Dunhuang lies at the western end of the Hexi Corridor in Gansu Province in Northwest China, an oasis on the eastern edge of Takli- makan Desert. It is nourished by melted snow water from the Qilian Mountains. The ancient town used to be an important stop-over point on the Silk Road. The name “Dunhuang” was given in the Han Dynasty. In Chinese “Dun” means grandness and ” Huang” means prosperity. In the 2nd century B.C. Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty sent imperial envoy Zhang Qian to the Western Regions, opening up a trade route which was to be known as the “Silk Road” in history.The imperial court set up Dunhuang Prefecture in A.D. 111 and Dunhuang became a strategic town. Through this route Chinese culture and products, especially silk, were introduced to European and Middle East coun tries, and foreign culture and products such as Buddhism of India came to central China. Much of Buddhism is propagated through artistic forms, which were soon assimilated into the Chinese traditional culture. The result was that many Buddhist images were carved in caves in mountain cliffs along the Silk Road. Many of them have been well preserved. The best are those at Mogao in Dunhuang.
The Dunhuang Grotto Art is composed of the Cave and Yulin Grottos in Anxi. Carving of the Mogao Grottoes , commonly known as 1,000- Buddha Caves, began in AD 366 and continued through a dozen dynasties including the Northern Liang , Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang, Five-Dynasties Period, Song, Huihe, Western Xia and Yuan. The extant 492 caves preserve more than 2, 000 color statues and 45,000 square meters of murals. The mural themes depict Buddha portraits, stories and interpretations of Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist history, legends, portraits of devotees and various decorative patterns. They describe different ethnic groups, people’s lives such as nobles’ outings, singing, dancing and music, farming, fishing and hunting, acrobatics and martial art practice, foreign envoys and merchants on the Silk Road. Some scholars liken these murals to a “library on the wall, ” In the early 20th century some 50,000 pieces of cultural relics were found in the Scripture-Keeping Cave including handwritten documents and more than 1,000 pieces of silk painting, graphic painting , embroidery and calligraphy. Put together the art works would form a 25-kilometer-long art gallery. The Mogao Grottoes were dug in loose sedimentary conglomerate of the the Quaternary Period. Some parts collapsed in earthquakes. But the dry weather has preserved the basic outlook of the cliffs. In the 1940s the Dunhuang Art Research Institute was established at Mogao. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the new government began an overall repair and reinforcement project on 39 caves, saving 1,800 square meters of murals and 200 color statues. The Western 1,000-Buddha Cave and Yulin Grottos at Anxi have been public after renovation.
Grottoes in Dunhuang are a national treasure of China and a cultural heritage of the world. In 1962 the State Council put them among China’s first key cultural relics under state protection and in 1991 the UNESCO put them on its list of world natural and cultural heritages.