The Story of Dunhuang, Gansu

EU-China Gansu Basic Education Project in collaboration with The British Library UK 2005
Produced and written by Alastair Morrison, The International Dunhuang Project, The British Library.
Picture editor: Abby Baker, IDP, The British Library.

View the Chinese version

Gansu Province, The People's Republic of China Photograph3: Gansu Province, The People's Republic of China
Gansu Province, The People's Republic of China Photograph64: Gansu Province, The People's Republic of China
Hills at Jiayuguan, Gansu. Photograph4: Hills at Jiayuguan, Gansu.
Bandits attack travellers. Dunhuang, Cave 45, Dunhuang, 650-750. Photograph5: Bandits attack travellers.
Story of bandits on the Silk Road Movie2: Story of bandits on the Silk Road by Ahir.
Buddhist sutra oriented to read Tibetan Photograph16: Buddhist sutra in Tibetan (in red) with commentary in Chinese.
Buddhist sutra oriented to read Chinese Photograph40: Buddhist sutra in Tibetan (in red) with commentary in Chinese.
A letter from a Sogdian wife living in Dunhuang to her merchant husband Photograph6: This is a letter from a Sogdian wife living in Dunhuang.
A sutra written in Sanskrit Photograph10: A sutra written on palm leaves in Sanskrit.
Cave 427, Dunhuang Photograph 11: Cave 427, Dunhuang.
Silk painting from Dunhuang Photograph14: A scene from the Buddha's life.
A mural commemorating the victory of Zhang Yichao Photograph8: A mural commemorating the victory of the general Zhang Yichao.
Dunhuang, Cave 156. Photograph9: Dunhuang, Cave 156.
Dunhuang, northern caves Photograph19: Dunhuang, northern caves.
Dunhuang, northern caves Photograph13:Painting in Cave 72, Dunhuang.
The Thousand Buddhas. Photograph18: Painting in Cave 419, at Dunhuang. The Thousand Buddhas.
Tibetan Letters Photograph28: A manuscript containing several letters.
Pile of scrolls from Cave 17, Dunhuang Photograph20: Pile of scrolls from Cave 17, Dunhuang.
Printed copy of the Diamond Sutra in Chinese Photograph51: Printed copy of the Diamond Sutra in Chinese.
A letter from a local couple to the governor of Dunhuang Photograph22: A letter from a local couple to the governor of Dunhuang.
Xuanzang crossing the Pamirs on his return journey from India Photograph24: Xuanzang crossing the Pamirs on his return journey from India.
Map of the Eastern Silk Road Photograph2: Map of the Eastern Silk Road.
Dunes near Dunhuang. Photograph25: Dunes near Dunhuang.
The Desert in the Evening Light Photograph26: The Desert in the Evening Light.
A Silk Painting of a Monk Photograph23: This silk painting shows a monk carrying a load of scrolls in the basket on his back.
Cao Yanlu's wife, a daughter of the king of Khotan Photograph27: Cao Yanlu's wife, a daughter of the king of Khotan.
Video Clip of 3 Young People being Interviewed Video Clip1: Video Clip of Three Young People being Interviewed
Video Clip of Silk Princess Poem by Melanie Video Clip11: Silk Princess Poem by Melanie
Video Clip of Susan Whitfield: Silk Princess Story Video Clip16: Susan Whitfield: Silk Princess Story

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Han Dynasty
(206 BC – AD 220)

170 BC
The Xiongnu defeat the Yuezhi and push them westwards out of Gansu. The Yuezhi settle in the kingdom of Bactria (present-day Afghanistan).
138 BC
The Chinese official Zhang Qian is sent by the emperor Wudi on a mission to form an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu. He is captured and held prisoner by the Xiongnu for 10 years, but finally escapes and reaches the Yuezhi. He returns with useful information on the western regions.
121 BC
The Chinese defeat the Xiongnu and move into Gansu.
111 BC
Dunhuang is established as a military garrison to guard the frontier against the Xiongnu.
105 BC
A Chinese princess sent to marry a foreign ruler passes through Gansu.

Three Kingdoms, Western Jin, Sixteen Kingdoms

Gansu ruled by Former Liang dynasty. The Buddhist monk Yuezun builds a meditation cave at Mogao, southeast of Dunhuang. Others follow.
The Buddhist monk Yuezun builds a meditation cave at Mogao, southeast of Dunhuang. Others follow.

