Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art.
© Neville Agnew
Outstanding Universal Value
Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves south-east of the Dunhuang oasis, Gansu Province, comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. It was first constructed in 366AD and represents the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. 492 caves are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. Cave 302 of the Sui dynasty contains one of the oldest and most vivid scenes of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, depicting a camel pulling a cart typical of trade missions of that period. Caves 23 and 156 of the Tang dynasty show workers in the fields and a line of warriors respectively and in the Song dynasty Cave 61, the celebrated landscape of Mount Wutai is an early example of artistic Chinese cartography, where nothing has been left out – mountains, rivers, cities, temples, roads and caravans are all depicted.
As evidence of the evolution of Buddhist art in the northwest region of China, the Mogao Caves are of unmatched historical value. These works provide an abundance of vivid materials depicting various aspects of medieval politics, economics, culture, arts, religion, ethnic relations, and daily dress in western China. The unique artistic style of Dunhuang art is not only the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian and Gandharan customs, but also an integration of the arts of the Turks, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities. Many of these masterpieces are creations of an unparalleled aesthetic talent.
The discovery of the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves in 1990, together with the tens of thousands of manuscripts and relics it contained, has been acclaimed as the world’s greatest discovery of ancient Oriental culture. This significant heritage provides invaluable reference for studying the complex history of ancient China and Central Asia.
Criteria (i): The group of caves at Mogao represents a unique artistic achievement both by the organization of space into 492 caves built on five levels and by the production of more than 2,000 painted sculptures, and approximately 45,000 square meters of murals, among which are many masterpieces of Chinese art.
Criteria (ii): For 1,000 years, from the period of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) to the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1276-1386), the caves of Mogao played a decisive role in artistic exchanges between China, Central Asia and India.
Criteria (iii): The paintings at Mogao bear exceptional witness to the civilizations of ancient China during the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties.
Criteria (iv): The Thousand-Buddha Caves constitute an outstanding example of a Buddhist rock art sanctuary.
Criteria (v): Occupied by Buddhist monks from the end of the 19th century up to 1930, the rock art ensemble at Mogao, administered by the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute, preserves the example of a traditional monastic settlement.
Criteria (vi): The caves are strongly linked to the history of transcontinental relations and of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. For centuries the Dunhuang oasis, near which the two branches of the Silk Road forked, enjoyed the privilege of being a relay station where not only merchandise was traded, but ideas as well, exemplified by the Chinese, Tibetan, Sogdian, Khotan, Uighur and even Hebrew manuscripts found within the caves.
Mogao Caves encompass caves, wall paintings, painted sculptures, ancient architecture, movable cultural relics and their settings. The property area and buffer zone contain all the attributes that demonstrating the values of the Mogao Caves and thus ensure the integrity of both the heritage site and its environment. Documents of Western Xia, Central Asian and Phags-pa scripts had been discovered through archaeological investigations in the 243 caves in the northern area of Mogao Caves, which was the area for monks to live and meditate and also served as the graveyard in the past. The Mogao Caves comprise the Northern Area and Southern Area caves together.
The location of the Mogao Caves and its settings are faithful to the authentic historical context in which they were created. The design, materials, traditions, techniques, spirit, and impression of the caves, wall paintings, painted sculptures and movable cultural relics still exhibit the characteristics of the periods in which they were created. The continued utilization of the Mogao Caves for tourism has indeed promoted its historic significance. Conservation plans have established the guidelines for the caves’ utilization and conservation and therefore will ensure the authenticity of the site and its settings.
Protection and management requirements
The Mogao Caves were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1987. As a State Party, China has put all World Heritage sites under top-level protection. In 1961, the Mogao Caves was listed as one of the State Priority Protected Sites by the State Council and was put under the protection of national laws including the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics. The Regulations for the Conservation of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province (2002) has confirmed the boundaries of the conservation area, and the Master Plan for the Conservation of the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang (2006-2025), which has been reported to the Gansu Provincial Government and will be issued soon, adds the area for the control of construction, which overlaps with the buffer zone. The two directives are the most important measures taken for preserving the authenticity and integrity of the Mogao Caves. The Administrative Institution of the Mogao Caves has been cooperating with international counterparts to study conservation and site management and looks forward to continuing its work in preserving the heritage of the site.
The goal in the future is to implement the measures set out in the management plan by the scheduled time, to learn from advanced experiences in heritage site conservation and management at home and abroad, to ensure the authenticity and integrity of the heritage site and its setting, and to make its full historical information and value available to future generations.
The group of caves at Mogao represents a unique artistic achievement as much by the organization of space into cells and temples built on five levels as by the production of more than 2000 sculptures carved out of the rock walls, then covered with clay and painted, and the approximately 45,000 m2 of murals, among which are many masterpieces of Chinese art.
In the desert landscape of the extreme north-west of Gansu Province are the cliffs of Mogao, which form the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha. The cliffs rise above the Dachuan River, which is 25 km south-east of the Dunhuang oasis. Within the cliffs are the 492 natural cells and rock sanctuaries extending over 1,600 m that make up the famous Caves of a Thousand Buddhas (Qianfodong). The history of these caves is inseparably linked with that of the first Chinese expeditions against the nomads of the Mongolian steppes and Central Asia.
After the almost complete failure of the expedition of Zhang Qian in the ancient country of Bactria in 139-126 BC, a long section of great walls was built to protect the northern frontier. In 117 BC, military posts, like that of Dunhuang, were established. Two years later, the number of these command posts was doubled. Control of the Hexi pass and the oases route, which was the central segment of the Silk Route that connected China with the Mediterranean world, was the motivating factor in the incessant conflicts between the Chinese sovereigns and the nomads.
Dunhuang would remain cut off from the Middle Empire for long periods at a time, and so constituted a cosmopolitan enclave where all the peoples of Asia mingled together. Many foreign religions were represented, and devotees of Buddhism, Nestorianism and Islam could be found in this caravan oasis. According to an inscription, Buddhist monks first began work on the caves of Mogao in AD 366, whereas the state officially recognized Buddhism as a religion only in 444.
The majority of the cells and temples were constructed, however, from the 5th century up through the 14th century, when the region began to decline. Several great moments of the history of Central Asia are illustrated in the caves and frescos that illustrate doctrinal themes, reflecting transcendental teaching, correspond to the period in the 7th century when the Tang dynasty tightened its control of the Silk Route.
The first Tantric themes appear at the time of the occupation of Dunhuang by the Tibetans, from 790 to 851. Following the conquest of Gansu by the Tanguts, these themes multiplied, encouraged by the proliferation of lama sects under the Western Xia (1036-1227). With this same invasion in 1036 correspond the 45,000 manuscripts discovered in 1900 by the Taoist monk Wang Yuan-lu (Wang Guolu) in a cave where they had been hidden at the approach of the Tanguts. Although dispersed, this fabulous collection is one of the essential sources of Asian history.
The Mogao caves are closely associated with the history of transcontinental relations and that of the propagation of Buddhism in Asia. Being so strongly linked with the history of China, they constitute an anthology of Buddhist art with paintings and sculptures spanning a period of a thousand years. Moreover, since they were still occupied by Buddhist monks from the end of the 19th century until 1930, the rock-art ensemble at Mogao, administered by the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute, preserves the example of a traditional monastic settlement. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC