During the Tang Dynasty (618-906) China had
international connections that extended far beyond the
central heartland. The Silk Road was the primary avenue
of exchange between China and the countries to the west.
During the Tang, China's influence in these Central Asian
kingdoms and throughout Asia was at its zenith. The
capital, Chang'an, was the Silk Road's terminus. Its
cosmopolitan character reflected the richness and
diversity of Central Asian arts and culture.
One of the important oasis towns on the trade routes
through Central Asia was Dunhuang. It was established in
the 2nd century BCE and was active through the 12th
century. For this 1400 years, the exchange of ideas and
goods impacted the environmental and artistic landscape
of Dunhuang. A garrison commandery during the Han (206
BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-906) dynasties, its strategic
location prompted the imperial government to extend the
Great Wall to Dunhuang in order to protect their
interests. Its position on the edge of the Gobi and
Taklamakan deserts signaled a departure from Chinese
cultural territory and entry to a road that linked the
Chinese empire with Sogdiana, Batricia, and ultimately
This geographical location also meant that Dunhuang
was the center of linguistic and cultural exchange.
25,000 square meters of wall paintings dating to the
5th-13th centuries reflect artistic traditions of the Han
Chinese and the western Turkic kingdoms. The artistic
brilliance of painters, who brought together varied
traditions in a pictorial language unique to Dunhuang, is
matched by the linguistic breadth found in 20,000 texts
discovered at the site.
Sometime in the 11th century, sutras, financial
accounts, and patronage records belonging to seventeen
area temples were hidden behind a cave wall at Dunhuang.
They were not discovered until 1900. For the last century
scholars have been reconstructing the spiritual and
economic aspects of Chinese and Inner Asian life from
these scrolls. Written in Tibetan, Tocharian, Uighur, and
Chinese they reflect the enormous undertaking of managing
monastic lands and commodities, administering
inter-regional politics, and building a sacred library of
oral and written texts transmitted from the many
languages spoken in the region.