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Chinese Collections

page mounted: 1/12/05 page last updated: 12/11/10

1. Chinese Exploration and Excavations in Chinese Central Asia

Officials exiled to China's western regions during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) provided successive accounts of the languages, peoples and topography of the area (now Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Gansu province). This continued the tradition of local gazeteers, produced throughout China, and the chapters on the 'western regions' which had been part of many Chinese official dynastic histories since the Hanshu (History of the Han).

The Military Governor Songyun 松筠 (in office 1802–9) used exiles for the compilation of a gazeteer of Xinjiang. Prominent among them were Wang Tingkai 汪廷楷, Qi Yunshi 祁韻士 (1751–1815: exiled 1805–9) and Xu Song 徐松 (1781–1848: exiled 1813), Qi also wrote a history of the border regions. Xu went on a journey of exploration in 1815–16 to collect information for this project during which he visited the Buddhist cave site at Dunhuang and recorded stele inscriptions about the founding of the site. He also noted other ancient sites. Xu published several works, including notes on the western regions chapter in Hanshu and Xiyu shuidao ji 西域水道記 (Waterways of the Western Regions). (Waley-Cohen, 1991).

Wang Yuanlu's temple and residence in the process of repair.

Xu Song produced a book of poetry on Xinjiang, literature being another traditional activity for the exiled Chinese literatus. The Urumqi poems of Ji Yun 級昀 (1724–1805: exiled 1768) and the diaries and poems of Hong Liangji 洪亮吉(1746–1809: exiled 1799) provide much useful first hand information on the region. Xu Naigu continued in this tradition, composing a poem 'An Ode to the Thousand Buddha Caves' during his posting to Dunhuang in 1831–4.

Jiang Xiaowan 蔣孝琬 (Jiang Siye, d. 1922), originally from Hunan, was not exiled but posted to Xinjiang in 1883. He acted as interpreter, secretary and companion on Aurel Stein's second expedition, 1906–8 (see British collections). Jiang had served previously as a private secretary to government officials and had the experience that Stein required. When he met Stein in May 1906 the two immediately got on. Jiang taught Stein colloquial Chinese during the mission and was instrumental in persuading Wang Yuanlu, the Daoist guardian of Dunhuang to allow access to himself and Stein.

1.1 Dunhuang

Wang Yuanlu was an itinerant Chinese Daoist monk from Shanxi Province who arrived at the Dunhuang Buddhist cave complex in the 1890s and made it his home, He become an unofficial guardian of the caves and went on fundraising tours to raise money to restore the statues. In 1900, while clearing sand from cave 16, his workmen accidentally discovered a hidden door which, when opened led into a small cave filled with ancient documents and paintings dating from the fourth to eleventh centuries. The cave in question is now numbered Cave 17 and is also known as the Library Cave (although it was originally constructed as a memorial cave for a local monk on his death in the ninth century).

Magistrate Wang and his family.

The full significance of the library cave's contents was not immediately recognised in China after its discovery. Wang went to the county town to report the discovery to local county magistrate Yan Ze 嚴澤, taking two manuscripts with him as proof. The official was not particularly learned and regarded these two yellow manuscripts as useless old paper. Three years later, a new county magistrate came to Dunhuang, Wang Zonghan 汪宗翰, who had a keen interest in epigraphy. Wang Yuanlu hoped he would be more interested in the preservation of the library cave's content but, after visiting the cave, the new magistrate simply took away a few manuscripts and told Wang Yuanlu to guard the cave, without making any further arrangements. The monk did not give up however. He took two crates of manuscripts to Suzhou 肅州 (present day Jiuquan 酒泉), a journey of 800 li. The magistrate there was a scholar but he did not ascribe any great value to the manuscripts shown to him by Wang and did not concern himself with the preservation of the library cave. A few years later, the Provincial Education Commissioner, Ye Changchi, heard about the cave, and used artefacts taken by magistrate Wang Zonghan for his book Yu shi 語石 (On stone inscriptions). In 1904, the provincial government ordered Dunhuang to take measures to protect the manuscripts, again delegating responsibility rather than initiating action.

