Serving as the westernmost fort of the early Tang Dynasty, Dunhuang was not only a key trading post situated on the "Silk Road" but also the military headquarters for the operations in the Western Regions. Foreign merchants and monks from the West as well as officials and soldiers from central China brought their own cultures to Dunhuang and made the trading center a cultural "melting pot." The economic, military, political and cultural activities which took place at this cross-roads provided the basis for the flourishing of one of China's earliest Buddhist centers.
Most Buddhist monks came to China from India and Central Asia by way of the Silk Road. As the westernmost Chinese station on the route, Dunhuang became the ideal place for these foreign monks to learn the Chinese language and culture before entering central China. Foreign monks and their Chinese disciples formed the earliest Buddhist communities at Dunhuang in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Many Buddhist sutras were translated at Dunhuang and then distributed into central China. Monk Zhu Fahu, a famous translator of Buddhist texts, organized his translation team at Dunhuang and became known as "The Bodhisattva of Dunhuang." Enormous economic and human resources were used to produce Buddhist sutras and to build places of worship, including thousands of cave temples. By the 5th century, Dunhuang had become an important center of Buddhism on the Silk Road.
Although it was only a small oasis town located in the desert of northwestern China, Dunhuang became the site of the largest complex of ancient Chinese art. Particularly, the Mogao Caves, which are located in the gobi-desert 25 kilometers away from the city, consist of 492 caves with 25000 square meters wall paintings and more than 3000 painted sculptures. These well preserved caves span a period of one thousand years, from the 4th to the 14th century, and visually represent with vivid detail the culture of medieval China. The discovery in 1900 of a secret library cave, which was sealed around the mid-11th century and remained untouched for nine hundred years, has further made Dunhuang an extremely important site for the studies of medieval Chinese civilization. In addition to the Mogao Caves, a few other sites of Buddhist caves are located in the Dunhuang region, including the Yulin Caves (42 caves), Eastern Thousand Buddhas Caves (23 caves), and Shuixiakou (8 caves) in Anxi county, the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves (22 caves) in Dunhuang, and the Five-temple Caves (6 caves) and One-temple Cave (2 caves) in Subei county.
YULIN CAVES, also called WANFOXIA (The Gorge of Ten Thousand Buddhas), are located in a gorge 75 kilometers south to Anxi city. The earliest cave was built in this site probably during the Northern Wei Dynasty (439-534 AD). The 42 surviving caves, constructed on the two sharp cliffs facing each other, cover a period of more than 1500 years from the Northern Wei to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). Particularly worth noting is Cave 25, built during the Tibetan occupation (781-847 AD), which contains unique "Tibetan style" paintings and other interesting motifs. Caves 2 and 3 of the Western Xia period (1036-1226 AD) are invaluable for our understanding of the art and culture of the Tangut Western Xia Kingdom and its relationship with the Chinese Song Dynasty. EASTERN THOUSAND BUDDHAS CAVES, also located in Anxi county, consist of 23 caves. This group of caves focuses on Tantric Buddhist motifs, reflecting the strong influence of Tibetan religion and art during and after the Tangut control of this region. Although only 8 caves survive with paintings and sculptures (3 Western Xia caves, 3 Yuan Dynasty caves, and 2 Qing Dynasty caves), other caves contain remains of deceased monks and other objects which provide us with contextual evidence to understand how these caves were used.
SHUIXIAKOU (The Mouth of Water Gorge), also called XIADONGZI (The Lower Caves) is another cave-site in Anxi county. There are 8 caves, 7 on the southern cliff and 1 on the northern cliff of the Yulin River, surviving with wall paintings and painted sculptures. All these caves were built during and after the Five Dynasties (907-959 AD).
WESTERN THOUSAND BUDDHAS CAVES in Dunhuang consist of 22 caves. Beginning in the Northern Wei Dynasty (439-534 AD), these 22 caves cover the following dynasties including the Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties, Song, Yuan and Qing Dynasties. The architectural structure and painting themes of these caves are similar to that of the Mogao caves, reflecting the close relationship of the two cave-sites.
FIVE-TEMPLE CAVES are located in Subei County south to Dunhuang. More than 20 caves survive in this site, but only 6 of them contain paintings or/and sculptures. Stylistically, these caves belong to the system of the Dunhuang caves. Since these caves are located relatively far away from Dunhuang, their patrons and functions may differ from that of the Mogao caves.
ONE-TEMPLE CAVES form another cave-site in Subei County. Only 2 caves remain in this site. Perhaps initially built during the Northern Dynasties (386-550 AD), these 2 caves contain wall paintings and donors' inscriptions of the Five Dynasties and Song. Visitors' inscriptions of the Republic period (1912-1949) can also be seen on the walls. It seems these 2 caves have been continually used for more one thousand years.