Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves，also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, south-east of the Dunhuang oasis, Gansu Province, comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. Mogao Caves encompass caves, wall paintings, painted sculptures, ancient architecture, movable cultural relics and their settings. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang and Yungang Grottoes in Datong, are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.
It was first constructed in 366AD and represents the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. 492 caves are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. Cave 302 of the Sui dynasty contains one of the oldest and most vivid scenes of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, depicting a camel pulling a cart typical of trade missions of that period. Caves 23 and 156 of the Tang dynasty show workers in the fields and a line of warriors respectively and in the Song dynasty Cave 61, the celebrated landscape of Mount Wutai is an early example of artistic Chinese cartography, where nothing has been left out – mountains, rivers, cities, temples, roads and caravans are all depicted.
The murals are the most valuable part of the Mogao Caves. They date from a period of over a thousand years, from the 5th to the 14th century, and many earlier ones were repainted at later points within the period. The murals are extensive, covering an area of 490,000 square feet (46,000 square metres). The most fully painted caves have paintings all over the walls and ceilings, with geometrical or plant decoration filling the spaces not taken by figurative images, which are above all of the Buddha.
Early murals showed a strong Indian and Central Asian influence in the painting techniques used, the composition and style of the paintings as well as costumes worn by the figures, but a distinct Dunhuang style began to emerge during Northern Wei Dynasty. Motifs of Chinese, Central Asian and Indian origin may be found in a single cave, and Chinese elements increased during the Western Wei period.
The most famous and widely-known murals of the Mogao Caves are the the flying apsaras. The Flying Apsaras, or Feitian in Mandarin, are often considered a symbol of the Mogao Caves. They refer to a spiritual being in Hindu and Buddhist culture with an image of a beautiful female. It is said that Chinese craftsmen first painted the apsaras in murals in the Mogao Grottoes during the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304-439).
When it came to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the painted apsaras were characterized by traditional Chinese artistic features, marking the peak of China’s Flying Apsaras art. The murals carry information about their attire, musical instruments and other social artifacts of their times.
Having witnessed the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road into China, they have left a touchstone of the diverse cultural exchanges in world history. Nowadays we can see the lively images of Flying Apsaras in various forms, such as dances, trademarks and ads.
As evidence of the evolution of Buddhist art in the northwest region of China, the Mogao Caves are of unmatched historical value. These works provide an abundance of vivid materials depicting various aspects of medieval politics, economics, culture, arts, religion, ethnic relations, and daily dress in western China. The unique artistic style of Dunhuang art is not only the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian and Gandharan customs, but also an integration of the arts of the Turks, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities. Many of these masterpieces are creations of an unparalleled aesthetic talent.
I. The group of caves at Mogao represents a unique artistic achievement both by the organization of space into 492 caves built on five levels and by the production of more than 2,000 painted sculptures, and approximately 45,000 square meters of murals, among which are many masterpieces of Chinese art.
II. For 1,000 years, from the period of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) to the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1276-1386), the caves of Mogao played a decisive role in artistic exchanges between China, Central Asia and India.
III. The paintings at Mogao bear exceptional witness to the civilizations of ancient China during the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties.
The Thousand-Buddha Caves constitute an outstanding example of a Buddhist rock art sanctuary.
V. Occupied by Buddhist monks from the end of the 19th century up to 1930, the rock art ensemble at Mogao, administered by the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute, preserves the example of a traditional monastic settlement.
VI. The caves are strongly linked to the history of transcontinental relations and of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. For centuries the Dunhuang oasis, near which the two branches of the Silk Road forked, enjoyed the privilege of being a relay station where not only merchandise was traded, but ideas as well, exemplified by the Chinese, Tibetan, Sogdian, Khotan, Uighur and even Hebrew manuscripts found within the caves.