Situated at the edge of the Gobi Desert between Mongolia and Tibet, the oasis city of Dunhuang is home to a complex of Buddhist cave shrines created between the 4th and 14th centuries. It is one of a number of such complexes built in northern China following the breakup of the Han empire in 220 CE. While a weak imperial government in the south retained Confucianism as its official doctrine for somewhat longer, the non-Han nomadic tribes who took control of the north enthusiastically adopted Buddhism, which had arrived in China from India in the first century. 

In medieval times, Dunhuang was a garrison town occupying the junction of the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road. It was the entry point into China from Central Asia and the last stop in China before the long trek around the Taklamakan desert to points beyond: Afghanistan, India, Persia, and, eventually, Rome. Owing to its strategic importance, Dunhuang enjoyed relative peace and prosperity even through periods of turmoil in the rest of the country, and over the centuries a thriving Buddhist community developed there. 

The Dunhuang caves, worked on continuously for nearly a thousand years, contain wall murals and clay sculptures, and once housed an extraordinary cache of over 50,000 manuscripts, paintings, and religious objects. These items were walled up in a cave in the 11th century and not rediscovered until the early 20th by an itinerant Daoist monk, who sold much of the material to foreign collectors. Together, Dunhuang’s art and manuscripts provide an invaluable record of the social and religious life of cities along the Silk Road in its heyday. 

Until recently, Dunhuang was hard to get to. Now, however, the site attracts some 200,000 visitors a year, threatening the caves’ fragile art. Increasingly, access to the caves is limited. Eventually there will be a visitors’ center, set at a remove, where tourists can experience walk-in digital recreations of the art instead. 

This tiny show now at the China Institute was curated by Fan Jinshi, the director of the Dunhuang Academy, an organization charged with protecting and preserving the site. It features recreations of two of these caves, one from the Western Wei dynasty (535-556 CE) and one from the classical period of the Tang dynasty (705-781 CE). The exhibition combines photomurals and hand-painted replicas of Dunhuang’s wall paintings and sculptures with scraps of manuscripts found in the Library cave and other original artifacts, providing a semblance of the art’s original context. 

Being in these rooms is an odd experience. The gritty sand that once seeped into the caves has been replaced by soft carpeting, and there is no hiding the fact that the replica murals and altars, while faithful to the originals, are installed in a gallery in the middle of a bustling city rather than in a cave in a barren desert. Nevertheless, the images themselves are immediately compelling. Covering every part of the walls and ceilings, and full of life and action, they depict riveting stories of triumph over dangers both secular and spiritual. 

Following a form imported from Indian cave shrines, the first cave features one large, square column in the middle of the room. Dominating the front of the column is a seated Buddha in a red robe, flanked by stocky bodhisattvas. Set into the back pillar, where a devotee would encounter it in darkness, is a frightening image of an emaciated Buddha from his period of asceticism. The back wall is decorated with an image of the Thousand Buddhas; on the side walls are captivating frescoes illustrating scenes from Jataka tales. Rather naive in style, these paintings combine simple forms with a bold palette—white, black, turquoise, blue, and rust. At times, the scenes approach pure abstraction: one depicts a bride calling on the Buddha, who arrives at her wedding with his retinue in a whirl of flying limbs and whipping scarves, to convert her husband and father-in-law. 

The second cave, reproduced in a gallery across the hall, differs architecturally, stylistically, and iconographically from the cave of the Western Wei period. By the time of the Tang, China had once more been reunited and Buddhism had become the country’s primary religion. If the earlier cave was a place conducive to private meditation and rituals, this one is an example of a more public space, perhaps an assembly hall built to accommodate lay devotees. 

The interior of this cave is a long room covered floor to ceiling with paintings, ending in a square niche displaying fullsize figures of seven deities: a central Buddha in meditation, flanked by his monk disciples Kashyapa and Ananda; a pair of feminine-looking, blissed-out bodhisattvas; and finally, two fiercedvarapalas guardians, dressed as Chinese generals. Above the Buddha, spread across the top of the niche, is a scene from the Lotus Sutra: Prabhutaratna, an early Buddha, returning to listen to Shakyamuni’s teaching. 

On the ceiling the Thousand Buddhas appear again, expressing the Mahayana idea of multiple universes inhabited by multiple deities. On the wall to the right of the central altar is a large painting of Avalokiteshvara, who comes to the aid of anyone who asks for help. Surrounding his portrait are vignettes of people in danger praying to him to intercede, the prayers appearing as brown cartouches, like speech bubbles, in each vignette. Of particular interest to visitors of the time would have been the scene of a group of Silk Road travelers being set upon by bandits, while their donkeys, already relieved of their bulging saddlebags, look on. 

Fragments of manuscripts and small objects salvaged from the caves were displayed in vitrines. Reflecting Dunhuang’s cosmopolitan society, they included a Persian coin, a carved wood figure of a male Westerner, part of a Tangut-Chinese dictionary, and a bit of paper bearing multiplication tables written in Tibetan. 

As a scholarly exposition, the show accomplished its aim: to trace the evolution of Buddhism in medieval China through its architecture and art. But beyond that, it raised provocative questions for both art lovers and practitioners regarding the place and power of the original in the modern world—a world in which practitioners routinely use photographic reproductions for their meditations; in which Web-based technologies are used to pass on oral traditions; and in which, very soon, sites like these caves will be viewable only virtually.

Take a virtual tour of the exhibit at

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