Tun-huang ［敦煌］ (PY Dunhuang; Tonkō): An oasis town located in the western end of the so-called Kansu Corridor, in the present-day northwestern Kansu Province, China; formerly called Kua-chou or Sha-chou. It was a meeting point of two branches of the Silk Road running north and south around the Tarim Basin, and a place of entry into China as well as the starting point from China toward the “western regions.” Today it is particularly well known for the religious, cultural, and artistic treasures preserved there in the form of painting and sculpture in its Mo-kao Caves (also known as the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas). Buddhist artwork found therein dates back to the fourth century.
In ancient times, Tun-huang was ruled by a tribal confederation called the Yüeh-chih and then by the Hsiung-nu, known to Europeans as the Huns. During the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 b.c.e.) of the Former Han dynasty, Tun-huang was brought under Chinese rule. From early on, Tun-huang was an important center for trade between East and West. In the first and second centuries, Buddhism was transmitted to China from India and Central Asia. By the third century, Tun-huang was not only a route of this transmission, but was itself a great center of Buddhism. Buddhist monks from India and Central Asia made sojourns to Tun-huang. The monk Dharmaraksha, who lived in the third and fourth centuries and translated the Lotus and other sutras into Chinese, came from this area and was called the Bodhisattva of Tun-huang. In the fifth century, the Indian monks Dharmaraksha (385–433) and Dharmamitra (356–442) came to this area and stayed for some time to preach. Many priests who traveled from China seeking Buddhist teachings also stopped in Tun-huang en route to India and Central Asia.
Tun-huang, for the most part, remained under the rule of the various Chinese dynasties. In the 780s, however, it fell under Tibetan dominance, which lasted for approximately sixty years. As a result, in Tun-huang, Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism encountered and influenced each other. Thereafter Tun-huang was at different times placed under the rule of the Chinese, the Tangut (the people of the Hsi-hsia kingdom, which existed in northwestern China from the early eleventh through the early thirteenth century), and the Mongols. The Mo-kao Caves, southeast of Tun-huang, number about five hundred and are located at the base of the eastern side of a hill called Ming-sha-shan. In 366 the first cave was carved from the cliff side and the construction of others continued thereafter. These caves preserve wall paintings that portray events in Shakyamuni Buddha’s life and also the Jātaka, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha.
Early in the twentieth century, a large number of ancient manuscripts and documents as well as paintings and other pieces of artwork were found in one of the caves. Among them were numerous manuscripts of Buddhist scriptures, dating from the fifth to the eleventh century. Other items included Taoist, Confucian, Manichaean, and Nestorian scriptures. In addition to these religious documents, there were many ancient secular documents concerning government, economics, and literature. These records have been important to the study of Chinese social history during that period. The scriptures and documents were written in Chinese, Brāhmī script, Tibetan, Khotanese, Kuchean, Sogdian, Turkish, Uighur, and the writing system of the kingdom of Hsi-hsia. See also Mo-kao Caves.