International Dunhuang Project

Education: Research

page mounted: 2/7/07 page last updated: 13/6/12


IDP is an important centre for research into the Dunhuang and Eastern Silk Road collections. As well as hosting visiting scholars from around the world, IDP is home to several long-term research projects, described below. This page also contains brief research profiles of IDP staff.

Dunhuang scroll storage in the British Library strong room.

IDP also offers researchers many online resources including:

We welcome comments on the site and suggestions for further resources you would like to see online.

Research Profiles

Sam van Schaik
works on the palaeography of Tibetan tantric manuscripts.
Susan Whitfield
works on the history of the Silk Road and codicology of the Chinese manuscripts.

Other staff are currently engaged in research on technical areas relevant to IDP.

Research Papers

Enjoy It While it Lasts: A Brief Golden Age of Freedom of Scholarly Information? (English)

The Question of Forgeries (English)

Suvarṇaprabhāsottamasūtra (English)

A Review of Tangut Buddhism, Art and Textual Studies (English)

Introduction to Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Manuscripts from Tunhuang in the British Museum (English)

Introduction to a Catalogue of the Tibetan Manuscripts from Tun-Huang in the India Office Library (English)

Médecine, société et religion dans la Chine médiévale Manuscrits de Dunhuang et pratiques de santé (French)

Abstracts of the Medical Manuscripts from Dunhuang (English)

A Chinese Medieval Treatment for Angina (English)

Proceedings (Extract) of XII International Congress of Orientalists, Rome, October 1899 (English)

Otani Kozui's 1910 visit to London

Orthography of Early Chinese Writing: Evidence from Newly Excavated Manuscripts

A Tenth Century Manuscript from Dunhuang Concerning the Gantong Monastery at Liangzhou

Current status and future prospects of the Hanzi Normative Glyphs (HNG) Database

The Dunhuang Sky: A Comprehensive Study of the Oldest Known Star Atlas

Star Atlas: Translation

A Technical Study of Portable Tenth-Century Paintings from Dunhuang in US Collections

Was there a Silk Road?

The Prayer, the Priest and the Tsenpo: An Early Buddhist Narrative from Dunhuang

Research Projects

2006–2008: Bringing Together Scholars, Scholarship and Scholarly Resources on the Silk Road
(funded by the Ford Foundation)

Delegates from the First Ford Foundation Symposium.

This project aims to create a scholarly community for Central Asian studies among the Chinese, Russian, Indian and UK spheres, to involve and train young scholars, and to work together to build up web resources and expertise and bring them to the scholarly and wider community. The project is coordinated by IDP in London. The participating institutions are: the National Library of China IDP Centre in Beijing, the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts IDP Centre in St. Petersburg, and the National Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi. The co-ordinator, based in London, is Alastair Morrison.

The project held three symposia to build links among scholars in all centres and then build three educational web resource sites around the subjects of the symposia. These will include annotated bibliographies and translations of key articles or summaries of monographs in the different languages online.

The first symposium was held in Beijing in November 2006 with the subject: 'Buddhism and its Silk Road Transmission: The Suvarṇaprabhasasūtra'. The web resource is under development.

The second symposium, held in St Petersburg in April 2007, was on 'Tangut and its links with Tibetan Tantric Buddhism'. The web resource is under development.

The third symposium, held in New Delhi in March 2008, was on the history of the Central Asian collections in Russia, India and China. The resources created are being added to the IDP Collections pages.

2005–2008: Palæographic Study of the Chinese and Tibetan Manuscripts from the Dunhuang Collections
(funded by the Leverhulme Trust)

A Chinese Character.

The science of palæography has been essential to our understanding of European history and culture. Palæography has played little part, however, in the study of Asian manuscripts, where form and style have usually been acknowledged only as an obstacle to interpreting the text. This has led a lack of understanding of the social conditions under which manuscripts were produced, and of resources to assign dates and geographic locations, all detrimental to the study of Asian history. This project proposes to apply palæographic and codicological techniques to perhaps the most significant Asian manuscript collection: the Dunhuang manuscripts.

The three IDP researchers involved are Susan Whitfield and Imre Galambos (Chinese manuscripts) and Sam van Schaik (Tibetan manuscripts). Marta Matko is acting as research assistant on the Tibetan side. Our research may be categorized under three interrelated topics: (i) typologies of the scripts, (ii) codicology of the manuscripts and (iii) socio-historical context of the manuscripts.

(i) An essential element of palæography is the detailed analysis of scripts. Our analysis will be directed to the development of typologies, based on a great amount of data from the manuscripts. The typologies will be indispensable to understanding the development of the Chinese and Tibetan scripts, and to dating the manuscripts. IDP has developed a tool for isolating individual letters or characters from digital images of manuscripts; these images will be organized in a database that will make palæographical analysis of the manuscripts much more efficient.

A Tibetan Character.

(ii) Analysis of writing styles cannot be separated from the forms of the manuscripts themselves. The codicological data will include panel size, measurements of laid and chain lines, and the results of scientific analysis of paper, dye, pigments and ink. The IDP database is now capable of recording many kinds of palæographical and codicological data.

