In 366 CE a single monk carved the first cave into a cliff face on the outskirts of the Dunhuang oasis. The monk, Le Zun, had stopped to drink at the spring at the edge of the mountains and the oasis. While there, he saw a vision of 1000 Buddhas glowing in the sky. Inspired by the vision, he began to build the first cave temple.
From a single cave to the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (366 - 900 CE)
Dunhuang was situated just before or just after the most difficult stages of the journey across the deserts of central Asia. Travelers stopped to rest their camels and resupply their caravans. They also came to pray for their safety before facing the trecherous deserts or to give thanks for a safe crossing.
Lying at the Chinese end of the Silk Routes, Dunhuang was the gateway through which Buddhism passed into China. In Dunhuang, the central Asian artistic and religious ideas met with Chinese forms. Both Buddhist art and Buddhism itself merged with Chinese sensibliities to create the distinctive Dunhuang style of art and the unique character of Chinese Buddhism.
Dunhuang shares its fortune with China's empires
Dunhuang maintained its political links to the Chinese emperors even through periods of instability. After the fall of the Han empire in 220 CE, the rulers of Dunhuang continued to refer to themselves as governors of the Chinese imperial state, even though empires changed faster than the seasons through the next 300 years. But the governors of Dunhuang enjoyed great autonomy and many established themselves as powerful families that dominated the oasis for generations. The Zhang family held the governor's position from 866-907 CE. At other times, such as 907 CE when the Tang empire collapsed, the governor might establsh an independent kingdom as Zhang Chengfeng did, declaring himself "the Son of Heaven in a White Robe." (Ning Qiang, "Chronology")
The rulers of Dunhuang were forced to make alliances with the powers to the west as well as the east. From 750-850 CE Dunhuang faced an aggressive Tibetan kingdom that sought to gain control over the Silk Road. After 11 years of bloody resistance, Dunhuang was absorbed into the Tibetan empire and used as a launching point for attacks against Tang China. In 911 CE, Zhang Chengfeng, the self-declared "Son of Heaven in a White Robe", was forced into a treaty with the Turkic Uighur people who controlled the Tarim Basin to the west. The treaty made the Dunhuang kingdom a "son" of the Uighur kingdom.
After the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907 CE, Dunhuang was frequently attacked by groups contending for power in central Asia including the Mongols in 1227 CE. At the same time, Buddhism itself faced competition from vibrant Muslim communities expanding in west China. Also there was a decline in Chinese devotion to Buddhism following a severe backlash against "foreign influences", including Buddhism. As a result, construction of cave temples dramatically decreased and the monasteries gradually became quiet shadows of their former selves.
The slow decline and sudden rebirth of Dunhuang (900 CE today)
In 1524 CE China's Ming dynasty closed the pass west at the Jiayuguan fortress, stopping free traffic along the Silk Road. This left Dunhuang beyond the frontier. Many residents of Dunhuang left the oasis for safer regions within the Ming's Great Wall. Dunhuang became a sleepy, backward town; the caves filled with sand and hung heavy with dust.
In the late 1800's however, Dunhuang was "rediscovered" by Aurel Stein, a British-Hungarian explorer and archaeologist. Stein's report of the Dunhuang caves sparked an interntational race to gather up the treasures of western China. As a result, many of the most important pieces of Dunhuang art are today found in Euro-American musuems rather than in China, much to the displeasure of Chinese and the China's government.
Other Dunhuang Sites