Northern Liang

Gansu ruled by Northern Liang

Northern Wei

Gansu ruled by Northern Wei

Western Wei

Gansu ruled by Western Wei

Northern Zhou

Gansu ruled by Northern Zhou.
Gansu becomes part of a reunited China under the Sui dynasty

Tang Dynasty

Chinese monk Xuanzang begins journey west to collect Buddhist texts in India. He returns in 644, and is welcomed back into China at Dunhuang.
Chinese take Gaochang (present-day Turfan).
An Lushan rebellion. Tibetan occupation of southern Gansu and Xinjiang.
Tibetans take Dunhuang
Tibetan kingdom ends. The Tibetans gradually withdrew from their conquered territories. The Uighur empire also ends and some move south to Gansu.
Zhang Yichao defeats Tibetans in Dunhuang. Guiyijun period established under Zhang family.

Five Dynasties

Cao family take control in Dunhuang. Uighur kingdoms in other parts of Gansu.

Song Dynasty

Gansu becomes part of Tangut Xixia empire.
Mongolians conquer Gansu and destroy several towns, including Dunhuang.

Yuan Dynasty

Gansu ruled by the Yuan dynasty.
The town of Dunhuang is rebuilt

Ming Dynasty

The Chinese under the Ming withdraw all their forces to east of Jiayuguan. Western Gansu again under local control.
Chinese garrison reestablished at Dunhuang
Dunhuang and Western Gansu retaken by Tibetans

Qing Dynasty

Chinese move back into Western Gansu
Hungarian expedition visits Dunhuang. Followed by many others.
Wang Yuanlu discovers a Library Cave at Mogao, near Dunhuang.

Republic of China

Establishment of the Dunhuang Research Institute.

People's Republic of China

Tourism starts in Gansu

The Story of Gansu: Where Cultures and Religions Meet

Gansu has been the western ‘gateway' to and from China for over two thousand years. Its long, narrow shape and position west of the Yellow River means it is also called the Hexi corridor. Communication and exchange have thus been essential parts of its history and this is seen today in the richness of its culture and peoples.

Long ago Gansu was a land occupied by nomads and farmers. China first moved into Gansu in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) after defeating the nomadic Xiongnu. They sent in soldiers to guard the roads so that officials, envoys, merchants and monks could travel safely to and from China. These routes were important to China since they exported and imported silk and many other goods along them.

By the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) there were many large towns in Gansu with multi-cultural populations. Sogdian merchants moved here from their homes in Samarkand to the far west to trade. A post-bag of letters written by several of them in 314, including two from a mother and her daughter, survive today. See images photograph6 and photograph7. Turkic peoples formed empires to the north and Tibetans lived to the south and many made their homes in Gansu. These peoples followed many different religions and there were temples for Buddhism, Daoism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism.

Some of these peoples became officials and soldiers in China. An Lushan, who was half Turkic and half Sogdian, became a very famous general, defending China's northern borders. However, in 755 he decided to rebel and try to seize power for himself. Chinese soldiers were recalled to central China to help fight the rebels. This gave the Tibetans the chance to conquer many Silk Road towns, including Dunhuang and much of Gansu. After 842, the Tibetan empire collapsed and the Tibetans gradually withdrew from lands they had conquered.

Some of these peoples became officials and soldiers in China. An Lushan, who was half Turkic and half Sogdian, became a very famous general, defending China's northern borders. However, in 755 he decided to rebel and try to seize power for himself. Chinese soldiers were recalled to central China to help fight the rebels. This gave the Tibetans the chance to conquer many Silk Road towns, including Dunhuang and much of Gansu. After 842, the Tibetan empire collapsed and the Tibetans gradually withdrew from lands they had conquered.

In the 10th century local rulers, including Uighurs, controlled different parts of Western Gansu. It then became part of the Tangut – Xixia – kingdom and in 1227 was ruled by the Mongolian Yuan dynasty. In 1368, at the start of the Ming dynasty, the Chinese withdrew from the western regions but re-established a garrison there in 1404. The Tibetans ruled here again in the 16th century before the Chinese moved back at the start of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

Gansu is one of the most diverse provinces in China. The many peoples who have lived here or travelled through have left their mark – in the art, languages, music, legends and religions. Here we will tell some of the stories of these people and the legends of Gansu.

From Prince to Buddha

More than 2,500 years ago, a prince by the name of Siddhartha grew up in his father's palace in the southern foothills of the Himalayas. The prince enjoyed a life of luxury, dancing and pleasure. He married, had a son and never left the palace.

But life seemed meaningless and empty and he longed to see outside the palace walls. So one day his servant helped smuggle him out of the palace to see the city. Here he saw a very old, frail man. The Prince was shocked as he had never seen anyone suffering before. ‘What is this?', he asked his servant. ‘Old age' the man replied. ‘It happens to us all.'

This was the first of four secret visits the prince made. On the second he saw a very ill man. On the third, he saw a corpse. he was very sad to see that people suffered and wanted to do something to help. On his fourth trip into the city, he saw a serene Hindu holy man who seemed to not be affected by any of these sufferings.