When Stein and Pelliot visited Dunhuang in 1907 and 1908 respectively (see British and French Collections) they were therefore able to persuade Wang Yuanlu to part with large numbers of the manuscripts and paintings for a small reimbursement, which Wang Yuanlu duly noted. Their expeditions gave birth to rich collections and the dispersal of Dunhuang documents to Europe. When Pelliot made another trip to Beijing in 1909, he showed Chinese scholars some of the documents he had obtained from the library cave, causing a sensation in scholarly circles. The first group of Dunhuang scholars, including Dong Kang, Luo Zhenyu, Wang Guowei, Wang Renjun, Jiang Fu, and Ye Gongchuo all made their way to Pelliot's residence in Babao Alley in the hope of gleaning new information about the library cave. With Pelliot's help, the scholars made notes, took photographs and made copies of the Dunhuang manuscripts they saw.

Meanwhile, the acclaimed scholar Luo Zhenyu heard that more than 8,000 manuscripts remained in the library cave. He realised that if the manuscripts were not quickly brought to Beijing, they might disappear completely. The concerted efforts of Luo Zhenyu and other scholars culminated in the Ministry of Education issuing a government directive for recovering the remaining manuscripts. Fu Baoshu 傅寶書 was appointed to arranged transport of the remaining manuscripts from Dunhuang to Beijing. He left the Tibetan manuscripts at Dunhuang. It appears some manuscripts were stolen from the Ministry of Education by Li Shengduo 李盛鐸, after the manuscripts reached the Ministry (Rong Xinjiang, 2002). Soon after this occurred, the 1911 revolution led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, leaving the government too preoccupied to worry about the Dunhuang manuscripts. After several detours they finally reached the Metropolitan Library in Beijing. There were 8,697 manuscripts from Dunhuang, and these still constitute the main part of the Dunhuang materials at the National Library of China. Subsequently, through government funding, donations from the public and purchases made by the Library, the total number of manuscripts currently held in the National Library of China has risen to around 16,000. The National Library of China holds the largest collection of Dunhuang materials in China (see below).

Chinese interest in and scholarship on the art of the caves, the paintings and statues, grew throughout the 20th century. The Chinese painter Wu Zuoren visited in 1940 and was followed by Zhang Daqian 張大千 (1899–1983), who visited the Mogao cave complex at Dunhuang and other cave sites nearby, such as Yuanlin, between 1941–3. Zhang acquired a collection of paintings and manuscripts from Dunhuang and Turfan, now in Tenri Library, Japan (see Japanese collections). However, some of these are through to be forgeries (see Whitfield (ed.), Dunhuang Manuscript Forgeries). With the help of Tibetan monks, Zhang copied 276 murals dating from the fourth to tenth centuries and 183 of his copies are now preserved at the Sichuan Provincial Museum. Zhang's copies of Dunhuang murals, some of which were exhibited in Lanzhou in 1943, helped raise awareness about the Mogao caves and the Dunhuang Research Institute was subsequently established in 1944. During the building of housing blocks, manuscripts were discovered in Qing-dynasty sculptures.

In 1946 the art-historian Duan Wenjie visited the Dunhuang Research Institute for its inaugural conference. He was to remain there for over fifty years, becoming Director of the Institute and carrying our extensive research on the caves. Eight hundred objects from Dunhuang were exhibited in Shanghai in 1948. In 1961 the Mogao caves were listed as a 'Cultural Treasure of national Importance' by the Chinese government and, in 1987, became a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Research Institute was renamed the Dunhuang Academy in the same year.

1.2 Chinese archaeology in the 'western regions'

In 1926–35, a Sino-Swedish expedition led by Sven Hedin (1865–1952) and Xu Xusheng 徐旭生 explored the Gobi desert and Mongolia, sponsored by the German government and the airline Lufthansa. Huang Wenbi 黃文弼 (1893–1966), who was one of the first Chinese scholars to make a name in archaeology, was an expedition member. The expedition, largest of its kind at the time, concentrated on the Lop Nor area. Huang Wenbi excavated Han-dynasty fortifications, the oases around the Tarim Basin as well as the Turfan basin. Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman (1902–1946) discovered the Xiaohe 小河 tombs, as well as excavating around the southern Lop Nor, Qiemo 且末 further west, and around Urumqi and Turfan. These excavations yielded finds from the Han to Tang dynasties as well as pre-Han artefacts (see Other Collections).

