • Subjects: Poetry, philosophy, law, medicine, art
  • Currently Curated: Museums in Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, Beijing; electronically assembled by the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library

Cave of Manuscripts

Cave 17 is only one of ~500 human-made caves called the Mogao Ku or Mogao Grottoes (also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes), which were dug into a loess cliff approximately 15 miles (25 kilometers miles) southeast of the town of Dunhuang in Gansu province of northeastern China. Dunhuang has an oasis around the Crescent Lake and it was an important cultural and religious crossroads on the famous Silk Road. The Mogao Cave complex is one of five cave temple complexes in the Dunhuang region. These caves were excavated and maintained by Buddhist monks beginning in 366 CE, until about a thousand years ago when they were sealed and hidden until rediscovery in 1900.

The religious and philosophical subjects of the manuscripts include works on Taoism, Buddhism, Nestorianism, and Judaism (at least one of the manuscripts is in Hebrew). Many of the texts are scriptures, but they also cover politics, economy, philology, philosophy, military affairs, and art, written in at least 20 different languages and scripts predominated by Chinese and Tibetan.

Dating the Dunhuang Manuscripts

Colophon of the Diamond Sutra, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty (868 CE), part of a cache of manuscripts in Cave 17, Dunhuang, China. Ink on paper. British Library, London, England, UK.
Colophon of the Diamond Sutra, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty (868 CE), part of a cache of manuscripts in Cave 17, Dunhuang, China. Ink on paper. British Library, London, England, UK. VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

From inscriptions, we know that the original librarian in the cave was a Chinese monk called Hongbian, the leader of the Buddhist community at Dunhuang. After his death in 862, the cave was consecrated as a Buddhist shrine complete with a statue of Hongbian, and some manuscripts after that may have been left as offerings. Scholars also suggest that perhaps as other caves were emptied and reused, the overflow storage from them might have ended up in Cave 17.

Chinese historical documents typically have colophons, introductions to the information in the manuscript that include the date they were written, or textual evidence of that date. The most recent of the dated manuscripts from Cave 17 was written in 1002. Scholars believe the cave was sealed shortly afterward. Together, the manuscripts date between the Western Jin dynasty (265–316 CE) to the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127 CE) and, if the dating of the cave is correct, were likely collected between the 9th and 10th centuries CE.

Paper and Ink

Among the many and ongoing scholarly research projects on the documents is one by archaeologist Agnieszka Helman-Ważny and Tibetologist Sam van Schaik, who looked at the processes of Tibetan paper-making in evidence on a selection of manuscripts from the Stein Collection in the British Library. The Stein collection is a group manuscripts collected from Cave 17 by the Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein in the early 20th century. The primary type of paper reported by Helman-Wazny and Van Schaik were rag papers composed of ramie (Boehmeria sp) and hemp (Cannabis sp), with minor additions of jute (Corchorus sp) and paper mulberry ( Broussonetia sp). Six manuscripts were made entirely of Thymelaeaceae (​Daphne or Edgeworthia sp); several were made primarily from paper mulberry.

A study of inks and paper-making by Pascale Richardin and colleagues was conducted on two Chinese manuscripts in the Pelliot collections in the National Library of France. These were collected from Cave 17 in the early 20th century by French scholar Paul Pelliot. Inks used in the Chinese manuscripts include reds made of a mixture of hematite and red and yellow ochres; red paint on the murals in other Mogao caves are made of ochre, cinnabar, synthetic vermilion, red lead and organic red. Black inks are made primarily of carbon, with an addition of ochre, calcium carbonate, quartz, and kaolinite. Wood identified from the papers in the Pelliot collections include salt cedar (Tamaricaceae).

Initial Discovery and Recent Research

Cave 17 at Mogao was discovered in 1900 by a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu. Aurel Stein visited the caves in 1907–1908, taking a collection of manuscripts and paintings on paper, silk, and ramie, as well as a few wall paintings. French sinologist Paul Pelliot, American Langdon Warner, Russian Sergei Oldenburg and many other explorers and scholars visited Dunhuang and walked off with other relics, which can now be found scattered in museums in Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, and Beijing.

The Dunhuang Academy was set up in China in the 1980s, to collect and preserve the manuscripts; the International Dunhuang Project was formed in 1994 to bring the international scholars together to work collaboratively on the far-flung collections. The IDP has many of the documents online, as images and as translations.

In addition to many ongoing studies on specific manuscripts and their roles in Asian medicine, law, and philosophy, scholars have conducted investigations into environmental issues such as the effect of ambient air quality on the manuscripts and the continuing deposit of sand from the surrounding region into the Mogao caves have identified threats to Library Cave, and the others in the Mogao system.

Selected Sources

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Library Cave at Dunhuang - Buddhist Scholarly Cache." Learn Religions, Oct. 15, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, October 15). Library Cave at Dunhuang - Buddhist Scholarly Cache. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Library Cave at Dunhuang - Buddhist Scholarly Cache." Learn Religions. (accessed March 22, 2023).