After this, he decided to leave the palace for and become a holy man himself to try to understand the problem of human suffering. He tried many different forms of meditation and religious practices for six years, but nothing helped. So he decided to sit under a tree and meditate for as long as it took to achieve understanding or enlightenment. After a long time he finally found the path to enlightenment and thus, at 35 years of age the prince became known as Buddha, meaning ‘the enlightened one'.

Dunhuang Art and History in the Desert

Dunhuang is an ancient town on the trade route which led between China and her western neighbours. It is now in western Gansu Province in the Gobi Desert and near the end of the defensive walls built by the Han dynasty rulers to guard their territory and keep out the armies of the Xiongnu horsemen.

Dunhuang was founded as a Chinese garrison town over 2,000 years ago. Many Chinese settlers moved there to farm the land and provide supplies for the Chinese armies. Xiongnu, Sogdians, Uighurs, Tibetans, Khotanese, Tanguts, Mongolians and many other peoples also lived in the town over the following centuries and sometimes the town came under the control of their armies and officials. Many languages were spoken here.

Dunhuang today remains a thriving town surrounded by fields of cotton and corn irrigated by water from the Dang River which flows down from the mountains to the south. But it is also a famous tourist destination. This is because of the painted and decorated Buddhist cave temples 25 km southeast of the town, the Mogao caves.

The Mogao cave temples are famous throughout the world. They were made between AD 400 and 1200 by Buddhist believers, including officials, soldiers, merchants, monks and nuns, travellers and the ordinary men and women of Dunhuang. At this time Buddhism was the main religion of Dunhuang and China.

The message of Buddhism had been brought by monks and other travellers from India and the original Buddhist texts were in Indian languages written on leaves from palm trees which grew in northern India. Some of these were brought to Dunhuang by monks over 1500 years ago and were kept in a special library at the Buddhist caves. See image photograph10.

Soon Chinese monks travelled to India and started making translations of the Buddhist texts.

The First Monk at Dunhuang

The Monk Yuezun was far from home. His family was in central China but he had left them to become a Buddhist monk, seeking enlightenment, and had travelled over a thousand miles west to the remote area of Gansu. One day when wandering in the desert southeast of Dunhuang, he had a vision of golden light emitted from Mount Sanwei as if a thousand Buddhas were glowing. See image photograph18. Imagine his feelings when he saw such bright, intense light after days in the grey desert.

He thought it was a message from Buddha to make a shrine here, and so he dug a small cave from the cliff face in order to meditate on his vision and a statue of Buddha to pray to. Soon word spread and other monks joined him and dug their own caves for prayer, rest and meditation. Soon others paid for more elaborate temple caves, hiring artists to paint the walls with beautiful images of Buddhism and sculptors to make statues of Buddha and his disciples.See images photograph11 and photograph12: By the Tang there were a thousand caves.

Today almost 500 caves survive and the site is famous throughout the world. It is one of the world's greatest art galleries.

Long Hidden Treasures

A thousand years ago monks and nuns living in Buddhist monasteries in Dunhuang carefully gathered together their precious scriptures and the paintings of the Buddha used in ceremonies and festivals and placed them in a small side cave at Mogao. The wooden door was plastered over and painted so that the entrance was hidden. We do not know why the monks hid the cave. Perhaps to protect it against invading armies? This treasure trove was forgotten for nine hundred years but was protected by the dry desert air and its secret location.

In 1900 the hidden doorway was accidentally discovered and opened. It revealed the tens of thousands of manuscripts, printed documents and paintings on paper, hemp and silk left there by the monks of old. The earliest manuscript dates to AD 406 and the latest to about AD 1000, making this store the oldest and largest paper archive in the world, and the only surviving Buddhist library from this period.

Many unique documents were found in the cave, such as the world's earliest dated printed book, a copy of the famous Buddhist text, The Diamond Sutra, printed in AD 868. Most documents are in Chinese, but there are also thousands of Tibetan Buddhist texts and hundreds of others in Uighur, Sanskrit, and other Silk Road languages.


In Tang dynasty China many people believed in Buddhism and some became monks or nuns. The law said that no-one was to join a monastery until they were twelve or older but, despite this, younger boys and girls left home and joined the clergy.

When a young boy Xuanzang studied the Chinese classics but became ordained as a monk in Hangzhou when still young. He moved later to the Temple of Great Learning in Chang'an and became part a community of monks who translated the sacred books from India. But many books were missing and the young Xuanzang decided to make the tough journey across the desert to India to bring back more sacred Buddhist books to China.