Huang Wenbi, a member of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led further archaeological missions to the region from the 1950s and unearthed numerous important artefacts and discovered new sites. The results of these and other Chinese archaeology in the region were brought together in 1983 by the Archaeological Research Institute of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences in Xinjiang kaogyu sanshinian (Thirty years of Xinjiang Archaeology). From the 1980s onwards, excavation in Xinjiang has been extensive, and has yielded large numbers of artefacts from a range of periods.

In the past decade there have been Sino-Japanese and Sino-French archaeological collaborations. In 2005 the Turfan Academy was established to coordinate excavation and research on archaeological remains in the Turfan region. A chronological list of the major expeditions and areas explored is being prepared and will be posted online shortly.

As a result of these archaeological expeditions, along with later gifts and purchases, there are extremely rich collections of manuscripts, artefacts and textiles in institutions throughout China. Details of the main holding institutions of Dunhuang and Turfan manuscripts and the major museums are given below. This list will be revised shortly to include more details on material from sites other than Dunhuang.

2. Collections: Content and Access

2.1 Collections of Dunhuang, Turfan and other Central Asian Manuscripts and Documents in China

  1. National Library of China
  2. Gansu collections
  3. Tianjin Museum
  4. Tianjin Library
  5. Peking University
  6. Shanghai Library (Dunhuang and Turfan collections)
  7. Shanghai Museum (Dunhuang and Turfan collections)
  8. Zhejiang collections
  9. Nanjing Library
  10. Hubei Provincial Museum
  11. National Museum of China
  12. Chongqing Museum
  13. Tianjin Cultural Relics Bureau
  14. Lüshun Museum (Dalian) (Dunhuang and Turfan collections)
  15. Other Collections

2.1.1 Dunhuang collections at the National Library of China

The National Library of China, Beijing

There were 8,697 manuscripts brought by Fu Baoshu in 1910 to Beijing from Dunhuang, and these still constitute the main part of the Dunhuang materials at the National Library of China. Subsequently, through government funding, donations from the public and purchases made by the Library, the total number of manuscripts currently held in the National Library of China has risen to around 16,000. The National Library of China holds the largest collection of Dunhuang materials in China. The collection is divided into four sections:

Dunhuang Jieyulu (First catalogue of Dunhuang manuscripts)
In 1922, while Chen Yuan was the Head Librarian of the Beiping National Library, the original 8,697 Dunhuang manuscripts were classified and published in the first catalogue, Dunhuang Jieyulu. The catalogue contained information on the manuscript number, the first two fully legible characters of the first two and last two lines, the number of panels, the total number of lines, the pin number, and Chen Yuan's notes. This was the first catalogue in the world of Dunhuang manuscripts. It was published in March 1931 in the issue no. 4 of the Journal of the Central Academy of History and Linguistics. Chen Yinke coined the term 'Dunhuangology' in the preface.

Dunhuang shishi xiejing xiangmu zongmu xubian
Following on from this first recording and organisation of Dunhuang library cave documents, 1,192 reasonably complete manuscripts were selected and given individual numbers, and appear in a continuation catalogue entitled Dunhuang shishi xiejing xiangmu zongmu xubian, which was completed in 1935.

Fragments: The fragments not included in the above catalogues were generally only 20–30 cm long, many smaller, and were mixed in with manuscripts comprising only a few panels. Because the paper of many of them was poor and brittle it has proved difficult and time-consuming to separate the fragments. After conservation, 4,000 items are now listed in the National Library of China catalogue of Dunhuang manuscripts.

New Acquisitions (prefixed with 'xin' – new)
1,600 items have been added to the collections over the last few decades, and have been called 'new' manuscripts.

