Sacred Caves of the Silk Road: Ways of Knowing and Re-creating Dunhuang

At the western edge of China lies the Taklamakan Desert. Bordered by mountain ranges to its north and south, the desert stands as a forbidding gateway between the civilizations of East and Central Asia. To traverse this formidable expanse, two trade routes sprang up running along the northern and southern edges of the desert. These twin branches of the ancient Silk Road, which connected the Chinese empire to cities as far west as Rome and Constantinople, met in the oasis town of Dunhuang. Sacred Caves of the Silk Road: Ways of Knowing and Re-creating Dunhuang explores this unique site.

Parinirvana, Mogao Cave 158, Middle Tang dynasty, 781–848, Dunhuang, Gansu  Province. Photograph taken in 1943–44. ˝ Lo ArchiveMogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Photo: Cary Y. Liu One of several frontier garrisons created in the second century B.C., during the Han dynasty, Dunhuang was a conduit not only for commercial goods traveling along the Silk Road but also for the intellectual currency carried by its travelers. New technologies, ideas, and religions—such as Buddhism—moved between civilizations connected by the Silk Road, leaving a dramatic imprint on the landscape and the material culture of Dunhuang. With the sandy dunes of the Taklamakan as a backdrop, more than seven hundred caves were dug into a nearby cliff face. Ranging in size from small niches to rooms that could accommodate dozens of worshippers, these caves were filled with brightly colored sculpture and wall paintings, primarily Buddhist in theme but also encompassing other religious traditions. Work at the Dunhuang caves began sometime in the fourth century A.D. and lasted until the fourteenth century, when the Silk Road was largely abandoned. The remoteness of the location in later periods helped to preserve an astonishing trove of artwork in the caves. The artistic riches as well as the physical site itself present a remarkable opportunity to observe the shifting aesthetic influences and ritual practices throughout a millennium of Chinese and Central Asian art. Looking at material from Dunhuang, we can observe changes in political, religious, and private patronage at the site as it was controlled by a succession of imperial and regional Chinese governments as well as foreign powers.

How we come to know Dunhuang is informed by the diverse original materials found at the caves, including architecture, paintings, sculpture, and manuscripts. How knowledge of these materials is then conveyed—via photography, artist renderings, travelogues, printed publications, or digital reproductions—also determines how we are able to model and re-create an understanding of Dunhuang. Original objects in the exhibition come in part from a cache of roughly 60,000 paintings, banners, and scrolls that was hidden within one of the caves. Sealed over around the year 1000, the cache was discovered by a local monk in the early twentieth century. The Art Museum is borrowing two paintings from this “Library Cave” that are now in the collection of the British Museum. Both date to the Tang dynasty (618–907) and represent the portable images that were produced for Buddhist devotees in the Dunhuang region. Chinese, Tang Dynasty, 618–907, Tejaprabha Buddha and the Five Planets, 897. Ink and color on silk, 80.4 x 55.4 cm. Collection of the British Museum. ˝ The Trustees of the British MuseumThe first painting, titled Tejaprabha Buddha and the Five Planets, is a rare depiction of the Buddha of the blazing light. The second is an ink-line painting called Portrait of a Monk. Stationary, devotional images that belonged to the architectural program of the Dunhuang caves are represented by three small sculptural fragments now in the Art Museum’s collection. Also on display are documents that present the extraordinary range of written material to have survived from Dunhuang and the surrounding region. Formal religious scrolls also from the Library Cave—which include Buddhist sutras as well as a third-century edition of the Daode jing, a central text in Daoism—point to the overwhelming importance of the written word in Buddhism and Daoism as well as the religious  syncretism found at Dunhuang. Texts on loan from Princeton’s East Asian Library present another side of the region’s cultural life. These include fragments of an almanac and examination papers, types of everyday written records that rarely survive. A few of these texts are written in scripts other than Chinese and point to Dunhuang’s strategic location as a Silk Road terminus that hosted diverse peoples.

Chinese, Western Wei Dynasty, 535–557, Celestial Maiden (aspara), mid-6th century. Terracotta with pigment, 35 x 12.6 x 9 cm. Princeton University Art Museum, Museum Purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, FundThe exhibition draws on an important archive of photographs from Dunhuang to contextualize the objects on display. Beginning in 1943, James and Lucy Lo undertook an eighteen-month-long research program during which they produced a comprehensive set of black-and-white negatives of the exteriors and interiors of the Dunhuang caves as well as extensive notes on the condition of the site. The resulting images have both documentary and aesthetic value, capturing the caves at an important point in their history, prior to the conservation and restoration work done in recent decades. A selection of these photographs, as well as color renderings of two paintings from a single cave that were created by the Los and their team, provides a view of the caves’ visual and architectural program. Together, both the original and secondary materials in Sacred Caves of the Silk Road allow for a deeper look into the history of the sacred site, the sociocultural sphere it operated within, and the religious life of the region.

Zoe S. Kwok

Assistant Curator of Asian Art



Sacred Caves of the Silk Road: Ways of Knowing and Re-creating Dunhuang is organized by the Princeton University Art Museum with the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art. The exhibition has been made possible by generous lead support from the Dunhuang Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the John B. Elliott, Class of 1951, Fund for Asian Art; Nancy C. Lee; Amy and Robert L. Poster, Class of 1962; and an anonymous donor from the Class of 1978.