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Dunhuang (Dūnhuáng) in ancient times meaning 'Blazing Beacon') is a county-level city in northwestern Gansu province, Western China. It was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road and is best known for the nearby Dunhuang Caves. It has also been known at times as Shāzhōu, or 'City of Sands',[1] "or Dukhan as the Turkis call it."[2]


Dunhuang is situated in a rich oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan (meaning "Singing-Sand Mountain"), named after the sound of the wind whipping off the dunes, the singing sand phenomenon. Dunhuang commands a strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route and the main road leading from India via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia,[3] as well as controlling the entrance to the narrow Hexi Corridor, which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an (today known as Xi'an) and Luoyang.[4]

There is evidence of human habitation in the Dunhuang area as early as 2,000 BC, possibly by people recorded as the Qiang in Chinese history. Its name was also mentioned as part of the homeland of the Yuezhi in the Records of the Grand Historian, although some have argued that this may refer to an unrelated toponym, Dunhong. By the third century BC, the area became dominated by the Xiongnu, but came under Chinese rule during the Han Dynasty after Emperor Wu defeated the Xiongnu in 121 BC.

Dunhuang was one of the four frontier garrison towns (along with Jiuquan, Zhangye and Wuwei) established by the Emperor Wu after the defeat of Xiongnu, and the Chinese built fortifications at Dunhuang and sent settlers there. The name Dunhuang, or Blazing Beacon, refers to the beacons lit to warn of attacks by marauding nomadic tribes. Dunhuang Commandery was probably established shortly after 104 BC. [5]Located in the western end of the Hexi Corridor near the historic junction of the Northern and Southern Silk Roads, Dunhuang was a town of military importance.[6]

During the time of the Sixteen Kingdoms, Li Gao established the Western Liang here in 400 AD. In 405 the capital of the Western Liang was moved from Dunhuang to Jiuquan. In 421 the Western Liang was conquered by the Northern Liang.

In later centuries, during the Sui and Tang dynasties, it was a major point of communication between ancient China and Central Asia. By the Tang Dynasty it became the major hub of commerce of the Silk Road. Early Buddhist monks arrived at Dunhuang via the ancient Northern Silk Road, the northernmost route of about 2,600 kilometres in length, which connected the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an westward over the Wushao Ling Pass to Wuwei and on to Kashgar.[7] For centuries, Buddhist monks at Dunhuang collected scriptures from the West, and many pilgrims passed through the area, painting murals inside the Mogao Caves or "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas."[8] A small number of Christian artifacts have also been found in the caves (see Jesus Sutras), testimony to the wide variety of people who made their way along the Silk Road.

As a frontier town, Dunhuang was fought over and occupied at various times by non-Han Chinese people. After the fall of Han Dynasty it was under the rule of various nomadic tribes such as the Xiongnu during Northern Liang and the Turkic Tuoba during Northern Wei. The Tibetans occupied Dunhuang when the Tang empire became weakened considerably after the An Lushan Rebellion; and even though it was later returned to Tang rule, it was under quasi-autonomous rule by the local general Zhang Yichao who expelled the Tibetans in 848. After the fall of Tang, Zhang's family formed the Kingdom of Golden Mountain in 910, and was then succeeded by the Cao family who formed alliances with the Uighurs and the Kingdom of Khotan. During the Song Dynasty, Dunhuang fell outside the Chinese borders.

In 1037 it came under the rule of Shazhou Uighurs, then in 1068 the Tanguts who founded the Xi Xia Dynasty. It was conquered in 1227 by the Mongols who sacked and destroyed the town, and the rebuilt town became part of China again when Kublai Khan conquered the rest of China. Dunhuang went into a steep decline after the Chinese trade with the outside world became dominated by Southern sea-routes, and the Silk Road was officially abandoned during the Ming Dynasty. It was occupied again by the Tibetans in 1516, but retaken by China two centuries later ca. 1715 during the Qing Dynasty.[9]

Buddhist caves

A number of Buddhist cave sites are located in the Dunhuang area, the most important of these is the Mogao Caves which is located 25 km southeast of Dunhuang. There are 735 caves in Mogao, and the caves in Mogao are particularly noted for their Buddhist art,[10] as well as the hoard of manuscripts, the Dunhuang manuscripts, found hidden in a sealed-up cave. Many of these caves were covered with murals and contain many Buddhist statues. Discoveries continue to be found in the caves, including excerpts from a Christian "Holy Bible" dating to the Yuan Dynasty.[11]

Numerous smaller Buddhist cave sites are located in the region, including the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, the Eastern Thousands Buddha Caves, and the Five Temple site. The Yulin Caves are located further east in Guazhou County.

External links


  1. Cable and French (1943), p. 41.
  2. Skrine (1926), p. 117.
  3. Cable and French (1943), p. 41.
  4. Lovell (2006), pp. 74-75.
  5. Hulsewé, A. F. P. (1979). China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC – AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. E. Brill, Leiden. pp.75-76 ISBN 90-04-05884-2
  6. Hill (2009), p. 133.
  7. Bonavia (2004), p. 162.
  8. The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, by Frances Wood
  9. Whitfield, Roderick, Susan Whitfield, and Neville Agnew. (2000). Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road. The British Library. ISBN 0-7123-4697-X.
  10. Dunhuang Mogao caves art museum
  11. Syrian Language "Holy Bible" Discovered in Dunhuang Grottoes