2.1.1.2 Access to the National Library of China Collections

The contents of the Dunhuang collections at the National Library of China can be consulted in the following ways:

If the above resources are not sufficient for research purposes, it is possible to consult the original documents in the reading room of the Rare Books department, but advance reservation is required. Once you have received a response, you need an introduction letter from your home institution and a National Library of China readers' pass before you can consult the documents.

The opening hours of the National Library of China Rare Books and Special collections reading room are as follows:
Monday-Friday, 0900–1700
Telephone: +86 10 8854 5344/5167

2.1.1.3 The Dunhuang and Turfan Research Centre

The research and resource centre for Dunhuang and Turfan studies is a specialised scholarly organisation that is fruit of the collaboration between the National Library of China and the Dunhuang and Turfan Association. The idea of establishing such a centre was conceived in the winter of 1983, and it was formally established in August 1988, together with the formal opening of the reading room to the public. Since its inception, the centre has been actively collecting, organizing and storing materials related to the study of Dunhuang and Turfan; compiling and publishing catalogues and academic papers; and providing a research facility for both Chinese and foreign researchers in the field. The centre has been instrumental in facilitating academic exchange and has been well received by the scholarly community. The Dunhuang Turfan Reading Room has thus far accumulated nearly 30,000 items in the areas of Sui and Tang history, and the geography, history, religion and culture of the Western Regions. The collection includes microfilms, photographs, books, periodicals, conference proceedings, and video footage.

There are works in many languages classified into ten sections, including Chinese and Central Asian languages, Western languages and Japanese. The collection boasts histories, manuscript catalogues, archaeology, languages and scripts, art, central Asian languages and scripts, religion, general works, technical works, and reference works.

2.1.2 Gansu province

In Gansu, apart from the Dunhuang manuscripts that were excavated and recovered from the Library Cave and other caves and stupas, most manuscripts were obtained from local officials, literati and aristocracy. Among these manuscripts from the Northern Dynasties are most common, among which are many Buddhist scriptures. The list below gives Gansu institutions and their holdings.

  1. Dunhuang Academy, 383 manuscripts
  2. Gansu Provincial Museum, 138 manuscripts
  3. Dunhuang Museum, 81 manuscripts
  4. Gansu Provincial Library, 32 manuscripts
  5. Northwest Normal University, 19 manuscripts
  6. Jiuquan Museum, 18 manuscripts
  7. Dingxi County Museum, 10 manuscripts
  8. Yongdeng County Museum, 8 manuscripts
  9. Gaotai County Museum, 3 manuscripts
  10. Gansu College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 3 manuscripts
  11. Zhangye Museum, 1 manuscript

Information on approximately 696 Dunhuang manuscripts in the Gansu collections has been made publicly available, and the whole Gansu collections have been published in the Gansu cang Dunhuang wenxian (6 volumes), co-edited by the Gansu Committee on Dunhuang manuscripts, Gansu renmin chubanshe, and the Gansu Province Bureau for Cultural Relics, published in 1999 by the Gansu renmin chubanshe.

2.1.3 Tianjin Museum

This institution holds 350 manuscripts, some of which were collected over the years through purchase while others were donated in 1979 by the famous collector Zhou Shutao. Many of these are Buddhist scriptures and sub-commentaries to the Analects. The manuscripts are in a good state of preservation, and cover a long time span. There are at least 50 manuscripts with valuable calligraphy, and the collection includes manuscripts adorned with 50 collectors' seals.

The complete Tianjin Museum Dunhuang collection has been co-edited by the Shanghai guji chubanshe and Tianjinshi yishu bowuguan and published as Tianjinshi yishu bowuguan cang Dunhuang wenxian, (volumes 1–7), by Shanghai guji chubanshe (1996–1998).

2.1.4 Tianjin Library

The Dunhuang manuscript collections at Tianjin Library consist mainly of fragments, pasted together as 6 albums, and altogether numbering 177 items. These include: Tangren xiejing canjuan (3 volumes); Tangren xiejingce (canye) (1 volume); Tangren xiejing zhenben (1 volume); Dunhuang shishi xiejing canzi (1 volume). Most are Buddhist scriptures. For a more detailed catalogue, see the Tianjin Library history and manuscripts department, Tianjin tushuguan cang Dunhuang yishu mulu, in Dunhuang Tulufan yanjiu, 8 (January 2001, Zhonghua Shuju).

