Buddhism Dunhuang, Texts
Sam van Schaik
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0045


The archaeological sites of eastern Central Asia (comprising primarily the modern Chinese provinces of Gansu and Xinjiang) have provided some of the most important sources for the study of Asian history, religion, and material culture. In terms of textual material, the most important single site is the Buddhist cave complex at Dunhuang, known as Mogao or Qianfodung (thousand-buddha caves). It was here that a small cave shrine was discovered in 1900, filled with manuscripts. The latest dated manuscripts in the cave are from the early 11th century, suggesting that the cave was sealed soon after this time. The earliest manuscript dates from the late 4th century. The Dunhuang cave, often referred to as the “Library Cave” or “Cave 17” after the number assigned to it by M. A. Stein, is the largest single manuscript find in China, yielding some 60,000 manuscript items by the last count (along with some 300 paintings). The majority of the cache comprises Chinese- and Tibetan-language manuscripts, with smaller groups of Khotanese, Turkic, Sanskrit, and Sogdian manuscripts. The subject matter of the manuscripts is quite varied. Though the collection is primarily a Buddhist one, secular texts, such as letters and contracts, are also present, along with a minority of manuscripts representing other religions, including Daoism, Manichaeism, and the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet. Because of this range of languages and the wide variety of subject matter, the secondary literature on the Dunhuang texts covers a number of academic fields. This introductory bibliography covers the primary fields of inquiry, but it represents only a fraction of the available publications.

General Overviews

There are many general books on the Mogao cave site at Dunhuang, but most of these are devoted to the wall paintings. Two of the best of these are Fan 2010, which also contains an essay by Susan Whitfield of the contents of Cave 17, and Agnew, et al. 2016, which has several useful contextual essays. Rong Xinjiang 2001 (English translation published in 2013) is a solid historical overview of Dunhuang texts. On the unresolved issue of the original function of Cave 17, see Stein 1921 for the original “sacred waste” theory; Rong Xinjiang 2000 contains a well-argued theory that the cave served as storage for the librarian of a local monastery. Huntington 1986 and Imaeda 2008 emphasize the function of the cave as a funerary shrine for the abbot Hongbian. On the discovery of the cave and the sale of the manuscripts to foreign explorers, see Pelliot 1908, Stein 1921, and Hopkirk 2006. On the contemporary museum and library collections, see the website of the International Dunhuang Project (cited under Bibliographies).

  • Agnew, Neville, Marcia Reed, and Tevvy Ball. Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art of China’s Silk Road. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2016.

    As an exhibition catalogue, this volume is focused more on objects than texts, but is of great value for the contextual essays it contains, and the authors’ practice-oriented approach to the manuscripts is discussed.

  • Fan, Jinshi. The Caves of Dunhuang. Edited and translated by Susan Whitfield. Hong Kong: London Editions, 2010.

    This beautifully produced volume is concerned primarily with the cave paintings at the Dunhuang sites, but is also a very good introduction to the history of the cave site, and it contains a chapter on the contents of Cave 17.

  • Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia. London: John Murray, 2006.

    Written for a general audience, this remains the best introduction to the exploration of the Silk Road in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the discovery and dispersal of the Dunhuang cave collection. Originally published in 1980.

  • Huntington, John C. “A Note on Dunhuang Cave 17, ‘The Library,’ or Hong Bian’s Reliquary Chamber.” Ars Orientalis 16 (1986): 93–101.

    An interesting discussion of the function of Cave 17 and the date of its sealing, arguing that the cave may have been sealed much later than is usually thought.

  • Imaeda Yoshiro. “The Provenance and Character of the Dunhuang Documents.” Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko 66 (2008): 81–102.

    A recent and very useful single overview of Cave 17, including why it was created, how it was used, and why it was sealed.

  • Pelliot, Paul. “Une bibliothèque medievale retrouvé au Kan-sou.” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 8 (1908): 500–529.

    Pelliot’s report, in the form of a letter from China, explains his initial findings at Cave 17.

  • Rong Xinjiang. “The Nature of the Dunhuang Library Cave and the Reasons for Its Sealing.” Cahiers d‘Extrême-Asie 11 (2000): 247–275.

    DOI: 10.3406/asie.1999.1155

    This influential article argues that the primary use of Cave 17 was as a storeroom for a monastic library during the 10th century.

  • Rong Xinjiang. Dunhuangxue shiba jiang. Beijing: Beijing University, 2001.

    Published English translation: Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, trans. Imre Galambos (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013). A popular and well-researched introduction to Dunhuang texts, covering history, literature, and science and technology, with a lesser focus on Buddhism.

  • Stein, Marc Aurel. Serindia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1921.

    Stein’s monumental report on his second expedition contains his account of Cave 17, the manuscripts he found there, and how he acquired them.

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