(iii) We will collate and analyse all the socio-historical information in the texts, including the names of scribes, patrons and monastic centres. These data will be displayed as a spacial and temporal map. In addition, we will apply the techniques of forensic handwriting analysis to identify individual scribes. This aspect of the research has already been tested by van Schaik in a pilot project with forensic handwriting expert Dr Tom Davis, of Birmingham University.

As part of the project we are also developing tools for others to use in similar research and tutorials for teaching. The tools are being made available on the IDP technical resources page.


2003–2005: Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts Cataloguing Project
(funded by the AHRC)

This project, now complete, was directed at the Tibetan tantric manuscripts in the Dunhuang collection, which had never previously been properly catalogued.

Ritual Implement for Empowerment.

Two IDP researchers, Jacob Dalton and Sam van Schaik, completed a fully descriptive catalogue of the Tibetan tantric manuscripts from Dunhuang in the British Library's Stein Collection, comprising 618 separate texts contained in 350 manuscripts. The researchers identified many cases where incomplete British Library manuscripts could be supplemented or completed by manuscripts from the Pelliot collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Therefore a significant number of the tantric manuscripts from the Pelliot collection were also catalogued as a by-product. The catalogue was made available on the IDP website, and also in printed form as Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang and accessible online on IDP.

A board of academic advisors was convened for the period of the project. This included Professors David Germano (University of Virgina), Leonard van der Kuijp (Harvard), Cristina Scherrer-Schaub (École Pratique des Hautes Études), Mr Gene Smith (Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre, New York) and Professor Tsuguhito Takeuchi (University of Kobe). Each of these Tibetologists was approached for counsel at various stages of the project and gave us much valuable advice. In addition, Germano and Smith were approached about incorporating their databases of Tibetological material into the project's database to be developed in the near future. Scherrer-Schaub and Takeuchi advised on the palaeographic aspects of the cataloguing activities which became perhaps the most important unforeseen development of the project (see below).

The most significant additional development derived from the growing awareness of the importance of the palaeographic aspect of the manuscripts that we had catalogued. The researchers' extended contact with the manuscripts allowed new insights as they began to recognize specific handwriting as belonging to particular authors from tenth-century Dunhuang. Such finding became only possible due to the length of this project as this allowed us to deepen our familiarity with the collection. These newly discovered links between the manuscripts revealed unexpected interactions among Buddhist schools that had previously been considered completely distinct. Our researchers contacted a UK expert in forensic handwriting analysis, Professor Tom Davis of Birmingham University. They met several times to develop a methodology that would allow us to identify individual handwriting styles. As a result, we were able to attach authors' names to many of the manuscripts and to discern clear patterns in the author's interests.

This development gave impetus to a new British Library project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, aimed at developing a palaeographic database for all Tibetan and Chinese Dunhuang manuscripts (see above).


2000– : Dunhuang and the Healing Arts
(funded by The Wellcome Trust and the Sino-British Fellowship Trust)

Chart of Moxibustion Methods.

The larger part of the manuscript discoveries at Dunhuang are religious scriptures, but there are also thousands of other secular documents, letters, calendars, administrative records and other ephemera. Well over one hundred texts containing information about the healing arts are scattered throughout the Buddhist scriptures. Some are written on the reverse of scriptures, others at the end, while others are complete scrolls in their own right. In them we find information on diagnostic methods, medical remedies, acupuncture and moxibustion, materia medica and healing arts of a religious, divinatory and magical nature. The collections provide us with variant editions of texts that were already extant in the transmitted medical literature. Equally, they restore to us medical texts that were previously only known to us as titles in bibliographies and other texts that are unique to Dunhuang and that otherwise have left no trace. Not only are they a testimony to the wide variety of medical literature circulating during the Sui and Tang period, they also provide us with a substantial resource for understanding the circumstances within which medical texts were produced and disseminated. Altogether they are an unparalleled resource for understanding medical knowledge and practice in medieval China.

A collaborative project directed by Vivienne Lo and funded by the Wellcome Trust and SBFT [Sino British Fellowship Trust] started in 2000 to digitise, catalogue and research the Dunhuang medical material. Four scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Academy of Research into China Medicine spent three months in London in summer 2000 examining relevant Dunhuang manuscripts and the British Library started work on conservation of these mainly fragmentary items. Following a workshop held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in August 2000, a volume prepared by Wang Shumin, translated by Penny Barrett and edited by Vivienne Lo and Christopher Cullen, (Lo_Cullen_2005) which contained essays as well as abstracts on the medical manuscripts on all the different collections. The abstracts are reproduced here.

The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London continues to support work on the medical manuscripts. Cataloguing and transcription work continues by Wang Shumin in Beijing and is being put on IDP (see Show Catalogues). Notes on graphic variation in the manuscripts are being prepared by Zhao Ping'an during 2007. Translations of the catalogue entries are by Penny Barrett who, together with Vivienne Lo will be translating the Stein medical manuscripts during 2007/8. These will all go online on IDP.

A PDF covering the history of subjects such as acupuncture, moxibustion and general Chinese health care can be downloaded from The International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine website.

Research work also continues in France and a summary is given here by Catherine Despeux (in French). A research paper on the use of a medieval Chinese remedy for angina is available under 'Research Papers' above.