Western Thousand Buddha Caves

The Western Thousand Buddha Caves (Chinese: 西; pinyin: Xī Qiānfó Dòng) is a Buddhist cave temple site in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China. The site is located approximately 35 km southwest of the urban centre and about the same distance from the Yangguan Pass; the area served as a staging post for travellers on the Silk Road.[3] It is the western counterpart of the Mogao Caves, also known as the "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" after the founding monk Yuezun's vision in 366 of "golden radiance in the form of a thousand Buddhas".[4] The caves were excavated from the cliff that runs along the north bank of the Dang River. A number have been lost to floods and collapse; some forty are still extant. Twenty-two decorated caves house 34 polychrome statues and 800 m2 of wall paintings, dating from the Northern Wei to the late-Yuan and early-Ming Dynasties (sixth to fourteenth centuries).[3] The site was included within the 1961 designation of the Mogao Caves as a Major National Historical and Cultural Site.[5]

Western Thousand Buddha Caves
Celestial figures above serial Buddhas in the Thousand Buddha tradition, west wall, Cave 7 (Northern Wei); the ritual practice of foming (佛名), or naming the Buddhas, may lie behind such representations (names appear on the white labels beside each figure in the lower two tiers)[1][2]


A manuscript from the Library Cave, dating to the Five Dynasties and now at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, documents the early history of the site (P 5034): according to the Domain Record of Shazhou Dudu Prefecture – Shouchang County, "60 li east of the county is a very old inscription that says 'Han Dynasty… made a small Buddha niche; the common people gradually built more'".[3][6][7] Since Shouchang County, modern Nanhu Village, is the location of the Yangguan Pass along the Hexi Corridor, it is understood that this is a reference to the origins of the Western Thousand Buddha Caves.[3]

The decorated caves are in three main sections: Caves 1–19 at the west end of the cliff, approximately one kilometre from the modern reservoir; Cave 20 in the middle of the site, near the second floodgate; and Caves 21 and 22 at the eastern end of the cliff.[3] Most of the sculptures were restored in a different style during the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China.[3] The caves at the western end of the site have had aluminium doors and glass partitions installed more recently with the intention of mitigating the environmental causes of deterioration.[3] Some of the paintings at the far east end of the site, distant from the custodians' lodgings, have been detached and remounted in a cave at Mogao.[3] The ruined state of the main Buddha image in Northern Wei Cave 7 enables the construction techniques to be seen: layers of earthen render over an armature of branches and reeds.[8] The loss of upper paint layers also reveals the linear grid used to set out the design of the Thousand Buddhas on the cave walls.[9]

List of caves

The twenty-two caves are dated as follows, based largely on the style of the paintings and their accompanying inscriptions:[10]

Cave Construction Restorations Former Numbering Image
Cave 1Five DynastiesC1
Cave 2(date unclear)C2
Cave 3Tang(date unclear), Republic of ChinaC3
Cave 4SuiTang, (date unclear), Republic of ChinaC3b
Cave 5Early Tang(date unclear)C4
Cave 7Northern WeiWestern Wei, QingC5
Cave 8Northern ZhouSuiC5b
Cave 9Western WeiNorthern Zhou, Sui, early Tang, (date unclear), QingC6
Cave 10SuiTangC7
Cave 11Northern ZhouSui, Tang, (date unclear), Republic of ChinaC8
Cave 12Northern ZhouSui, Tang, (date unclear), Republic of ChinaC9
Cave 13Northern ZhouC10
Cave 14Early TangFive DynastiesC11
Cave 15SuiTang, (date unclear)C12
Cave 16Late TangFive Dynasties, Song, (date unclear), Republic of ChinaC13
Cave 17Late TangC14
Cave 18(date unclear)Mid-Tang, Five DynastiesC15
Cave 19Northern ZhouFive DynastiesC16
Cave 20YuanC17
Cave 21MingC18
Cave 22Northern WeiC19

See also


  1. Abe, Stanley K. (1989). Mogao Cave 254: a case study in early Chinese Buddhist art (PhD dissertation). University of California, Berkeley.
  2. De Visser, M. W (1935). Ancient Buddhism in Japan, I. Brill. pp. 377–93.
  3. Zhang Xuerong, ed. (1998). 敦煌西千佛洞石窟 [Dunhuang Western Thousand Buddha Caves] (in Chinese, English, and Japanese). 甘肃人民美术出版社. pp. 4–5. ISBN 9787805882314.
  4. Whitfield, Roderick (et al.) (2000). Cave Temples of Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road. Getty Conservation Institute. pp. 5, 9. ISBN 0892365854.
  5. "国务院关于公布第一批全国重点文物保护单位名单的通知 (1st Designations)" (in Chinese). State Administration of Cultural Heritage. 3 April 1961. Retrieved 28 April 2012.
  6. "French Collections". International Dunhuang Project. Retrieved 30 April 2012.
  7. "Pelliot Manuscript 5034". Bibliothèque nationale de France. Retrieved 30 April 2012.
  8. 西千佛洞第7窟 [Western Thousand Buddha Caves – Cave 7] (in Chinese). Dunhuang Academy. Retrieved 28 April 2012.
  9. Fraser, Sarah Elizabeth (2003). Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia. Stanford University Press. p. 104. ISBN 9780804745338.
  10. Dunhuang Academy, ed. (1997). 安西榆林窟 [Anxi Yulin Caves] (in Chinese). 文物出版社. pp. 264–268. ISBN 7501007748.
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