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 Rome.

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.