Nav Search

A Commitment to Conservation: Ensuring the Splendor of Our Ancient Cultural Treasures Endures

By The Dunhuang Academy Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2024-07-08

Dunhuang is a world-renowned treas­ure house of art and culture, with a history stretching back almost 2,000 years. Considered to be the world’s largest and oldest art repository with the richest array of content and best-preserved works of art, it is a pearl in the crown of world civiliza­tion and a priceless source of materials for studying the political, economic, military, cultural, and art history of ancient China’s various ethnic groups.

I. The origins of Dunhuang

Dunhuang lies at the western end of the Hexi Corridor in Gansu Province. During the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 25), Emperor Wu established the Four Commanderies of Hexi. As the westernmost commandery, Dunhuang controlled the flow of traffic between the Central Plains and the Western Regions. With the flourish­ing of the ancient Silk Road, it grew into a town of great importance in the exchanges between Eastern and Western civilizations, serving as not only a trade hub linking East and West but a meeting point for the religions, cultures, and arts of China, Europe, and Western Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia. After the arrival of Buddhism in China, Buddhist caves began to spring up in Dunhuang, thanks to its proximity to the Western Regions and strong Buddhist influ­ence. First beginning in AD 366, construc­tion on the caves continued for over 1,000 years, creating a vast grotto complex.

The cultural heritage of Dunhuang encom­passes three main aspects: First, the ancient cultural relics of the Dunhuang area, such as the Great Wall from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), bamboo slips from that era, and archaeological artifacts from various periods; Second, the grottoes, primarily represented by the Mogao Caves, but also comprising other sites like the Western Thousand-Buddha Caves and the Yulin Caves; and Third, the tens of thousands of artifacts that were discovered in the manuscript depository of the Mogao Caves.

Of the great number of caves carved into the 1,700-meter cliffside at Mogao between the 4th and 14th centuries, more than 700 still remain intact today. These caves house over 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. The Mogao Caves represent the pinnacle of Chinese Buddhist art between the 4th and 14th centuries, blending artistic elements from various ethnic groups in China with influences from abroad. This fusion has resulted in a distinct and coherent Dunhuang system of Buddhist art, which showcases the grandeur of the Chinese style and elegance and represents a significant contribution by China to the development of world Buddhist art. As a result, Dunhuang occupies an important position in the art history of both China and the world.


Zhang Qian’s Expedition to the Western Regions, located in Cave 323 of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. This vivid Tang-era mural is painted on the western side of the north wall of Cave 323. Depicting the complete narrative of Zhang’s journey, it is considered a masterpiece of the Dunhuang murals. THE DUNHUANG ACADEMY

The Dunhuang murals feature a rich level of detail as well as grand and complex scenes. Thematically, they span seven categories: icon paintings, Buddhist scripture stories, sutra transformation tableaus, paintings of traditional Chinese immortals, Buddhist historical sites and relics, patrons’ portraits, and decorative patterns. Artistically, they include figure paintings, landscape paintings, architectural paintings, and decorative paint­ings. Together, these artworks constitute a systematic record of authentic Chinese paint­ings from the 4th to the 14th centuries.

During the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms and the early Northern Dynasties (about the 4th–5th centuries), the Dunhuang murals were heavily influenced by the style of Buddhist art from the Western Regions. However, in the latter period of the Northern Dynasties, a distinctive Central Plains style emerged. By the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the best elements of these two styles had been synthesized, and remarkable advances were made in figure painting.

Beyond their artistic appeal, the murals offer a glimpse into many facets of ancient social life and customs. For example, the murals in Cave 25 of the Yulin Grottoes depict agricultural activities like plowing, sowing, harvesting, and winnowing. The paintings in Cave 3 of the Yulin Grottoes concern industry, showcasing scenes of iron forging and winemaking. Cave 156 of the Mogao Caves depicts folk customs, with a painting showing a mother pushing a four-wheeled buggy. It is thus easy to see why the murals are often described as both a museum and an encyclopedia on walls.

Painted sculptures form an important part of the art collection at Dunhuang. They include representations of Buddha, bodhisattvas, disciples, as well as heavenly kings and mighty warriors. Sculptures from different periods reflect influences from ancient India, Central Asia, and even ancient Greece, as well as the Central Plains of China, in an illustration of how foreign elements were incorporated to create a distinctively Chinese style.

