The History of the Tibetan Dunhuang Manuscripts in China
Dunhuang is one of the most important places in Buddhist history in China – it is home to the Buddhist caves where the largest repository of Buddhist iconography has been found in the entire world. Caves were commissioned by wealthy travellers touring the Silk Road giving thanks for safe passage; the end result was a magnificent series of caves with the most incredible Buddhist art.
At the turn of the 20thcentury, archaeologists discovered a huge cache of ancient manuscripts. The Buddhist monk Wang Yuanlu was persuaded to sell these manuscripts to the archaeologists. They were in several languages, mostly in Tibetan and Chinese.
These manuscripts have been dated to the eighth and ninth centuries CE, around the same time the Tibetan kings expanded their borders far into Central Asia. They therefore are of great interest to scholars studying Tibetan and Central Asian history, the origins of Tibetan Buddhism and to linguists studying the early development of the Tibetan language.
Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) came across the cave in Dunhuang in 1907, which has now been named the Library Cave. Although the Buddhist monk had sold some, the majority of the manuscripts were still in the cave. “Stein estimated that there were 230 bundles of Chinese, and 80 bundles of Tibetan scrolls, each bundle containing over a dozen scrolls. He also saw eleven large volumes of Tibetan pothi (their size was two foot five inches by eight inches and ‘nearly one and a half feet’ high). Stein also found several bundles of miscellaneous material on top of the other manuscripts and, after the other manuscripts had been moved, several more at the very bottom of the pile. These bundles (there is no indication of how many there were) contained, among other material, more Tibetan pothi pages, mostly smaller than those in the eleven large volumes, as well as material in other Central Asian languages”.
In 1909, the Chinese government ordered that all the manuscripts should be transported to Beijing. However, most (if not all) of the Tibetan manuscripts were left behind and only a portion of the Chinese ones were transferred to the capital. In 1911 two Japanese explorers sent to Central Asia by Count Otani, a Japanese Central Asia enthusiast, obtained several hundred scrolls from Dunhuang, both Chinese and Tibetan. In addition to this, the Russian archaeologist Sergei Oldenburg also arrived in Dunhuang and took a portion of the manuscripts. The manuscripts are now in museums scattered across the world.
The Dunhuang manuscripts are of high value to our understanding of Buddhist culture and history, even if the most of the texts are repetitive. These manuscripts enable us to gain an important insight into the earliest periods of formation of Tibetan canonical traditions.
van Schaik, Sam (2002) The Tibetan Dunhuang Manuscripts in China, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Cambridge University Press on behalf of School of Oriental and African Studies.