In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhist Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road"

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Illustrated Catalogues
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Expedition Reports
  • Transformation Texts (Bianwen) and Transformation Tableaux (Bianxiang)
  • Visualization Sūtra
  • Lotus Sūtra
  • Parinirvāṇa
  • Wheel of Rebirth
  • Esoteric Buddhist Art
  • Tibetan Occupation of Dunhuang
  • Xixia
  • Mogao Cave 61
  • Patronage and Social History
  • Portable Paintings and Textiles
  • Xinjiang
  • Bāmiyān

Buddhism Buddhist Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road"
Michelle C. Wang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0089


The “Silk Roads,” a term first coined by the German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, refers to the east–west overland trading routes crossing Central Asia that for centuries served as the conduit for the transmission not only of consumer goods such as silk textiles, but also of religions, including Buddhism. One terminus of the Silk Road lay in the Mediterranean, crossing through Syria, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Turkmenistan to Kashgar in present-day Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Region of China. The Silk Road then split into northern and southern routes, skirting the forbidding Taklamakan Desert and reuniting at the Chinese military garrison of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, from which point the route continued further inland in China to the capital cities of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) and Luoyang. Archaeological discoveries document the presence of trade from the Neolithic period. However, the earliest Chinese monk pilgrim to travel overland from China to India was Faxian, who departed in 399 CE on a fifteen-year journey. His travels paved the way for countless numbers of monks, among them Xuanzang, who embarked in 629 CE on a seventeen-year journey. The Buddhist sites situated in present-day Afghanistan, Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and Gansu Province continued the traditions of rock-cut architecture first introduced in India. In addition to housing monastic communities, the rock-cut sites of the Silk Road also functioned as pilgrimage sites that were the recipients of patronage from local elites, traders, and Chinese rulers. The sites that have received the most attention, particularly from Western scholars, have been the Mogao cave shrines in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, and the Kizil cave shrines in Kucha, Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Region. In addition to the mural paintings and sculptures of these rock-cut sites, Mogao Cave 17, commonly known as the “library cave,” contained tens of thousands of paintings and manuscripts that were sealed c. 1000 CE and that were dispersed in the early 20th century into library and museum collections around the world.

General Overviews

The works in this section, several of them exhibition catalogues, may be distinguished by their geographical focus, types of objects, and methodological orientation. The earliest examples of Buddhist art are catalogued exhaustively in Rhie 1999–2010, which analyzes early Buddhist art in China in conjunction with objects and sites situated along the northern and southern Silk Roads. Rhie’s erudite scholarship is an unsurpassed guide to the development of historical styles. No serious scholar of Buddhism in China and Central Asia can ignore this indispensable work. The first two volumes cover the period from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE. The third volume focuses on cave temple sites in Gansu within the context of Buddhist textual sources. Whitfield 1995 and Fan 2010 provide introductions to the Mogao cave shrines in Gansu Province and their historical development.Murray 1998 discusses Dunhuang mural paintings within the broader context of narrative painting in Chinese art. Rong 1999–2000 addresses the sealing of Mogao Cave 17, the so-called library cave that was discovered in 1900. Hopkirk 1980 provides an accessible narrative of the explorers who traveled the Silk Road and of the treasures that they took away with them. Following on this, Balachandran 2007 focuses on mural painting fragments, placing them within the context of archaeological preservation as a tool for museum collection building in the early 20th century. Portable objects from the Silk Road are highlighted in Whitfield and Sims-Williams 2004, along with excellent essays highlighting specific aspects of Silk Road history and religions. Finally, Juliano and Lerner 2001 contextualizes Buddhist sites in Gansu and Ningxia with sculptures, coins, painting fragments, and other objects from the same regions from museum collections in China.

  • Balachandran, Sanchita. “Object Lessons: The Politics of Preservation and Museum Building in Western China in the Early Twentieth Century.” International Journal of Cultural Property 14 (2007): 1–32.

    This paper examines the use of preservation as a justification for the removal of pieces of immovable archaeological sites in the early 20th century, focusing on a collection of twelve wall painting fragments from Dunhuang which were removed by Langdon Warner in 1924 for the Fogg Art Museum.

  • Jinshi Fan. Susan Whitfield, ed. and trans. The Caves of Dunhuang. Hong Kong: Dunhuang Academy in Collaboration with London Editions, 2010.

    Authored by the Director of the Dunhuang Academy, this lavishly illustrated volume thoroughly surveys the history, geography, religion, and art and architecture of the Dunhuang Caves in successive chapters. Also covered are portable objects and conservation of the site.

  • Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. London: John Murray, 1980.

    This work provides a historical overview of the explorers who traversed the Silk Road: Sven Hedin, Aurel Stein, Albert von Le Coq, Paul Pelliot, Kozui Otani, and Langdon Warner. Of particular interest is the account of the discovery and removal of paintings and manuscripts from Mogao Cave 17.

  • Juliano, Annette L., and Judith A. Lerner, eds. Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Gansu and Ningxia, 4th–7th Century. New York: Harry N. Abrams with the Asia Society, 2001.

    The exhibition catalogue from the Asia Society focuses on objects in Chinese museum collections from Gansu and Ningxia. Essays emphasize the cultural interactions and influences facilitated by the Silk Road and by the movements of nomads, Buddhist monks, and Sogdian merchants.

  • Murray, Julia K. “What Is ‘Chinese Narrative Illustration’?” Art Bulletin 80.4 (1998): 602–615.

    DOI: 10.2307/3051315

    This short essay contextualizes Dunhuang cave murals in relation to the history of Chinese painting and contemporary discussion of narrativity and theories of pictorial art.

  • Rhie, Marylin Martin. Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia. 3 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1999–2010.

    Vol. 1 of Rhie’s study begins with the Han to Western Jin Dynasty in China and the southern Silk Road from the 1st to 5th centuries CE. Vol. 2 covers Buddhist art in China during the Eastern Jin and Sixteen Kingdoms periods and the northern Silk Road from the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. Vol. 3 covers important new iconographic and stylistic developments during the Western Qin (385–431) in eastern Gansu.

  • Rong Xinjiang. “The Nature of the Dunhuang Library Cave and the Reasons for Its Sealing.” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 11 (1999–2000): 247–275.

    DOI: 10.3406/asie.1999.1155

    This essay argues that Mogao Cave 17 was a storehouse for the library holdings of the Three Realms Monastery in Dunhuang. It also posits that the cave was sealed before 1006 in order to prevent the destruction of materials after the fall of Khotan to the Islamic Karakhanids.

  • Whitfield, Roderick. Dunhuang: Caves of the Singing Sands: Buddhist Art from the Silk Road. 2 vols. London: Textile & Art Publications, 1995.

    Vol. 1 contains color plates of mural paintings from the Mogao caves, arranged in chronological order and according to thematic motifs. Vol. 2 contains an introduction to the site, essays on caves of each historical period, a chronology of Dunhuang, and captions to the plates.

  • Whitfield, Susan, ed., with Ursula Sims-Williams. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War, and Faith. Chicago: Serindia, 2004.

    Published in conjunction with a special exhibition at the British Library in 2004, the essays discuss the history, economy, material culture, and religions of the Silk Road. The objects on display originated principally from the British Museum, British Library, and Victoria and Albert Museum.

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