For example, the early sculptures in the Dunhuang Caves retained the style of the Western Regions in terms of themes, seated postures, figures, and clothing patterns, yet the facial features, body shapes, and attire featured in these works gradually came to embody the elegant and robust charm of China in the Wei and Jin period (220–420). A quintessential example of Dunhuang’s early painted sculptures is the statue of the meditating Buddha from the Northern Wei period (386–534) in Cave 259 of the Mogao Caves. With its calm and peaceful demea­nor, warm and friendly gaze, and gentle smile ending in deep curves at the corner of the mouth, the work draws influence from Gandhara art but also embodies traditional Chinese aesthetic ideals.

The numerous exquisite painted sculp­tures, which retain their vitality and intri­cacy after more than a thousand years, illustrate the continuous process of cultural exchange and integration along the ancient Silk Road. They highlight the exceptional skills and creativity of ancient Chinese sculptors and serve as a compelling testa­ment to the enduring vitality of the more than 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization.

The manuscript depository in the Dunhuang Caves is a definitive treasure trove of ancient Chinese cultural texts. Discovered in 1900 at the Mogao Caves, it has yielded tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts in various languages, a small collection of printed books, as well as silk paintings and embroideries.

The depository includes a wide array of materials: 1. Religious texts, with Buddhist scriptures making up 90% of the documents; 2. Confucian classics; 3. Histor­ical and geographical documents; 4. Scien­tific texts; 5. Literary works; 6. Official and private correspondence; 7. Documents in non-Chinese languages; 8. Artworks on silk, paper, and linen, as well as embroideries.

Many of the manuscripts, which had been thought to have been lost, turned out to be original records of ancient social and cultural life, offering us a glimpse at the true face of ancient society.

Dunhuang captivates so many today because of its rich cultural heritage. Over millennia, it has been home to a diverse range of ethnic groups including the Han, Qiang, Xiongnu, Xianbei, Tuyuhun, Tubo, Uyghurs, Tangut, and Mongols. Each group created its own distinctive and splendid culture, which integrated to create the vast tapestry of Chinese culture. As such, the culture of Dunhuang is an important embodiment of the diverse and innovative nature of Chinese civilization. With tradi­tional Chinese culture as its foundation, Dunhuang became an integral part of the Silk Road, which opened it up to a wide range of cultural influences and shaped its unique and profound character. As a cross­roads between East and West, Dunhuang was a witness to the convergence of civilizations, as evidenced by the diverse and vibrant array of art from ancient India, Central Asia, Persia, and Greece in its grottoes. Moreover, Dunhuang’s manuscript depository reveals the diverse range of religious influences the area experienced, including Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorianism, demonstrating just how open and inclusive Chinese culture is. As the outstanding Chinese scholar Ji Xianlin rightly observed, “The brilliance of Dunhuang represents the fusion of the finest aspects of cultures from around the world and is an exemplary model of Chinese civilization’s seamless assimilation of diverse cultural elements over thousands of years.”

II. Protecting the Dunhuang Culture

Cultural artifacts capture the brilliance of civilization, preserve our cultural history, and sustain our national spirit. They repre­sent a precious inheritance passed on to us by our ancestors. The culture of Dunhuang, with its blend of architectural, sculptural, and mural art and rich Buddhist influence, is endowed with great historical depth and cultural significance. In many ways, protect­ing Dunhuang is tantamount to safeguard­ing Chinese culture and world heritage.

On January 1, 1944, the National Dunhuang Art Institute was established, marking an end to the almost 400-year history of neglect, damage, and looting experienced by the Dunhuang Caves. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it was renamed the Dunhuang Institute of Cultural Relics. The institute received significant atten­tion from both Party and state institu­tions, which established a strategy for the protection, research, and promotion of Dunhuang. Despite considerable financial challenges in the early 1960s, the central government allocated significant funds for extensive repair and reinforcement projects, which effectively safeguarded the extremely fragile cliffs and caves of Mogao. During this period, the institute brought in foreign experts and advanced restoration technolo­gies to carry out emergency conservation work on the cave murals.

The reform and opening up period that began in the late 1970s ushered in a new phase for conservation in Dunhuang, characterized by international coopera­tion, science-based preservation, and active promotion. In the 1980s, the newly named Dunhuang Academy expanded its opera­tions, adding more staff, creating new departments, and recruiting additional high-caliber personnel.

In 2003, the Regulations on Protect­ing the Dunhuang Mogao Caves in Gansu Province were enacted, providing strong legal support for the conservation, utilization, and management of the Mogao Caves. In 2011, the Master Plan for the Protection of the Dunhuang Mogao Caves (2006–2025) was launched. It set out a coordinated approach to heritage conservation, ecological protec­tion, and tourism development, providing a professional and authoritative framework for guiding the management of the grottoes.

