The Mogao Caves in the desert of northwest China tell a story of art and Buddhism that began more than 1,500 years ago. Today, Princeton scholars are playing a key role as part of an international effort to understand this story, which unfolds at the heart of the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road.
The nearly 500 caves collectively called the Mogao Caves — a UNESCO World Heritage site — are carved into cliffs about 15 miles from the oasis town of Dunhuang in Gansu province. At the start of the 20th century the caves were discovered, and over time they revealed a treasure trove of sculptures, manuscripts, painted scrolls and wall paintings ranging in date from the 4th to the 14th centuries. The cave temples preserve about 2,000 Buddhist sculptures, 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 60,000 texts.
In collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy in China, Princeton students and faculty are exploring the significance of the site in history through researching, archiving and sharing information about the caves and their contents. Their work is important to conservation efforts to help preserve the caves and to fill the gaps in knowledge of what has been lost over time, deepening the understanding of Buddhist studies and art history.
With the images below, Stephen F. Teiser, the D.T. Suzuki Professor in Buddhist Studies, and Dora C. Y. Ching, associate director of the Tang Center for East Asian Art, describe the cultural significance of the caves and their contents, and Princeton's connection to this work.
Teiser has been engaged in research at Dunhuang since the late 1980s. "It is probably the most important art historical site in China," Teiser said. "Anyone who studies a smidgeon of Chinese art wants to go there."
The "broader rubric" is learning more about the Silk Road, Teiser said, notably the cultural interchange between East and West and the development of Buddhism and Buddhist art among people who traded goods such as silk, precious metals and jewels.
To support this research, the Henry Luce Foundation is providing funding over four years to the "Dunhuang Art and Manuscripts" project administered by the Tang Center for East Asian Art, directed by Jerome Silbergeld, the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Professor in Chinese Art, and the Buddhist Studies Workshop, which Teiser oversees.
A major focus of the arts component of the project is the Lo Archive of photographs taken of the caves in 1943-44. Archived in the Department of Art and Archaeology, the 2,500 black-and-white photos were taken by James and Lucy Lo using natural light, with negatives developed on site.
"Our project is to organize these photos, put them in chronological order cave by cave, and research their significance," said Ching. "The photo archive is an important resource for conservation and the study of Buddhist art because it preserves views of paintings and sculptures that have changed drastically or no longer exist."
Ching and other researchers conducted a geographical survey of the caves last May, work that will help inform an international conference and a Princeton University Art Museum display of Dunhuang art to be held on campus next fall.
For the manuscripts part of the project, Teiser said that studying the scrolls from the caves allows scholars of Buddhist studies to make connections across languages, spanning Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Uighur and Tangut.
"The study of Buddhism is usually circumscribed by language," Teiser said. "Buddhist studies scholars are fenced in because we deal with different language groups. Our project attempts to transcend these divisions by bringing everyone together to ask common questions. It's not simply a matter of did the translators get the words right. We also want to discuss: Where were Buddhist manuscripts housed? Who copied them? Why did people draw doodles on manuscripts? Through reproducing sacred texts, who was learning to read and write?"
Such questions were asked this past September when the Buddhist Studies Workshop held the international conference, "Prospects for the Study of Dunhuang Manuscripts: The Next Twenty Years," at Princeton. More than 140 people attended this bilingual conference, at which 30 papers were presented during three days. With more than 100 manuscripts from Dunhuang in the East Asian Library and Gest Collection housed at Mudd Library, Teiser said experts from around the world as well as Princeton students have unparalleled access to these important documents.