Ancient Hexi Corridor Road This was an old road scattered with historical sites.
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What we saw were the endless Gobi Desert and layer upon layer of hazy mountain peaks in
The earliest settlers of this area came from the east, filled with a western dream. What
they found was an area of vast deserts with high and barren mountains.
We are riding a jeep, "the King of the Desert", heading for Dunhuang. It was a
sluggish trip in hot weather.
We could see little else but a few groves of red willows and small lizards roving in
Ancient beacon towers, broken and dilapidated through years of storms and stress, stood
lonely on the Gobi. There were extensions of the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty, like an
old man, fatigued and spiritless.
However, they tell you the ancient and brilliant history of the Qin and Han dynasties.
The Xiongnus, powerful and wild, once ruled the west. They conquered the areas in the
south and north of the Tianshan Mountains, west of the Pamirs and the Hexi Corridor.
Maodilnshanyu, the Chief of the Xiongnus, led his army to attack Taiyuan in 202 B.C., Liu
Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, came to meet the challenge at the command of
320,000 troops. He was besieged for seven days and nights in Baidengshan in Pingcheng,
Shanxi, finally losing his life.
When Liu Che inherited the throne, he made it his supreme task to conquer the west so as
to ensure the safety of the dynasty and the stability of the royal power.
Zhang Xian was sent to the west as a royal envoy where he remained for 13 years, during
which time he made many of the western states subject to Xiongnu's rule.
123 B.C., he and General Wei Qing went to beat the Xiongnus and blazed a silk road.
In121B.C., young General Huo Qubing again went to launch offensives on the Xiongnus in the
Hexi Corridor and killed 9,000 enemy troops. He, in collaboration with General Huo Qubing,
went on to beat the Xiongnus in three major battles and subjugated the arrogant ethnic
group. Zhang Xian, entrusted by the emperor, went again to the west as a royal envoy.
Zhang Xian dispatched his subordinates to Afghanistan, Iran and India and finally built up
the silk road, an artery of exchange between the east and the west of the day.
Emperor Hanwu established four prefectures in Wuwei,Zhangye, Qiuquan and Dunhuang and twd
passes of defence in Yangguan and Yumen in the Hexi Corridor in 111 B.C.
Dunhuang was first established as a prefecture,it was a commercial bub on the road from
Chang'an, the capital of the Han Dynasty, to the west and the center of the traffic
network between the north and the south entering central China.
The Han royal princes such as Xi Jun and Jia You who were married off to Xiongnu kings
regarded Dunhuang as home.
It was also the gate of protocol to meet the kings from western states,calling on the Han
emperor.It was also home to officials who were sent to the west in exile.
In 400, Border defence official Li Gao established a political power called Xiliang in
Dunhuang. He expanded his territory and attached great importance to agriculture and
education.Great numbers of scholars and artists came from central China.
They showed outstanding achievements in classical studies and arts. Dunhuang was the first
place that came to know Indian Buddhism whose teachings and tenets served as a
tranquilizer to the people who were tired of long wars and social disturbances.
Buddhism became a prevailing religion in Dunhuang for more than a thousand years. Mogao
Grottoes When our "King of the Desert" entered the city proper of Dunhuang in
the evening, we looked at the southeast and saw clouds rising from the Sanwei Mountain and
heard strains of ancient music. Were it the Mogao Cods and fairies that were making their
were woken at dawn and told to get into the jeep heading for the Mogao Grottoes 25
kilometers southeast of the city. As there were many tourists, an early start was
essential to ensure enough time to view the murals without the crowds.
However, even though we made this .early start, there were three or four truckloads of
people who were on the road ahead of us.
It was fairly cold autumn morning , in Hexi. The sun was rising, shedding ' its golden
lights on the steep cliffs, gate towers and the temple buildings. Upon arrival, we were
awed by the brilliance and grandeur of the Mogao Grottoes.
The Mogao Grottoes are located in a rare mountain gully running from south to north in
this barren land, sandwiched by Minsha Mountain in the west and Sanwei Mountain in the
east. The Dangguan River flows through it,nurturing a rare piece of oasis full of
When we entered the mountain gully,we saw numerous caves on a stretch of1600 meters carved
out on the steep cliffs of the Minsha Mountain. It is a 1,000-year-old ancient art gallery
still living today.
Each cave and each mural hs its own story. The earliest cave was carved 1630 years ago.
During the first year of the reign of the King Taihe of Jin (or in the year of 366 A.D.),a
Buddhist monk named Le Zun came into the mountain gully one evening and saw thousands of
shafts of light shedding upon the Sanwei Mountain like Buddhas in their thousands.Monk Le
Zun threw himself to the ground,determined to carve a cave on the Sanwei Mountain cliff in
the worship of the Buddhas.
Several years later, Fa Liang, another monk who was from the east, came to dig the second
cave.Thereafter people came in flocks to carve caves to express their belief in the
The construction of the Mogao Grottoes spanned more than a 'thousand years ranging from
the Early Qin, Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou,Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties, Song,
Xixia and Yuan. But it was the Tang Dynasty that was really its heyday. During this period
more than one thousand caves were carved.
The Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Terra cotta warriors of the Qin are all
remarkable.However, they were all built in a given dynasty.
That the Mogao Grottoes as a quintessence of art, history and culture, were built and
developed over 11 dynasties over more than 1,000 years is indeed unprecedented.
The art of the Mogao Grottoes is composed of cave architecture, sculptures and
murals.There are now 482 caves with 4500 square meters of murals and 2500 sculptures. The
Mogao art features five Tang and Song wooden cave buildings and 50,000-volume
The treasure is one of the greatest cultural discoveries in the 20th century.We were
treated as guests of honor when Ma,a deputy director of the reception office, personally
guided us on the tour. We visited13 of the most spectacular grottoes, immensely charmed by
the beautiful murals and well-seasoned explanations by Ma.