Significant achievements have been made in preserving Dunhuang’s cultural heritage since the 18th National Congress of the Commu­nist Party of China (CPC) in 2012, under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Commit­tee with Xi Jinping at its core. A Dunhuang model of artifact conservation with Chinese characteristics, exemplified by the Dunhuang Caves, has been largely established and is gaining international recognition.


Painted sculptures located in the Buddha niche along the west wall of Cave 45 of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Dunhuang boasts many exquisitely painted sculptures that, even after more than a thousand years, remain as stunning and detailed as ever. In Cave 45, master sculptors used their exceptional skills to create a beautiful ensemble of figures, combining characters of different identities and personalities to depict a world brimming with vitality. THE DUNHUANG ACADEMY

With support from various quarters, the Gansu Provincial Research Center for Conservation of Dunhuang Cultural Herit­age has been established. Alongside this, China’s first multi-field coupling labora­tory in the area of artifact conservation has been set up to provide essential scientific and technological support for conserva­tion. Initial steps have also been taken to establish a preventive monitoring and early warning system to ensure the preser­vation of the Mogao Caves, their murals, and painted sculptures over the long term. Technologies have been employed to create digital archives for cave artifacts, and various new digital techniques have been leveraged to interpret, study, preserve, protect, and promote Dunhuang art.

According to statistics, since 2012, the National Cultural Heritage Administra­tion has approved the implementation of 51 cultural relic protection projects, which include the conservation of the Mogao Caves, cliff reinforcement, and environmental resto­ration. To date, the Dunhuang Academy has fully completed the conservation and restora­tion of 86 caves. In doing so, it has developed a complete system of critical technologies for preserving ancient murals, reinforcing sandstone cliff grottoes, protecting against sandstorms, and carrying out monitoring and providing early warning. This progress has helped lay a solid foundation for advance­ments in cultural artifact protection and the development of cultural heritage. 


A restoration site in Cave 55 of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, 2024. Pioneering a variety of innovative methods, the Dunhuang Academy has transitioned from reactive rescue efforts to proactive preventive measures in artifact conservation. THE DUNHUANG ACADEMY

As times have evolved, Dunhuang has continuously improved its methods, technologies, and systems for cultural herit­age conservation to ensure the highest level of protection. Over the past 80 years, the changes have been remarkable, with conser­vation efforts initially involving methods such as manually removing sand, divert­ing water to clear away sand, and building adobe sand barriers. These methods later gave way to reinforcing cliff bodies and carrying out environmental conservation, before progressing to multi-field coupling experiments. Dunhuang has also moved from being freely accessible to advanced reservations now being required and from basic custodial care to conservation based on emergency and preventive measures. We have progressed from establishing a digital exhibition center to setting up a “Digital Dunhuang” resource repository and finally to launching the world’s first interactive museum that transcends the bounds of time and space—the Digital Manuscript Cave.

Over the past 80 years, in order to preserve Dunhuang’s cultural artifacts and carry forward its heritage, several generations of custodians, best represented by Chang Shuhong, Duan Wenjie, and Fan Jinshi, have guided Dunhuang through difficult begin­nings and complex explorations to see it flourishing today. Putting down roots deep in the desert, these custodians have worked to shed light on the legend of Dunhuang, attracting world attention and breathing new life into the millennia-old Mogao Caves. Investing their prime years, hard work, perseverance, and dedication, they have delved deeply into the rich cultural heritage of this desert environment. Their endeavors have fostered the “Mogao Spirit,” character­ized by steadfast dedication, a readiness to serve, the courage to shoulder responsibility, and a commitment to innovation.

III. Promoting the Dunhuang culture

Preserving and passing on our historical and cultural heritage is a responsibility we owe to both history and the people. We must redouble our efforts to safeguard the cultural legacy of Dunhuang and advance our work toward studying, excavating, interpreting, and promoting its value and significance. In doing so, we will not only enrich modern Chinese civilization but enable Dunhuang culture to radiate with renewed brilliance in this era.

Promoting technological innovation to safeguard and carry forward our heritage

The primary mission of the Dunhuang Academy is the preservation of the cultural artifacts of Dunhuang. Over the years, the academy has steadily enhanced both foundational and applied research concern­ing cultural artifact conservation. This has enabled us to step up the application of science and technology in our preservation efforts and master a series of core technolo­gies in key areas. These achievements have led to the development of a comprehensive “Dunhuang experience” in several key fields, including mural conservation, earthen site protection, and the digitalization of cultural relics. Presently, the academy is working to advance basic research, applied research, and technological R&D concerning important cultural resources in China such as grottoes, murals, and earthen sites. To this end, we are striving to attract and assemble top-caliber personnel in cultural heritage protection to help address critical scientific issues and technological bottlenecks at the leading edge of cultural heritage conservation, with a view to serving the implementation of China’s national cultural strategy.

