Library Cave at Dunhuang - Buddhist Scholarly Cache

A Thousand Years of Buddhist Writings

Mogao Grottoes
Mogao Grottoes. Maria Ly

When the Library Cave, known as Cave 17 from the Mogao Cave Complex at Dunhuang, China, was opened in 1900, an estimated 40,000 manuscripts, scrolls, booklets and paintings on silk, hemp and paper were found literally stuffed into it. This treasure trove of writings was collected between the 9th and 10th centuries AD, by Tang and Song dynasty Buddhist monks who carved the cave and then filled it with ancient and current manuscripts on topics ranging from religion and philosophy, history and mathematics, folk songs and dance.

Cave of Manuscripts

Cave 17 is only one of ~500 human-made caves called the Mogao Ku or Mogao Grottoes, which were dug into a loess cliff approximately 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of the town of Dunhuang in Gansu province of northeastern China. Dunhuang has an oasis (around Crescent Lake) and it was an important cultural and religious crossroads on the famous Silk Road. The Mogao Cave complex is one of five cave temple complexes in the Dunhuang region. These caves were excavated and maintained by Buddhist monks until about a thousand years ago when they were sealed and hidden until rediscovery in 1900.

The religious and philosophical subjects of the manuscripts include works on Taoism, Buddhism, Nestorianism, and Judaism (at least one of the manuscripts is in Hebrew). Many of the texts are scriptures, but they also cover politics, economy, philology, military affairs and art, written in several languages predominated by Chinese and Tibetan.

Dating the Dunhuang Manuscripts

From inscriptions, we know that the original librarian in the cave was a Chinese monk called Hongbian, the leader of the Buddhist community at Dunhuang. After his death in 862, the cave was consecrated as a Buddhist shrine complete with a statue of Hongbian, and some manuscripts after that may have been left as offerings.

Scholars also suggest that perhaps as other caves were emptied and reused, the overflow storage might have ended up in Cave 17.

Chinese historical documents typically have colophons, introductions to the information in the manuscript that include the date they were written, or textual evidence of that date. The most recent of the dated manuscripts from Cave 17 was written in 1002. Scholars believe the cave was sealed shortly afterward. Together, the manuscripts date between the Western Jin dynasty (AD 265-316) to the Northern Song dynasty (AD 960-1127) and, if the history of the cave is correct, were likely collected between the 9th and 10th centuries AD.

Paper and Ink

A recent study (Helman-Wazny and Van Schaik) looked at the processes of Tibetan paper-making in evidence on a selection of manuscripts from the Stein Collection in the British Library, manuscripts collected from Cave 17 by the Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein in the early 20th century. The primary type of paper reported by Helman-Wazny and Van Schaik were rag papers composed of ramie (Boehmeria sp) and hemp (Cannabis sp), with minor additions of jute (Corchorus sp) and  paper mulberry ( Broussonetia sp). Six manuscripts were made entirely of  Thymelaeaceae (​Daphne or Edgeworthia sp); several were made primarily from paper mulberry.

A study of inks and paper-making by Richardin and colleagues was conducted on two Chinese manuscripts in the Pelliot collections in the National Library of France. These were collected from Cave 17 in the early 20th century by French scholar Paul Pelliot.  Inks used in the Chinese manuscripts include reds made of a mixture of hematite and red and yellow ochres; red paint on the murals in other Mogao caves are made of ochre, cinnabar, synthetic vermilion, red lead and organic red. Black inks are made primarily of carbon, with an addition of ochre, calcium carbonate, quartz, and kaolinite. Wood identified from the papers in the Pelliot collections include salt cedar (Tamaricaceae).

Initial Discovery and Recent Research

Cave 17 at Mogao was discovered in 1900 by a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu.

Aurel Stein visited the caves in 1907-1908, taking a collection of manuscripts and paintings on paper, silk, and ramie, as well as a few wall paintings. French sinologist Paul Pelliot, American Langdon Warner, Russian Sergei Oldenburg and many other explorers and scholars visited Dunhuang and walked off with other relics, which can now be found scattered in museums around the world.

The Dunhuang Academy was set up in China in the 1980s, to collect and preserve the manuscripts; the International Dunhuang Project was formed in 1994 to bring the international scholars together to work collaboratively on the far-flung collections.

Recent investigations into environmental issues such as the effect of ambient air quality on the manuscripts and the continuing deposit of sand from the surrounding region into the Mogao caves have identified threats to Library Cave, and the others in the Mogao system (see Wang).


This article is a part of the guide to the Archaeology of Buddhism, Ancient Writing, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Helman-Wazny A, and Van Schaik S. 2013. Witnesses for Tibetan craftsmanship: bringing together paper analysis, palaeography and codicology in the examination of the earliest Tibetan manuscripts. Archaeometry 55(4):707-741.

Jianjun Q, Ning H, Guangrong D, and Weimin Z. 2001. The role and significance of the Gobi Desert pavement in controlling sand movement on the cliff top near the Dunhuang Magao Grottoes. Journal of Arid Environments 48(3):357-371.

Richardin P, Cuisance F, Buisson N, Asensi-Amoros V, and Lavier C. 2010. AMS radiocarbon dating and scientific examination of high historical value manuscripts: Application to two Chinese manuscripts from Dunhuang. Journal of Cultural Heritage 11(4):398-403.

Shichang M. 1995. Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family at Mogao Ku, Dunhuang. World Archaeology 27(2):303-317.

Wang W, Ma X, Ma Y, Mao L, Wu F, Ma X, An L, and Feng H. 2010. Seasonal dynamics of airborne fungi in different caves of the Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang, China.

International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation 64(6):461-466.

Wang W, Ma Y, Ma X, Wu F, Ma X, An L, and Feng H. 2010. Seasonal variations of airborne bacteria in the Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang, China. International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation 64(4):309-315.