World Cultural Heritage: The Mogao Caves
Chinese Name: Mo Gao Ku
English Name: The Mogao Caves
Approval Date: December 1987
Heritage category: Cultural heritage
Selection Criteria: Based on the standards C(I)(II)(III)(IV)(V)(VI) for selecting cultural heritage, the Mogao Caves was listed in the World Heritage List.
The Mogao Caves
Evaluation of the World Heritage Committee:
The Mogao Caves is located at a strategically important point of the Silk Road. It was not only a freight station for the trade between eastern and western countries, but also a hub of different religions, cultures and knowledge. The 492 small caves and cave temples are famous around the world for their statues and frescos, which can show people vivid content of the thousand-year old Buddhist art.
The Mogao Caves is also called the Thousand-Buddha Caves, and the caves are on the rock face of the Soughing Dunes, 25 kilometers to the southeast of the Donghuang City in Gansu Province in western China. The place is dry and with very little rainfall, and has abundant sunlight all year round. It also has the four distinctive seasons and high temperature differences between the day and night. The Mogao Caves is over 1,600 meters long from north to south and is five floors high, with the highest point at about 50 meters above ground. Currently, it has 492 caves, over 45,000 square meters of frescos, 2,415 colored statues and over 4,000 statues of Apsaras (gods). The Mogao Caves is large in scale and has extremely abundant content and a very long history. The caves, together with the Yungang Caves in Shanxi Province and the Longmen Caves in Henan Province are called the “three great treasure houses of grotto art” in China.
The construction of the Mogao Caves started in 366 in the Qianqin Dynasty. In that year, a monk whose Buddhist name was Le Zun wandered to this place, and saw thousands of golden lights on the Sanwei Mountain looking like thousands of Buddhas. Thinking that this place must be a great place for Buddhism, the monk cut the first cave on the rock face. Afterwards, the construction work continued in the following dynasties, and did not stop until the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1271—1368).
China’s grotto art originated from India. The traditional Indian cave statues are mainly made of stones. However, since the quality of the stones in the Mogao Caves were not suitable for making statues, most figures in the caves are clay statues and frescos. Generally, in the front of the caves are sphere statues, and then are high statues, shadow statues and wall statues gradually, and there are also many frescos, so the art of sculpture and paintings are integrated in these caves. The Mogao Caves had over 1,000 caves in the Tang Dynasty, but now there are only 492, including 32 from the Wei Dynasty, 110 from the Sui Dynasty, 247 from the Tang Dynasty, 36 from the Period of the Five Dynasties, 45 from the Song Dynasty, and eight from the Yuan Dynasty.
The main statues in the caves of the Northern Wei Dynasty are usually statues of Sakyamuni and the Maitreya Buddha, and beside a main statue there were usually two attendant Bodhisattvas, or another Buddha, or two followers, or just two Bodhisattvas. The backs of the statues were usually connected with the frescos. On the ceilings and walls of the caves are full of frescos. The figures on the ceilings and higher parts of the walls were usually musicians and dancers of the heavenly palace, and on the lower parts of the walls were usually Yakshas and decorative patterns. In the middle parts of the walls were mainly stories about the Buddha’s previous lives as well as Buddhist legends including “Cutting Flesh to Save the Pigeon”, “Giving Up Life to Feed a Hungry Tiger” and “Legend of the Nine-Color Deer.”
The golden age of the Mogao Caves was during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The Mogao Caves was transformed into a type of central Buddha altar in the Sui Dynasty from a central tower-type in the Northern Wei Dynasty, with the statues being the same as before. The portrait of one Buddha, two disciples, two emperors and two men of unusual strength was carved in the Tang Dynasty. The statues also changed to “plump” from “thin, weak and delicate” in the earlier times. The murals in the caves are mainly spectacular sermon paintings and pictures of stories and interpretations of Buddhist scriptures. The largest statues in the Mogao Caves were all carved in the Tang Dynasty, with the Buddha figure in the 96th cave being the largest. The murals in the Tang Dynasty included various pictures of stories and interpretations of Buddhist scriptures, mainly having five themes.
First are the Buddha portraits, which are mostly the single Buddha and Bodhisattva including the Medicine Buddha, the Lusena Buddha, the Avalokitesvara, the Mahasthamaprapta, the Ksitigarbha and the Bodhisattvas of the Esoteric Buddhism. Second are over 20 types of pictures of stories and interpretations of Buddhist scriptures including Amitabha, Maitreya, Eastern Medicine Buddha, Vimaiakirti, Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Samantabhadra and Mahasthamaprapta. There were fewer pictures of stories and interpretations of Buddhist scriptures in the Sui Dynasty and the early Tang Dynasty, and they look spectacular, with strict structures and refined content, and only one painting on each wall.