We are committed to continuing major scientific research projects focused on the protection of cultural artifacts. We will steadily enhance basic sci-tech research relating to the conservation of cultural artifacts. We will also accelerate digitaliza­tion initiatives for the Dunhuang Caves and the six other grotto sites associated with the academy. Building on the launch of the blockchain-based Digital Dunhuang Open Material Repository, the first of its kind in the world, and the Digital Manuscript Cave, we will continue to expand the content of our repository and ensure the innovative development of digital resources by promot­ing their flexible use and diversification.

Unlocking Dunhuang’s cultural value and strengthening the foundations of our cultural confidence

Dunhuang culture, which is centered on the artifacts from the Dunhuang Caves and its manuscript depository, is of profound historical and cultural significance. It is an invaluable source of historical data for the study of ancient Chinese history and culture.

We will continue to push for advances in all facets of Dunhuang studies while widening the scope of our research. In particular, we will strive for breakthroughs in the study of cultural exchanges between China and other nations, as well as research into the ethnic cultures of the Silk Road. We will conduct archaeological surveys and excavations at the Dunhuang Caves and accelerate the prepara­tion of archaeological reports to ensure the essential primary data needed for related research. We will also establish a comprehen­sive framework for archaeological research on Dunhuang, working to put in place stand­ards and norms for producing archaeological reports on grotto temples, so as to truly create an archaeological approach characterized by the distinctive features, style, and integrity of China. This will see us leading the way in the nationwide efforts to advance archaeological work on grotto temples.

Ensuring flexible use of artifacts to promote cultural inheritance and development

Cultural relics are not only witnesses to history but carriers of culture. Over more than a thousand years, a diverse and invaluable cultural heritage was built up at Dunhuang. It is imperative to undertake the systematic organization of traditional cultural resources to ensure artifacts housed in forbidden warehouses, heritage displayed at exhibitions around the country, and the history preserved in ancient texts are all put to best use.

In recent years, the academy has been deeply involved in efforts to tap into and showcase the art of Dunhuang and related research achievements. We have organized exhibitions such as The Art of Dunhuang, Digital Dunhuang, and The Public Exhibi­tion of Dunhuang Mural Art Treasures at Universities in more than 20 provinces and cities across China, as well as over 10 countries and regions, including the United States, France, Italy, and Turkey. Leveraging platforms such as the Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo, we have hosted more than 20 academic events and art exhibitions. We have also organized over 10 events under the theme of Globally Linking Dunhuang Culture to Embassies and Consulates. Going forward, we will intensify our efforts in this regard, continuing to hold Dunhuang art exhibitions both at home and abroad and working to tell the story of Dunhuang in ways that engage and capti­vate the public.

Carrying forward the traditional culture and advancing exchanges and learning between civilizations

The diversity of civilizations fuels exchange; exchange fosters mutual learning, and mutual learning helps drive development. As a vital gateway linking Central China with the Western Regions, Dunhuang served as a point of convergence for diverse ideas, religions, art, and culture from ancient China, India, Greece, and Persia. With a broad-minded spirit of openness and inclusivity, Chinese civilization continuously absorbed and learned from the outstanding achieve­ments of other civilizations. This is what allowed it to foster the unique Dunhuang culture and the spirit of the Silk Road.

In recent years, the Dunhuang Academy has actively supported the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by fostering collaborations and exchanges with universities, cultural heritage organizations, and stakeholders from various social sectors in participating countries. The academy has organized six delegations of experts and scholars onto research tours to India, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Iran, and other countries and regions. It has conducted in-depth research on themes relating to Dunhuang and the Silk Road, on develop­ment and change along the Silk Road, and on the ethnic groups, religions, societies, and cultures of participating countries and regions. This research has provided theoret­ical support for the development of the Belt and Road.

Going forward, we will continue to harness our strengths to further enhance international cooperation and communica­tion. We will step up ongoing academic and cultural exchanges with international insti­tutions engaged in research on Dunhuang, as well as cultural heritage management organizations in BRI countries. Such efforts will help to enhance the global reach and influence of Dunhuang culture.


(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 8, 2024)