China museums

Treasures of China's Stone Grottoes

Dazu Carvings









Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes  

Dunhuang Heroes Zhang Yichao Couple Going on a Journey
The huge mural painting of the Tang dynasty in the #156 grotto: Dunhuang Heroes Zhang Yichao Couple Going on a Journey.
The mural painting Female performers
The mural painting Female performers Playing Music full of flavors of human world in the #122 the consummate skill among musical dance performances

the Mogao Grottoes

The external appearance of the Mogao Grottoes.

The Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes are located in Dunhuang County, Gansu Province, some twenty-five kilometers southeast of the city. The common name for the grottoes is the Thousand?Buddha caves. These are located on the precipitous face of the east ridge of the Mingsha Mountains. Their construction began in the year 366 AD and, by the time of the Tang-dynasty empress named Wu Zetian, more than one thousand rooms had been carved and painted. Those that have been preserved to this day include rooms from the dynasties of Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties, Song, Westerm Xia, and Yuan. In all there are some 492 grottoes, with wall paintings covering 45,000 square meters, and containing 2,415 painted stone carvings. This is considered a priceless artistic trove. It is now protected as a National Key Cultural Relics Protected Unit, and in 1987 it was listed among the ranks of World Cultural Heritage Sites.

The #16 grotto at Dunhuang is the one that attracted global attention and brought treasure seekers from the West. Two Song-dynasty paintings on its walls show Bodhisattvas on a journey. This is the latest evidence of use of the cave and from this it can be surmised that around the beginning of the eleventh century, when the Western Xia people invaded this area and conquered Dunhuang, monks at the Mogao Grottoes prepared to flee. They sealed the cave and never returned. For nine hundred years, the room was silently shut off from the world. In the year 1900, when the passageway was being cleaned of debris, this stone archive full of sutras, books, embroideries and sculpture was suddenly discovered. It had some 50,000 items in it and these were later found to include not only a large number of Buddhist sutras, but also Daoist works and works of the Confucian canon, in addition to historical records, poetry, literature, information on geography, population, business accounts, calendars and so on. It was discovered to be a full library containing material that documented some ten dynasties, from the Jin in the 4th century to the Song dynasty.

Painted sculptures

Painted sculptures in the Thousand Buddha Grotto.

Dunhuang Buddha figure in nirvana

A Dunhuang Buddha figure in nirvana.

The discovery of the hidden 'sutra cave' was a tremendous and startling event for both Chinese and foreign scholars around the world. It attracted extreme attention and as a result was quickly plundered by scholars from England, France, America, Russia, and Japan. In 1943 a Dunhuang Arts Academy was established which began to restore the cave and protect and research its remaining contents.

There are five levels in all to the Mogao Grottoes, which range from north to south across roughly 1,600 meters. The largest grottoes are 40 meters high and 30 meters square. The smallest are less than one foot. Dunhuang studies have become an established field of scholarship in many institutions by now, and countless numbers of books and PhD theses have been written about the history and artwork of this extraordinary place. Rather than try to cover the scope of this 'museum' here, the reader is encouraged to go and see for himself.

plank road the Thousand Buddha Grotto. silk painting of the guiding Bodhisattva
A profile of the plank road the Thousand Buddha Grotto.
The silk painting of the guiding Bodhisattva discovered in the Scripture Hiding Grotto.

Address: Gansu Province, Dunhuang City, Mingsha Mountain, East Ridge
Telephone: 86-937-8869000

Site Navigator: [ Home ] [ Beijing Museums ] [ Shanghai Museum ] [ By Province ] [ SiteMap ]
Links, Ads, Comment: Send a message to