Xuanzang did not have permission to leave China and had to try to sneak out secretly at night. As he was crossing the Chinese border in Gansu he was captured by Chinese border guards. They wanted to report him and send him to a monastery in Dunhuang. Xuanzang was so determined in his quest that he threatened to give up his life if they tried to stop him. The soldier was a Buddhist and eventually let Xuanzang pass.

Xuanzang left the main track to avoid the next frontier post but found himself in an area of desert so desolate it could support no form of life. Xuanzang was completely exhausted and almost gave up but then his horse turned in another direction and following its instinct found water and pasture.

Soon, Xuanzang arrived at Turfan. The King of Turfan was impressed by the monk's knowledge of Buddhism and wanted him to stay as his teacher. First he refused to let him leave but Xuanzang went on a hunger strike, so forcing the King to relent and allow him to depart.

Xuanzang travelled along the northern Silk Road through Xinjiang and then across the great Pamir Mountains to the Sogdian city of Samarkand. He then turned south towards India. It was a long and difficult journey but finally he arrived.

In India he visited many monasteries and famous sites of Buddhism. he also studied with great teachers and acquired many books before deciding to set off for home. He was given an elephant to carry many of the books but, unfortunately, the elephant and the books were swept away in a dangerous gorge in the mountains. He came back along the southern Silk Road and then to Dunhuang, where he was welcomed by envoys of the emperor.

Xuanzang's journey took fifteen years. He returned to his monastery in Chang'an and spent the rest of his life helping to translate into Chinese the many scriptures he had acquired.

The Singing Sands

Just south of Dunhuang are beautiful sand dunes surrounding a lake in the shape of a crescent moon. For a long time the local people would visit this area and a small Buddhist temple was built in the corner of the lake. It was tranquil and beautiful. Yet, when the wind blew in a certain direction, the air would fill with a rumbling which would get louder and louder. No-one knew what this meant but they called the dunes, ‘Mingsha', or ‘singing sands'.

Some people said that the area was originally flat. One day a great battle took place here and one of the armies was completely destroyed, leaving the ground littered with soldiers' corpses. In sympathy, a goddess sprinkled incense ashes over the corpses and from the ground then appeared a great sand mountain which buried the army. But from time to time the military music and the beat of drums from this defeated army can be heard from inside the dune.

Sadly, the Mingsha no longer sing because the tens of thousands of visitors have brought too much pollution but there are sands in Inner Mongolia which continue to rumble in the desert wind.

The Secret of the Silk Princess

China learned the secret of silk many thousands of years ago but soon everyone wanted to know how to produce this beautiful fabric. For two thousand years China kept the secret safe: in Europe they believed that silk thread was combed from trees and knew nothing of the silk worm.

Legend tells of a 5th-century Chinese princess who was chosen to marry the King of Khotan. Before she left China he sent her a letter:

‘If you want to continue wearing your beautiful silk clothes,' he wrote, ‘you will have to bring the secret of how to make silk, since we do not know it. Here in Khotan we only make wool, cotton, hemp and felt clothes.'

Chinese border guards in Gansu had been ordered to watch out for smugglers of silk, and they made sure to search people leaving China. But the princess hid the silkworm cocoons and the leaves of the mulberry tree on which the worms feed in her headdress. The soldiers did not dare search her thoroughly: after all, she was an imperial princess. So the secret of silk left China and soon everyone was making silk, from the Sogdians in Samarkand to the Arabs in Baghdad.


View all the Images, Soundtracks and Videoclips from the Gansu Education Project.


Special thanks to all of the following...

The EU-China Gansu Basic Education Project, Lanzhou office for Chinese translation.
Professor Bernadette Robinson of the EU-China Gansu Basic Education Project.

The following institutions and individuals for allowing reproduction of images of artefacts:
Xinjiang Museum, China; Shaanxi Provincial History Museum, China; Dunhuang Academy, China; Musée Guimet, France; Chester City Council, UK; Victoria & Albert Museum, UK; British Library and British Museum, UK; Lois Conner.

To the following for the provision of soundtracks:
Colin Huehns, Rob Mullender and Isobel Clouter; PAN records.

To my colleagues at the British Library for providing invaluable advice as well as images, soundtracks, and video clips:
Learning: Joelle Gragilla, Roger Walshe, Bridget Mackenzie.
Students in British Library Silk Road Summer School 2004.
Sound archive: Isobel Clouter.
Clive Izard and Matthew Casswell.
Susan Whitfield, Abby Baker, Vic Swift, Sam van Schaik of IDP.

For further information about IDP's educational work, or for inclusion on our free mailing list, please contact:

Alastair Morrison
The International Dunhuang Project
The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, UK
Tel: +44 20 7412 7855
Fax: +44 20 7412 7641