- Mélodie DoumyMélodie DoumyCurator, Chinese Collections, British Library
At the turn of the 20th century, a small, walled-up cave was discovered by Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu王圆禄on the Buddhist site of the Thousand Buddha Caves, or Mogao Caves, located near Dunhuang (in the present-day Chinese province of Gansu). The room revealed a huge cache of manuscripts dating from the late 4th century up to the beginning of 11th century; the time around which it was probably sealed off. Although it also contained a smaller number of drawings, paintings, textiles, and other artifacts, the secret repository is popularly referred to as the “Library Cave” or “Cave 17” after the number that the explorer Marc Aurel Stein assigned to it.
The oasis town of Dunhuang was once positioned at a strategic point on the Silk Road. The manuscripts found in Cave 17 reflect the multicultural nature of the region through the range of languages represented and the variety of subject matters covered. They were written in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other ancient Central Asian languages. Although they are primarily Buddhist texts, there are also secular manuscripts, such as letters and contracts, along with a minority of manuscripts showcasing other religions.
For these reasons, as well as the relative scarcity of materials surviving from the period, the Dunhuang manuscripts have revolutionized the understanding of medieval China and Central Asia. A whole academic discipline, Dunhuangology, or Dunhuang studies, has developed around them. They open a window into the wider religious and secular worlds of the Silk Road, constituting a major resource for various research fields, including history, Buddhism, linguistics, science, literature, and manuscript studies.