Dunhuang, situated at the west end of Gansu Province on the ancient transportation route to the west, the Silk Road, was important not just for its strategic position but also for its role in promoting economic and cultural exchanges with foreign countries. It was through Dunhuang that Buddhism had found its way from India to the Chinese inland towards the end of the Western Han Dynasty.
In 366 AD, a monk named Le Zun was travelling to the west. By the time he got to the foot of the Sanwei Mountain, southeast of Dunhuang, dusk was falling. All of a sudden, he saw myriads of golden rays shooting up from the summit of the Sanwei Mountain. In the golden glow there seemed to have emerged the images of thousands of Buddhas. He reckoned that the golden rays must have been a clear manifestation of Almighty Buddha, and concluded therefore that the place was surely the holy land of Buddhism. Later, he raised funds and recruited workmen to have a cave temple carved out on the precipice facing the Sanwei Mountain. Actually, the myriads of golden rays witnessed by Monk Le Zun was but the result of sunset glow refracted from the bright rocky peak.
In the ten centuries or more that ensued, emperors of various dynasties who believed in Buddhism had numerous grottoes dug in the cliffs in which Statues of Buddha were carved and frescos were painted. This kind of devout activity reached its peak in the Sui and Tang dynasties, when more than one thousand grottoes were excavated. In the Mo Gao Grotto alone, there were more than one thousand Buddhas. Hence the name “Grotto with One Thousand Buddhas”. As a result of exposure to the elements and desecration at the hands of man, only 492 grottoes are left now. Most of them were first dug during the Sui and Tang dynasties. Carved out on different levels of the Shaming Mountain along a two-kilometer-long precipice, they are like serried rows of beehives. From a distance, they give the impression of being a huge village of cave dwellings.
In the grottoes are frescoes from a succession of dynasties, Wei, Sui, Tang, Song and Yuan, spreading over a total space of 45,000 square meters. There are, besides 2415 painted clay figures, 5 wooden structures dating from the Tang and Song dynasties and thousands of pillars with lotus flower designs and colored glazed paving tiles. They constitute a veritable museum of architecture, fine art and sculpture.
Here one may find a gigantic Buddha statue of great magnificence standing 33 meters high. On the other hand, there are frail-looking miniature statues no more than 10cms in height. The style of the Buddha statues varies from dynasty to dynasty. Some were carved in the image of middle-aged Tang Dynasty ladies with round smiling faces, who wore the tall hairdos and embroidered silk dresses of the day. Others were clad in armor and helmet or stood bare to the waist wearing a solemn, majestic look. As to the coat of paint on the statues, a variety of pigments were used, bold and bright as well as elegant and light-toned. All this testifies to the extraordinary talent of the artisans of ancient China.
In grottoes where the rock was friable and unfit for carving, frescoes were done on the walls to replace sculptures. These dazzlingly brilliant fresco works, if cut up into 5 meter-tall pictures, can well form a 25-kilometer-long painted corridor. The fresco work of each dynasty has its distinctive style and incorporates a wide range of subjects. However, these are predominant illustrations of religious stories and pictures of prominent disciples of Buddha. Also depicted in frescoes are scenes of ploughing, harvesting, milling and husking rice with mortar and pestle; of hunting and fishing; of building pagodas and pavilions; of painting elaborate frescoes. There are in the frescoes a variety of other activities; royalties and aristocrats watching a show, wedding and mourning ceremonies, travel, war, having lessons, dining at a restaurant, butchering and people being shaved to enter monkhood. One also finds in the frescos portraits of chieftains of national minorities, people from European countries and even drawings of palaces, residences, castles, monasteries, pagodas and bridges. The frescoes are indeed a vivid visual representation of all aspects of life in various dynasties, covering politics, economy, culture, art and military affairs.
In 1900, a Taoist priest discovered accidentally in a grotto a huge store of Buddhist scriptures. They were a collection of scripts from ten dynasties in Chinese history from the Jin to the Song Dynasty. There were also a large number of books in various languages, paintings, legal instruments, novels, poems as well as precious silk goods and other cultural relics with the total number of findings reaching 30,000. Most of them, however, had been looted in one way or another by people from other countries such as Britain, France , America and Tsarist Russia. So far none has yet been returned to China.
There are some other famous grottoes in China, including the Yungang grottoes in Shanxi Province, the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang of Henan and the Giant Buddha of Mount Le in Sichuan which was carved out of the rocky face of a precipice. These few, which are the best representatives of the art of stone carving in ancient China, constitute a valuable source of information about ancient China, its society, architecture, sculpture and the history of the spread of Buddhism.