Located in Gansu Province near Dunhuang
Building started in 366 AD and continued for 10 centuries.
The practice of carving rock temples dedicated to the Buddha originated in India. The practice came to China from the west, one of the earliest examples being at Dunhuang, Gansu Province (Mogao Grottoes).
According to legend, in 366 AD the vision of a thousand monks inspired a wandering monk, Yue Zun, to cut the first of hundreds of caves into the sandstone cliff face of Mingsha mountain. The legend describes how, arriving at the oasis below the cliffs, he saw myriad golden lights on Mount Sanwei, as though thousands of Buddhas were giving off beams of lights. He subsequently dug the first cave and also cut a statue of the Buddha. Thus started the beginning of a Buddhist way-station on the Silk Road. Today, 492 grottoes are still standing in the 1600-metre-long cliff face. Together they contain over 2,000 terra-cotta statutes (the natural rock is to soft to be carved) and over 45,000 separate murals.
Northern/Western Wei / Zhou Dynasty Period (386 – 557 AD)
From this beginning in the Six Dynasties (or Northern and Southern partition) Period, and for the years of the Northern and Western Wei Periods, twenty-three caves were created showing Indian influences, reflecting the characteristics of the country of origin of Buddhism. The facial features of the sculptures of this period show broad faces and prominent cheeks, fine eyebrows, thin lips, high-set nose, and the body is generally slender and draped in a light clinging robe.
The paintings which adorn the cave walls illustrate parables and stories (Jataka tales) depicting the life of the Buddha. The ceilings are decorated with geometric patterns, animals and legendary figures from Chinese mythology.
The Zhou Dynasty Period caves have the same general characteristics as the Wei.
The caves were constructed during this period by the Turkic-speaking Tobas who formed the Wei Dynasties. They deliberately adopted Chinese manners and customs. At the break-up of the Wei (due to friction concerning the traditional Tobas lifestyle), the Northern Zhou (the ones who unsuccessfully tried to revert to traditional Tobas traditions) remained in power, until the throne of the Northern Zhou was usurped by a general of Chinese or mixed Chinese-Tobas ancestry, Yang Chien.
Sui Dynasty (589 – 618 AD)
The ninety-five caves from this time date from just thirty-eight years. The unique Indian influence is gone, and the statues are often shown in the sitting position, the faces express greater warmth and humanity, less majesty and the clothing is more softly draped. The faces are fuller, with the ear lobes longer and the body halves are not always proportional. Ananda and Kashyapa, disciples of the Buddha are sculpted for the first time.
The paintings from this period are also remarkable for the richness of composition and design. The theme remains the life of the Buddha, but the garments are now ornately decorated, with the men wearing Chinese clothes and the women wearing slim robes with narrow sleeves. Sui artists have in some caves painted over the work of the Wei artists.
The founder of the Sui, General Yang Chien, prudently put all the sons of the Wei emperor to death, and set out on a series of wars that would unite both the North and South for the first time in 360 years. The Sui was short-lived and transitional. The second Sui emperor, the general’s son, Yang Ti, was assassinated by a noble family of Turkish-Chinese descent, who then formed the Tang Dynasty at Chang’ An (Xian). Sadly, the Tobas are erased from history.
Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD)
The peak artistic achievements were made during the Tang Dynasty, where two hundred thirteen caves were hewn from the sandstone cliffs. The figures are characterized by being more realistic (although on a much larger scale). The small wall niches, which in earlier years were places for statues, became small rooms, some having multiple levels. As far as size, two large Buddhas were carved during this period, one being 100 feet and another rising 75 feet high.
The paintings during this period also tell the stories of the Buddha, and include pictures of Bodhisattvas, as well as the images of Tang Dynasty nobles and aristocrats. The influence of Persia and India are seen in the often-recurring mandalas, and by the end of the Tang period, multi-limbed and eyed statues started to appear.
The Tang Dynasty, formed by Li Shi-min (T’ai Tsung), was the second centralized Chinese Dynasty.
During the Five Dynasties (907-960 AD) and Song Dynasty (960 – 1280 AD) Periods, the inhabitants began to enlarge some of the caves and completely transform others. Thirty-three were made during the Five Dynasties, ninety-eight from the Song Dynasty and three from the Western Xia (or Xi Xia) (1038-1280 AD). The most outstanding is a wall mural that depicts the main features of the terrain from Taiyuan in Shanxi Province to Zhenzhou in Hebei Province, including the representation of over 100 structures standing at the time in the Wutai Mountains.
Characterizations of the artwork during this period are that it is repetitive, and lacks the vitality of earlier eras. It is during this time that the Mogao Grottoes became an artistic backwater.
During the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368 AD) nine new caves were cut into the north face of the cliff, there being no room in the southern face for expansion. These caves are small and are of Mongolian influence. Also large frescoes were painted, many of the figures representative of the Tibetan pantheon.
The Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) made no contributions to the cave complex, and the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD) additions lack distinction, most of the artists work from this period being redecoration.
In 1907, the British explorer Sir Aurel Stein heard the rumors of the fabulous horde of treasure found by the Taoist monk, Wang Yuan. These treasures had been sealed in a cave to protect it from invaders. It contained texts in Chinese, Tibetan, and other Central Asian languages. The sacking of the Dunhuang (Mogao) Grottoes began in earnest, with the British Museum receiving 29 packing crates of manuscripts, scrolls, paintings, and art relics. The following year, the French explorer Pelliot came and made off with 6,000 scrolls and a collection of paintings.