Mogao Caves*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mogao Caves
State Party Flag of the People's Republic of China China
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi
Reference 440
Region** Asia-Pacific
Inscription history
Inscription 1987  (11th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

The Mogao Caves, or Mogao Grottoes (||pinyin]]: mò gāo kū) (also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and Dunhuang Caves) form a system of 492 temples 25 km (15.5 miles) southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis strategically located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years.[1] Construction of the Buddhist cave shrines began in 366 AD as places to store scriptures and art.[2] The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient sculptural sites of China. The caves also have famous wall paintings.


According to local legend, in 366 AD a Buddhist monk, Lè Zūn (樂尊), had a vision of a thousand Buddhas and inspired the excavation of the caves he envisioned. The number of temples eventually grew to more than a thousand.[3] As Buddhist monks valued austerity in life, they sought retreat in remote caves to further their quest for enlightenment. From the 4th until the 14th century, Buddhist monks at Dunhuang collected scriptures from the west while many pilgrims passing through the area painted murals inside the caves. The cave paintings and architecture served as aids to meditation, as visual representations of the quest for enlightenment, as mnemonic devices, and as teaching tools to inform illiterate Chinese about Buddhist beliefs and stories.

The murals cover 450,000 square feet (42,000 m²). The caves were walled off sometime after the 11th century after they had become a repository for venerable, damaged and used manuscripts and hallowed paraphernalia.[4] The following has been suggested:

The most probable reason for such a huge accumulation of waste is that, when the printing of books became widespread in the tenth century, the handwritten manuscripts of the Tripitaka at the monastic libraries must have been replaced by books of a new type — the printed Tripitaka. Consequently, the discarded manuscripts found their way to the sacred waste-pile, where torn scrolls from old times as well as the bulk of manuscripts in Tibetan had been stored. All we can say for certain is that he came from the Wu family, because the compound of the three-storied cave temples, Nos. 16-18 and 365-6, is known to have been built and kept by the Wu family, of which the mid-ninth century Bishop of Tun-Huan, Hung-pien, was a member.
— Fujieda Akira, "The Tun-Huan Manuscripts"



A complete view of the painting

In the early 1900s, a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu appointed himself guardian of some of these temples. Wang discovered a walled up area behind one side of a corridor leading to a main cave. Behind the wall was a small cave stuffed with an enormous hoard of manuscripts dating from 406 to 1002 AD. These included old hemp paper scrolls in Chinese and many other languages, paintings on hemp, silk or paper, numerous damaged figurines of Buddhas, and other Buddhist paraphernalia. The subject matter in the scrolls covers diverse material. Along with the expected Buddhist canonical works are original commentaries, apocryphal works, workbooks, books of prayers, Confucian works, Taoist works, Nestorian Christian works, works from the Chinese government, administrative documents, anthologies, glossaries, dictionaries, and calligraphic exercises. Wang sold the majority of them to Aurel Stein for the paltry sum of 220 pounds, a deed which made him notorious to this day in the minds of many Chinese.

Zhang Qian

The travel of Zhang Qian to the West, Mogao caves, 618-712 AD.

Rumors of this discovery brought several European expeditions to the area by 1910. These included a joint British/Indian group led by Aurel Stein (who took hundreds of copies of the Diamond Sutra because he was unable to read Chinese), a French expedition under Paul Pelliot, a Japanese expedition under Otani Kozui which arrived after the Chinese government's forces[clarification needed] and a Russian expedition under Sergei F. Oldenburg which found the least. Pelloit was interested in the more unusual and exotic of Wang's manuscripts such as those dealing with the administration and financing of the monastery and associated lay men's groups. These manuscripts survived only because they formed a type of palimpsest in which the Buddhist texts (the target of the preservation effort) were written on the opposite side of the paper. The remaining Chinese manuscripts were sent to Peking (Beijing) at the order of the Chinese government. Wang embarked on an ambitious refurbishment of the temples, funded in part by solicited donations from neighboring towns and in part by donations from Stein and Pelliot.[4] The image of the Chinese astronomy Dunhuang map is one of the many important artifact found on the scrolls.

Today, the site is the subject of an ongoing archaeological project.[5] The Mogao Caves became one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987.[1]

Mogao Caves in popular culture

  • The Mogao manuscript trove forms the backdrop of the plotline of the Japanese movie The Silk Road (1988, English subtitles), adapted from a 1959 novel by Yasushi Inoue.
  • One of the stories from the caves was adapted into a Chinese animation in 1981 titled a A Deer of Nine Colors.
  • Barbara Wright mentions the Mogao Caves in the Doctor Who serial Marco Polo.
  • One of the Beijing Olympic 2008 Mascots known as Huanhuan, the big brother, had a headgear which was inspired by the fire design in Mogao Caves.


See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Mogao Caves". UNESCO. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  2. "Silk Road - DunHuang [Tun-Huang Grottoes"]. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  3. "Dunhuang -- Mogao Caves --". Retrieved 2007-07-23. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Chinese Exploration and Excavations in Chinese Central Asia". International Dunhuang Project. Retrieved 2007-08-07. 
  5. "The International Dunhuang Project". Retrieved 2007-08-05. 


  • Akira, Fujieda, "The Tun-Huan Manuscripts", in Essays on the sources for Chinese history (1973). edited by Donald D. Leslie, Colin Mackerras, and Wang Gungwu. Australian National University, ISBN 0-87249-329-6
  • Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia (1980). Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0-87023-435-8

External links

Template:World Heritage Sites in China

Coordinates: 40°02′14″N 94°48′15″E / 40.03722°N 94.80417°E / 40.03722; 94.80417bo:མོའོ་ཀའོ་བྲག་ཕུག ca:Coves de Mogao cs:Jeskyně Mo-kaoeo:Ŝtonkavernaro de Mogaogl:Covas de Mogao ko:막고굴lb:Mogao Grottenja:莫高窟 no:Mogaogrottenept:Grutas de Mogao ro:Grota Mogao ru:Пещеры Могао fi:Mogao-luolat sv:Mogaogrottorna th:ถ้ำผาม่อเกา tr:Mogao Mağaraları vi:Hang Mạc Cao zh:莫高窟

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