Ten kilometers from the county town of Dunhuang in Gansu (Kansu)Province is a fork in the highway. A signboard here reading “Mogao Grottoes,Important Cultural Unit Protected by the State” points the way south to a small tree-lined oasis lying in a stretch of desert between two mountains. A honey comb of caves known as the Mogao Grottoes and also as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, hewn in the steep cliff at the foot of Mingsha Mountain, presents an awe-inspiring sight for desert travelers. Buddhism was introduced to China from India via the old Silk Road during the reign of Emperor Ming Di(A D. 58-75) of the Eastern Hart dynasty. During the Western and Eastern Jin dynasties(265-420), Buddhism and Buddhist art flourished. Monasteries, shrines and grottoes, among them the Mogao Grottoes-appeared along the Silk Road. Begun in the fourth Century, these grottoes in time became a sacred place for Buddhist pilgrims. Created over a period of a thousand years, the grottoes give in art a most graphic picture of the life and activity of the people of those early times. Grand in concept and design, the grottoes were damaged by nature and human pillage over the centuries. Many collapsed. By l949, the place was desolate. Repairs and protection carried out by the New China restored much of the splendor of the Mogao Grottoes. In l963 the outer walls of the caves were strengthened by shoring up the loose sandstone rock with reinforced concrete colonnades, four-story Walkways were added. From the top story one gets a view of the sweeping panorama of the l,600-meter expanse across the sheer cliffside and of the nine-story tower jutting at the center of the remaining 492 grottoes. A dozen buildings housing the Dunhuang Cultural Research Institute surround a large courtyard lust below the grottoes. All the caves linked by walkways and marked with the date of their carving and the dynasty. A visit through them gives one a complete and chronological picture of Buddhist art from the Eastern Jin through the Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties, Song and Yuan dynasties-nearly a thousand years of history. Brilliant paintings cover the cave walls and ceilings, those of each period in its own artistic style. The murals in the grottoes hewn during the Northern Dynasty(386-581 A. D.)depict events in the life of Sakyamuni, the Prince of Nepal who founded Buddhism, his enlightenment and other religion events. Complex stories are portrayed in serial, or eyed single pictures. A striking feature of the art of this time is its emphasis on man in the composition. Human figures dominate the paintings and are larger than the background objects.
The Tang dynasty murals in the Mogao Grottoes reach their highest artistic perfection Form, spirit and color are well harmonized resulting in a far more typically Chinese style than in earlier periods. That is, they are free of the gloominess of the earlier works and take on a magnificence of composition and brightness of hue.
One Tang dynasty mural shows a lay Buddhist discoursing with a Bodhisattva on the principles of the Buddhist teaching. In the large audience is an emperor of stately bearing attended by a bevy of eunuchs and officials and also merchants from central and western Asian countries m their native dress. City buildings appear in the background while celestial figures fly with long silk scarves in the wind. In depicting the religious stories ancient artists drew on daily life with great realism.