Location:Home >> Collections >>Content
Manuscripts from the Library Cave
Author:by Lou Jie, Liang Xushu, and Huang Yuanwei Published:2014.3.27 Views:

The Library Cave (Cave 17) in the Mogao Grottoes, located off the north side of the corridor leading to Cave 16,has an area of about 7.8 square meters. It was originally built between 851 and 867 in the Tang dynasty as a memorial chapel dedicated to an eminent monk. Sometime around the middle of the eleventh century, the monks in the Mogao Grottoes hid their precious collections of manuscripts, ritual objects, prints, and paintings in the cave; they then sealed off the entrance with a wall on which they then painted a mural. It remains a mystery why these relics were hidden here. The most popular theory is that the monks wanted to shelter them from the chaos of warfare. The treasures remained there for almost 900 years.

More than 50,000 manuscripts dated between the fourth and eleventh centuries were found inside the cave. Ninety percent of them are relics from religions that were important at the time: Buddhism, Daoism, Manichaeism,Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, etc. The other ten percent include a wide range of writings—official and private correspondence, Confucian classics, literature, rudimentary reading materials, social and economic documents (sale contracts, loan and pawn shop documents, accounting ledgers, household registrations), and calendars— covering such subjects as constellations, medicine, weaving, and wine brewing. In addition to Chinese, they were written in Tubo (Tibetan), Khotanese, Sanskrit, Uighur, Sogdian, Turkic, Kuchean, and others. These precious treasures provide abundant information on the social conditions in ancient China and Central Asia and are therefore recognized as an “encyclopedia of the medieval period.”

Since the discovery of the Library Cave, research on the manuscripts has gradually broadened in scope to include the grottoes themselves, the history and geography of Dunhuang, and the relics unearthed along the Silk Road. Having become fashionable, Dunhuang studies attract scholarly research and study worldwide.

The discovery of the Library Cave was purely fortuitous. One day in 1900,a Daoist priest named Wang and his workers found a crack on the wall along the corridor of a large cave after clearing the sand. He opened up the wall along the crack and discovered a chamber filled with piles of such priceless cultural relics as manuscripts, books, ritual objects, and so on. The historical information contained in these medieval relics is so valuable that the discovery is recognized as one of the four major discoveries of ancient literature in modern China.

Wang did not realize the value of the relics. After the discovery, he gave them away to officials and friends; moreover, he “sold” a great quantity to foreign treasure hunters for a small price. The remaining manuscripts were transported to Beijing for safekeeping in 1910, but many were lost en route. The greater part of the relics have been dispersed to more than a dozen different countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Japan, the U.S.A., Germany, and India. Only a very small portion of the manuscripts found in the Library Cave remains in China today. The loss was an unprecedented calamity in Chinese cultural history. (See Appendix 2 for further discussion of this cave and the dispersal of its treasures.)

Exterior view of the Library Cave, also known as the “Three-Storey Tower” in the 32nd year of Guangxu (1906).


1.Handwritten Buddhist Scripture: Mahaparinirvana Sutra

Northern Dynasties (386-581),Ink on paper; 27.5 x 165 cm

Collection of the Dunhuang Research Academy, D.0227


This paper fragment is made of abutilon (Indian mallow), a white and durable material. The skillful square penmanship is in the clerical-regular (likai) style, the transitional form from clerical (lishu) to regular (kaishu) script.

The text is a transcription of “On the Nature of Tathagata”, chapter 12 of the Nirvana Sutra (or Mahaparinirvana Sutra), which was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmaksema (385-433). Its main teachings center on the eternity of the Buddha, the meaning of nirvana, and the presence of the Buddha Nature in all beings. It also provides the theoretical basis for the precept of abstention from meat practiced by Chinese monks. It is a very important sutra in Mahayana Buddhism.

Most of the manuscripts found in Dunhuang were written in the Six Dynasties period (3rd-6th century). They preserve in large part the earlier forms of the texts, thus benefiting later generations as a resource for verifying the fidelity of more recent copies.



2.Handwritten Buddhist Scripture: Lotus Sutra

Northern Dynasties (386-581), Ink on paper; 24.8 x 66 cm

Collection of the Dunhuang Research Academy, D.0648


This paper fragment is made of abutilon. The text comes from the Lotus Sutra, or Saddharmapundarika Sutra (literally, the “Lotus of the Wonderful Law”), a very important Mahayanist scripture which uses an abundance of metaphors to introduce metaphysical concepts and promotes various kinds of religious practices which would lead to the one path of enlightenment. This transcription contains the Parable of the Conjured City, found in chapter 7 of the sutra.

Buddhists believe that making copies of sutras to spread Buddhism has great merit and that copying by hand is also a way of meditation.


3.Handwritten Buddhist Scripture: Mahabhaisajya Upayakaushalya Sutra

Tang dynasty (618-907), Ink on paper; 25.1 x 158 cm

Collection of the Dunhuang Research Academy, D.0704


The paper of this fragment had been soaked in a solution made from Amur cork tree bark to give it a yellowish hue. It is of excellent quality, hard and moth resistant. The skillful and neat penmanship is in regular script.

The original sutra would have been in two or three volumes. This transcript is only volume one; it comes from the version of the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya translated by Yijing (635-713) in the Tang dynasty. The sutra had not been included in any of the current collections of Buddhist scriptures and was not known until this fragment was discovered in Dunhuang. Therefore, this fragment is an exceedingly valuable document.

This transcript contains two vivid and interesting stories about a wise man called Mahabhaisajya (literally, “Great Medicine”)who solved a criminal case and saved a man’s life using deductive reasoning techniques. Unfortunately, the other volume(s) have not been found. Therefore, the objective of this sutra is not known.



4.Wine Transaction Journal

Northern Song dynasty, 964; Ink on paper; 30 x 105.1 cm

Collection of the Dunhuang Research Academy, D.0038 & D.0784


The journal had been torn into three pieces: two are kept in the Dunhuang Research Academy, and the third is in France. Part of a rectangular seal with the words in relief reading guiyijun jiedushi xinzhuyin, or “newly cast seal of the Guiyi [Insurrection for the Allegiance] Army and Commissioner [of the Hexi area],” fits this fragment precisely with the segment (P. 2629) now in France.

This document records the wine purchase transactions between April 9 and October 16,964, by the military government. Dunhuang was the political and economic center of northwestern China, and the local government consumed huge volumes of wine to entertain its guests. Among the 213 purchases recorded in the journal, 34 were for the Uighur envoys from Ganzhou, Xizhou, and Yizhou and for the Khotanese envoys, thus demonstrating the rather intimate relationship between the local government and these rulers.

The wine journal reveals not only the political and economic conditions in Dunhuang at that time, but also details about the units of measurement employed which had never been mentioned in any official historical documents.