2.1.5 Peking University

The Dunhuang Collection at Peking University library totals 286 manuscripts. Most were purchased while Xiang Da was head librarian in 1950. Most are Buddhist texts, as well as a small number of Daoist texts and social documents. There are also some rare non-Chinese documents in languages such as ancient Tibetan, Khotanese, Uighur, and Tangut.

All the Dunhuang manuscripts in the Peking University library have been published in Beijing Daxue tushuguan cang Dunhuang wenxian (2 volumes), co-edited by Peking University library, Shanghai guji chubanshe, and published by Shanghai guji chubanshe in 1995.

2.1.6 Shanghai Library

Dunhuang and Turfan manuscript collections at the Shanghai Library total 187 manuscripts, and were mainly donated from the Shanghai Committee for the Protection of Cultural relics, transferred from the Shanghai Museum, or purchased over the years. A high proportion of the Tibetan manuscripts have been dated, and there are many non-Buddhist manuscripts; some manuscripts have inscriptions by distinguished connoisseurs.

The Dunhuang manuscript collections in the Shanghai Library have been catalogued in the co-edited publication by the Shanghai Library and Shanghai guji chubanshe, Shanghai tushuguan cang Dunhuang Tulufan wenxian, (1–4), Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1999.

2.1.7 Shanghai Museum

Shanghai Museum holds around 80 Dunhuang and Turfan manuscripts, most of which are Buddhist texts. They can be consulted in Shanghai bowuguan cang Dunhuang Tulufan wenxian (1–2), co-edited by Shanghai guji chubanshe and Shanghai Museum, and published in 1993 by Shanghai guji chubanshe.

2.1.8 Zhejiang province

Institutions in Zhejiang province altogether hold 201 Dunhuang manuscripts. The collection is rich in content and variety, apart from Buddhist texts, there are also Daoist texts, texts on economic matters, devotional texts, poetry, novels, books on ceremonies, and portraits. Many of the manuscripts have inscriptions from famous scholars and collectors, original handwriting and seals, and are extremely precious. The manuscripts are reasonably complete and in a good state of repair.

The list below gives Zhejiang institutions and their holdings:

The collections in Zhejiang province can be consulted in Zhecang Dunhuang wenxian, edited by Mao Zhaoxi, published by Zhejiang jiaoyu chubanshe, 2000.

2.1.9 Nanjing Library

Nanjing Library holds 32 Dunhuang manuscripts. A catalogue has been compiled by Fang Guangchang and Xu Yinong: 'Nanjing tushuguan suo cang Dunhuang yishu mulu', in Dunhuang yanjiu 4 (1998).

2.1.10 Hubei Provincial Museum

Hubei Provincial Museum holds 31 manuscripts. Judging from the collectors' seals, most of the manuscripts belonged to Xu Lanru, with a small number from the collections of Kang Youwei and Luo Zhenyu. Many are Buddhist scriptures. For the catalogue see 'Hubei sheng bowuguan cang Dunhuang jingjuan gaishu' by Wang Qiping and Tang Gangmao, in Dunhuang Tulufan yanjiu 5 (2005).

2.1.11 National Museum of China (formerly the History Museum)

To date, no complete catalogue of Dunhuang manuscripts held by the National Museum of China has been published, and so the exact holdings are not clear. Dunhuang manuscripts with calligraphical value have already been published in Zhongguo lishi bowuguan cang fashu daguan, volumes 11–12, edited by Shi Shuqing, Liuyuan shudian, 1994, 1999.

2.1.12 Chongqing Museum

Chongqing museum holds 13 Dunhuang manuscripts, which entered the collection during the 1950s and 1960s. The catalogue by Yang Ming, 'Chongqingshi bowuguan cang Dunhuang Tulufan xiejing mulu', was published in Dunhuang yanjiu 1 (1996).

2.1.13 The Tianjin Cultural Relics Bureau

This Bureau has collected 30 Dunhuang manuscripts over the years, from the general public. The manuscripts are rich in content and span a long time period. The whole collection has been published by the Tianjin Cultural Relics Bureau in Dunhuang xiejing, Wenwu chubanshe, 1998.

