top of page
  • andrewsingerchina

#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 1, Issue 36

I Zoomed into an academic symposium this past weekend exploring connections that can and do bind different peoples and societies together. The multicultural intersections of places, art, and ideas across groups enable us to get to know and understand and thereby co-exist with others. China as a country was a key player in this particular narrative. Yet the primary point of reference for the conference was not our current world. Rather, it was centered on Dunhuang, a famed, ancient religious and trading center located in what is now Western China more than one thousand years ago.

  • Dunhuang and the Multicultural Silk Road(s)

  • One More Thought (Twentieth-Century Beijing Through the Eyes of a British Artist)


Dunhuang and the Multicultural Silk Road(s)

Silk Roads Map (Dunhuang Foundation)

The Tang Center for East Asian Art at Princeton University sponsored “Connecting Dunhuang: Sites, Art, and Ideas Along the Silk Road(s).” After a lengthy Covid-19 delay, this academic symposium was finally able to be held in hybrid format so that those of us not local could also connect (after a fashion) with those attending and participating in person. Of the eleven papers presented, the Mogao Library Cave, Women on the Silk Road, and Dice and Divination are profiled below. But first, I cannot neglect to at least briefly acknowledge the paper that introduced the Indian eclipse monsters, Rahu and Ketu, who migrated along the Silk Road to become Chinese monsters “eating the sun and moon” in Dunhuang Buddhist art.

Dunhuang is a desert oasis town located near the confluence of the northern and southern tracks of the Silk Road in Gansu Province, China. In ancient times (before 100 BCE into the fifteenth century CE), Dunhuang was the gateway into and out of China at the western end of the Hexi Corridor. As a regional center, the area attracted a varied group of peoples, languages, and cultures who met, co-existed, and connected. Control of Dunhuang changed often over the centuries. Coming under Chinese control during the Han Dynasty, it also became a military garrison. Later, it fell, was destroyed, was rebuilt, and bounced between control of various invading groups, from Xiongnu to Tibetan to Mongolian to Chinese.

Mogao Caves, Dunhuang (

The Mogao cave temple complex in Dunhuang contains approximately 500 caves that were carved into the cliffs between the fourth to fourteenth centuries. While primarily Buddhist in nature, there is also evidence of other religious activity including Judaism, Christianity, and Manichaeism. As one speaker focusing on the spatial reality of the site noted, there is “one kilometer of honeycombed caves of varied sizes that overlap and are not chronological.” He asked us to visualize what a visitor, a pilgrim, a trader from the Chinese capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) to the east or Central Asia, India, and farther away to the west would have seen and experienced as he or she traveled on the caravan roads, on the approach to the town, and in the caves.

Entrance to Cave 17 at right within Cave 16 (Wu Jian at Dunhuang Academy)

Cave 17 (The Library Cave). Cave 17 at Mogao is known as the Library Cave because in it were discovered some 60,000 documents (granted, some are mere fragments). The cave was sealed up for almost 900 years between the early eleventh century until re-discovered at the turn of the twentieth century. The documents in the cave are dated between the late fourth century and when it was sealed in the early eleventh century. Ninety percent of the materials are Buddhist texts. The remaining ten percent cover a wide breadth of secular topics. The sheer number of source languages of the materials collected in this cave speaks to the polyglot nature of the Dunhuang crossroads. There are documents written in Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur, Khotanese, Sanskrit, Sogdian, and even one in Hebrew.

As with much of ancient history, learned historians reasonably differ both as to why this treasure trove of documents was collected in this small area accessed through a side wall of Cave 16 in the first place and why it was then sealed up and forgotten more than 1,000 years ago.

Collection. It was a storeroom for sacred texts and sacred waste. It was a monastic library that also contained materials for repairing damaged manuscripts. It was a book cemetery and repository for manuscripts and paintings that had outlived their usefulness, but could not be destroyed due to their sacred nature.

Sealing. It was to be temporarily sealed to protect it from invaders. It was permanently sealed because it was full and no longer usable. It was closed off out of simple expediency when a wealthy donor seeking Buddhist karmic credit offered to pay for a new mural in Cave 16 and there was no other available space.

Mount Wutai Mural in Cave 61 (

Women on the Silk Road. Evidence of the presence of local and foreign women--in trade, daily life, and religion, abounds at Dunhuang. These women were wealthy and powerful. These women were poor and powerless.

There are famous letters written by a Sogdian woman (from Central Asia) living in Dunhuang around 313 CE. She was abandoned by her husband and wrote two letters, one to her mother and another to her wayward spouse, complaining of the misfortunes befalling her and her daughter.
Another woman, Tang Yingzhen, made written offerings for the safe travels of her children.
A price list includes the going rates for both male and female slaves traded at Dunhuang.
Lady Song’s procession in Cave 156, depicted opposite her husband’s procession, is one such commemoration of elite women and their political marriages.
Forty-nine, wealthy, female donor figures are painted prominently in the tenth century Cave 61, as is a large mural on the rear wall that includes female travelers on a pilgrimage to Mount Wutai in North China.

Lecture Slide (Professor Brandon Dotson, Georgetown University)

Dice and Divination. From Dunhuang to nearby Kucha to India and beyond, divination was popular across many ancient cultures. There was a thirst for seeing into the future and seeking guidance to prospective action. And the future seers had great clout. Dice were one method used as a randomizing device to create a key to reading and interpreting dedicated books of the future. These four-sided dice were decorated with circles and pips and made from bone, terracotta, ivory, antler, and stone. The numbers rolled and their order, plus values assigned to lines and letters, were each instructive. The divination books, crafted from paper as well as birch bark, came in the forms of manuscripts, folios, compendiums, and codices. They were written in a cornucopia of languages, including Sanskrit, Tibetan, Turkish, Chinese, and Sogdian. Historical and archaeological evidence establishes that dice divination also accompanied the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road into China.


One More Thought (Twentieth-Century Beijing Through the Eyes of a British Artist)

Forbidden City by Katharine Jowett

During her prime, Britain Katharine Jowett (1883-1972) was well-known in China for her paintings and shin-hanga-style woodcuts of Beijing. She was not well-known outside China then (or now). And as for inside China now as written here, “[i]f Jowett’s reputation in China since 1949 has survived at all, then it is partly due, so unverified rumour has it, to the fact that a series of her portraits of Beijing landmarks were supposedly the only Western art to adorn the walls of Mao Zedong’s personal rooms at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound.” Take a look at her work. She had a good eye.


bottom of page