What truly grabs you about the small oasis town of Dunhuang in China’s western Gansu province, is how the city had been shaped by the surrounding harsh environment. Even today, a 15 minute drive from the city’s center will lead you into the empty abyss of the Gobi desert. During China’s Tang Dynasty, the town (then city-state) served as an important stop along the Silk Road, absorbing the culture, food, language, and traditions of travelers that passed through this proverbial gate between the East and West.
But perhaps what makes this town truly enchanting is that on a nondescript hill, about 20 miles outside of town, lies one of the greatest, historically significant discoveries in modern times.
Uncovered in 1900, the Dunhuang Library, left untouched for over 1000 years, contains writings in 17 languages (some of which are now extinct) on the teachings of Buddha. The caves are the embodiment of the transition of Buddhist thought into China and East Asia. In this regard, its discovery has created an entire academic discipline of its own.
In 1987, the Dunhuang Caves (also called the “Mogao Grottoes” or “Cave of 1,000 Buddhas”) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fourteen years later, the Taliban, using dynamite, destroyed The Buddha’s of Bamyan in Afghanistan, which had been home to some of the largest Buddha statues in the world. The act spurred the international community in action, in turn investing more time and effort to cultivate the remaining links the modern world has to the history of Buddhism in Asia.
A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker wrote an article about one such organization that works to digitize the 50,000 Buddhist manuscripts and 6,000 statues spread out in roughly 500 caves.
Since 2007, Give2Asia has been working with The Dunhuang Academy, the keeper of the World Heritage Site, to help fund the effort to research and record the plethora of information in the caves.