2.1.14 Lüshun Museum

In 1914, due to financial problems, Count Otani Kozui was forced to abdicate as abbot of Nishi Honganji Monastery, following which his central Asian collections were scattered into public and private collections throughout Japan, China and Korea (see Japanese Collections). The Otani collection in China was originally housed at the Lüshun Museum. In 1954, however, 620 of the Dunhuang manuscripts were removed to Beijing Library (now the National Library of China). Only nine Dunhuang manuscripts remained at the Lüshun museum, along with over 20,000 manuscript fragments from Turfan (Toyuk, Yarkhoto, Karakhoja) and Kharakhoto. See Zhongguo suocang 'Dagu shoujipin' gaikuang, co-authored by Shang Lin, Fang Guangchang, and Rong Xinjiang, Ryukoku University Research Institute for Buddhist Culture, March 1991.

2.1.15 Other Collections

In addition to the above holdings, manuscripts are held by Guangdong Zhongshan Library and the Chinese Buddhist Association. There are also manuscript collections in Hong Kong (one manuscript held by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, displayed in the Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong) and in Taiwan at the National Central Library, Academica Sinica, History Museum. IDP News 12 gives further information about the Taipei collections.

2.2 Central Asian Artefacts

A list is currently being prepared of the institutions throughout China with major collections of Central Asian artefacts, but these include most major museums and Archaeological Institutes, especially those in Shaanxi, Gansu and Xinjiang. A brief list of some of these is given below.

The National Museum of China in Beijing holds many of the finest artefacts excavated in China over the past few decades.

Shaanxi Provincial Museum of History, Xian, contains several display rooms showing artefacts from Central Asia, including many designated as National Treasures, and it has numerous other items in its collections. The museum also houses wall paintings from the Tang dynasty tombs.

Shaanxi Provincial Archaeological Institute, Xian, holds collections excavated over the past decades, including many items from the Buddhist stupa Famensi and tomb sites in the Xian region. There is a small display room of recent finds.

Dunhuang City Museum has a collection of manuscripts and artefacts from the region, some of which are on display.

Dunhuang Academy Museum, at the Mogao Cave site, contains 3D reconstructions of some of the caves as well as excavated artefacts and manuscripts.

Turfan Museum contains many artefacts from Gaochang and other local sites. There are silks, funerary objects, and mummies from Astana graves.

Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi has an extensive Central Asian collection, consisting of fragments of silks, brocades, embroideries, and wool carpets, wooden utensils, and pottery, dating from the 2nd century BC to 2nd century AD, all from the sites of Loulan and Niya. There are also examples of silk weaving from Khotan and Turfan, as well as wooden slips with Buddhist scriptures in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts. There are brocade shoes, silks and hempen cloth documents dating from the 7th to 10th centuries from the Astana graves, as well as specimens of grains, nuts, dried fruits, nan bread, pottery tomb guards. The museum has over ten mummies found in desert graves, the most well known being the so-called 'Beauty of Loulan'.

The Kashgar Silk Road Museum contains Shang bronzes and Zhou wooden tomb figurines among its Central Asian collections.

Shanghai Museum has a special exhibition room for Central Asian coins from the Silk Road, donated by Mr and Ms. Roger and Linda Doo.

3. Collections: On IDP

In 2001 the National Library of China and The British Library started a collaboration to digitise their Dunhuang material and make it freely available on IDP. The IDP Chinese language site went live in November 2002. Thousands of digitised images of the Dunhuang manuscripts are now available online, with more being added daily, a summary is given below showing the breakdown by language. Catalogue information is also being put online and it is hoped to start work on other Central Asian manuscripts in the NLC shortly and also to coordinate digitisation of other collections in China.

Number of Manuscripts by Language/Script on IDP in China as of 25/11/2014

In 2008 IDP and the Dunhuang Academy started a collaboration to digitise their collection of manuscripts and make them available on IDP. The Dunhuang IDP Chinese language site went live in April 2009.

4. Bibliography

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