Little Bits of History

June 25

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 25, 2017

1900: Wang Yuanlu discovers the Dunhuang manuscripts. The manuscripts covered a variety of topics, both religious and secular and covered history, mathematics, folk songs and even dances. The religious documents are mainly Buddhist but cover other religions as well including Daoism, Nestorian Christianity, and Manichaeism. Most of the documents are written in Chinese, but several other languages are also included. The Daoist monk located the cache in a sealed cave which was part of the Mogao Caves also called the Thousand Buddha Grottoes. They form a system of 492 temples along a 16 mile stretch of what was once an important cultural center along the Silk Road in the Gansu province of China.

Between 1907 and 1910, Yuanlu sold many of the manuscripts, mostly to Aurel Stein (Hungarian/British) and Paul Pelliot (French) but also to Japanese, Russian, and Danish explorers. Chinese scholar Luo Zhenyo managed to get many of the manuscripts (about 20%) into the hands of Beijing historians and they are not in the National Library of China. Several thousand works were left in Dunhuang and are located in many of the museums of the region. Most the manuscripts purchased by foreigners are now in institutions located around the world. Today, they are being digitized by the International Dunhuang Project and can be freely accessed online.

On this day, Yuanlu was working at restoration of statues and paintings in what we know today as Cave 16. While working, he noticed a hidden door which opened into another cave, today called Cave 17 or Library Cave. Once the seal was broken, he found a room filled with thousands of ancient manuscripts dating from  the 5th to the early 11th centuries. Many of them related to early Chinese Buddhism. He went to local authorities in an attempt to fund their conservation. The officials ordered the cave to be resealed until the documents could be transported out for further study. Instead, he sold many of the works at way below their value, for which he is both “revered and reviled”.

The manuscripts have been studied and some of these studies are to determine the provenance of the documents themselves. There have been many speculations as to why the room was sealed in the first place. Stein suggested they were “sacred waste” and this protected them. It has also been suggested that Cave 17 was simply a Buddhist storeroom in a monastic library. The works may have been hidden away as advancing armies, either Xixia or Muslim, were approaching and the monks wished to preserve the bountiful history. A final theory is simply that the librarians ran out of room and sealed a full space. Research continues and a clearer picture of the life and times of locals and visitors are available for study.

The question of manuscript changes is very important for literary criticism, the psychology of creation and other aspects of the study of literature. – Umberto Eco

If you look at an illuminated manuscript, even today, it just blows your mind. For them, without all the clutter and inputs that we have, it must have been even more extraordinary. – Geraldine Brooks

I can tell from about 20 yards away when someone has a manuscript for me. I can just tell – they have that look. – Mark Leyner

Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. – John Ruskin

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