The frescoes evolve one story after another, telling of the strife between the good and
the evil and the extreme happy life in the paradise. The heaven and the earth thus seemed
to have unified into one.
The colored sculptures, frescoes and ancient buildings were the crystallization and
materialization of the spirit and life of the builders and artists and the worshippers of
When we entered Cave No.16,we were told a tragic story. On the morning of Tune 2 of 1900,
Wang Yuanlu, the chief monk of the Mogao Grottoes, a former farmer from Macheng of Hubei
Province,found a crevice at the earthen wall of the pavilion in memory of Hong, a famous
monk of the Tang Dynasty.
It turned out to be a secret chamber stored with Buddhist scriptures, ancient books,
Buddhist sculptures, Buddhist mass musical instruments, and paintings on silk and all
kinds of other cultural relies. Some estimate that they numbered four or five hundred
At that time, nobody was aware that this discovery was one of the greatest archaeological
discoveries in the 20th century.
"Dunhuang Books" date back to 359 as the earliest and to1196 the latest,spanning
the dynastic 837 years of the 16 States, Northern Wei, Sui, Tang, the Five Dynasties,
Northern Song, Southern Song and Jin. The documents are written in the language of the
ethnic Hans as well as in Turfan, Uygur, Turkish, Yu Zhen, Syrian, Xixia, Lu, Sanskrit,
Lite and Mongolian. They cover the Four Confucian classics, the literature of Buddhism,
Taoism, Jingism and Moniism as well as local records, accounting books, musical scores,
choreographic records, astronomy, calendars, arithmetic, medical
literature,stories,poetry,biographies and travelogues.
The historical records cover economy, polities, religion, philosophy, literature, history,
geography, music, dances, natural science, applied techniques, national relations, trade,
national customs, education, linguistics and textual criticism of ancient records.
The monk did not know the value of these documents. He did not like the colorful murals
and the sculptures and so whitewashed the walls and broke some of the colored sculptures
of Buddha. As he was badly in need of money, he picked up some of the things he deemed
valuable and sent them to the county seat for sale.
Ye Zhechang, the Director of the Gansu Provincial Educational Department, was an expert of
inscriptions on ancient bronze and stone tablets. He suggested that the Governor had them
transported to the provincial capital for safe keeping but the governor deemed this too
expensive an exercise.So "Dunhuang Books" became the private property of the
monk who exchanged them little by little for pocket money.
At that time, the Qing court ia Beijing was preoccupied with th~ Boxers' Movement and had
neither the time nor interest to take care of the discovery in Dunhuang.
However, Foreign powers were not at rest. They sent military ships to the port of Tianjin
to bring pressure on the Qing court and dispatched "cultural" missionaries to
Dunhuang even at the cost of their lives.
Buoruchev, a Russian, came inOctober of 1905 and robbed the grottoes of a great amount of
its scripture books. In 1907, Sir Aurel Stein, a British archaeologist, took away its
Buddhist scripture books in 24 boxes and silk paintings.The portraits and silk paintings.
The French stole 6,000 volumes of handwritten books and took several hundred photos in
~uly of1908. Two Japanese came in October of 1911 and took away more than 300 volumes of
hand written books and two colored sculptures of the Tang Dynasty.Stein came for the
second time in 1914 and embezzled another 600 volumes of scripture books.
reckless and wanton robbery of the Dunhuang Grottoes aroused the indignation of the
Chinese. Pressurized by patriotic scholars, the Qing court appropriated funds to have the
remaining over 8000 volumes of scripture books brought to Beijing Library. Many were lost
on the way.
Czarist official Aliankov and his 500 soldiers came to Dunhuang in 1922and brought immense
damage to the caves.Warner,An American followed in 1924 and finding that nothing remained,
used chemical cohesive cloths to remove 36 mural paintings, including the precious
painting of "Zhang Jian Goes to the West to Usher in the Golden Buddha" in
No.323 Cave and the Tang colored sculptures of kneeling Buddhas in No. 328 Cave. Two years
later, instigated by the first secretary of the American Embassy in Beijing, Warner
returned with two of his students and two cart loads of cohesive cloth in an attempt to
strip off the mural paintings in No. 285 Cave. However, he did not succeed and was driven
out of Gansu by the local people.
There is a gallery of names who donated funds for the restoration of the Dunhuang
Grottoes. It includes Shao Yifu, a Hong Kong personality and some famous lapanese
Westward from the Yangguan Pass The Yangguan Pass lies in Nanhu township 70 kilometers
southwest of Dunhuang. Yangguan is often mentioned in the mural stories and documents of
the Dunhuang Grottoes.
When we arrived at Yangguan, a sea of desert, we saw nothing but a tablet inscribed with
notes indicating ~this was the remains of ancient ? Yangguan. An old beacon tower of earth
and read, fairly broken, stood at a height of 4.7 meters in the distance like an old man
pondering about history.
What is interesting is that such as bricks, pottery pieces, coins, arrows,bronze
decorations,seals and living utensils ranging from the Han to the Song dynasty in the sand
dunes in the north and east of the remains of Shouchang city. Round and thin white and
black stone pieces may also be found.According to a book found in the Dunhuang cave, the
locality, Shazhou, offered to the Tang court twenty sets of chess every year.
Wind began to blow columns of dust into the sky, veiling Yangguan in a gauze of sand. We
had to make haste and return to our car. In the car, I fell into a dream, as if we were
still driving westward through the Yumen Pass. However, I could not leave the Mogao
Grottoes as there were still so many craves where I had not been to. There were still so
many ancient tombs,ancient caves,ancient cities,ancient road and ancient battlefields I
had not had access to. How I wish to see and know Dunhuang more and better!