Dunhuang is located in present-day Gansu (Kansu) Province in northwestern China. It was strategically important to China and came under Chinese control under Emperor Wu around 120 b.c.e. during the Han dynasty. He stationed a garrison there to prevent two nomadic peoples, the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) and the Qiang (Chiang), from joining forces against the Chinese.
The Han dynasty’s military successes resulted in the Pax Sinica, in which China dominated the eastern part of the Eurasian continent at the same time that the Roman Empire dominated the western end (Pax Romana). Trade prospered between China with Central Asia, India, Persia, and the Roman Empire via the famous Silk Road.
The Silk Road’s eastern starting point was China’s capital, Chang’an (Ch’ang-an), and led across the Gansu Corridor to Dunhuang, the gateway city, after which it divided into a northern and southern branch across mountains and deserts until the two branches joined at Merv, then to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
Dunhuang’s position at the intersection between Chinese, Indian, and Central Asian cultures made it important in China’s political and cultural history. Dunhuang’s richly furnished Han-era tombs prove its prosperity. The census of 1–2 c.e. shows that there were 11,200 registered households in the commandery with almost 40,000 persons.
Merchants passed through Dunhuang with their wares, as did Buddhist missionaries and pilgrims en route to and from India and diplomats and armies from the courts of empires across Eurasia. Near to Dunhuang lies a mile-long strip of land intersected by a stream whose water made agriculture possible.
Lying to the west of the stream is Mount Mingsha, where for a thousand years men carved cave temples called the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (also called the Magao Caves).
Introduced from India, cave art in China is synonymous with religious art, especially Buddhist art. From Dunhuang the practice of excavating Buddhist cave temples spread to Datong (Ta-tung) in Shanxi (Shansi) Province and Luoyang in Henan (Honan) Province, the sites of the Yungang (Yun-kang) and Longmen (Lung-men) caves.
But the Dunhuang caves stand out as the largest in size and of the longest in duration, spanning from around the beginning of the Common Era to the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century c.e.
They were built by generations of pious people and decorated with paintings and sculpture. The grottos were adorned with murals over plaster and painted clay sculptures.
Thousands of grottos were excavated, of which 492 remain; they show the evolution of Buddhist art style and the assimilation of styles from several cultures. Western explorers discovered the caves and a treasure trove of hidden ancient manuscripts at Dunhuang at the end of the 19th century.
Many of the manuscripts and art treasures of Dunhuang were moved to Western museums; others were preserved in China. Dunhuang studies have added to knowledge of Buddhism and Chinese history and culture.