Abbot Wang Yuanlu of Dunhuang: Villain or…?

Society & Culture

On June 25, 1900, a Daoist monk made one of the most startling and significant discoveries in archaeological history. But that would only be the beginning of the story for Abbot Wang Yuanlu of the Mogao Caves.

Dunhuang manuscripts found by Wang

This Week in China’s History: June 25, 1900

On June 25, 1900, a crack in the ceiling of a desert cave led Wáng Yuánlù 王圆箓 to look more carefully at the plastered corridor. Exploring further, Wang found an opening that led to one of the greatest of discoveries: a cave containing some 50,000 manuscripts, sealed and unseen for as long as 900 years. The discovery would revolutionize our understanding of medieval China, the Silk Roads, Buddhism, and other fields besides. And it would lead generations of Chinese nationalists to paint Wang Yuanlu as one of the great villains of modern China.

The so-called “Library Cave” — really a small storage annex — is just one of hundreds of caves in the desert of Gansu province, near the oasis town of Dunhuang. “The physical setting is spectacular,” in the words of historian Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History. “Deep-green poplar and willow trees line the lush oasis [f]ramed by rocky cliffs.” Located at the eastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, Dunhuang was the last place for Silk Road travelers leaving China to find reliable water before setting out for many days in the desert. As early as the Han dynasty, Dunhuang was a garrison of the Chinese state, an outpost near the edge of imperial control.

One thousand miles west of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an, then the imperial capital), Dunhuang was both an essential oasis and a strategic junction. The plural Silk “Roads” more accurately represents the many trade routes that linked Eastern and Western Asia, and at Dunhuang two of the major trunk routes diverged: a northern route that would pass in the shadow of the Tianshan Mountains and would take travelers toward the Mediterannean, and a southern route, skirting the Kunlun Mountains, that would be the better path to (or from) India.

The Silk Roads took their name from a commodity (trade in silk commenced thousands of years ago, though the name wasn’t applied until the 19th century), but some of the most important commerce across Asia was in ideas, especially religious ideas. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeism were just some of the faiths that moved across Asia from oasis to oasis, city to city, but it was Buddhism that had the greatest impact on China, and one of its main pathways into China was along the Silk Roads that passed through Dunhuang.

In the oasis at the edge of the desert, religious shrines flourished. Rising above a crystal clear crescent lake, sand dunes and a sandstone ridge provided a windbreak that allowed a small forest to grow. The soft cliffs of sandstone could be worked into caves, shelter for pilgrims and other travelers. As early as the 4th century CE, the caves near Dunhuang were developed as Buddhist shrines, among the earliest such edifices in China. They came to be known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, or the Mogao Caves. At its height, in the 8th century, Dunhuang was a cosmopolitan entrepôt, but the gradual withdrawal of the Tang state from the region after the 755 An Lushan rebellion led to isolation. By the 14th century, the caves were all but abandoned.

Wang Yuanlu was an unlikely figure to transform the fate of the Mogao caves. In his recent book, The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures, Justin Jacobs describes Wang as an “itinerant Daoist priest [who] took up residence in a derelict temple” and appointed himself protector of the Mogao Caves. Valere Hansen adds that Wang was a former soldier who had turned to Daoism later in life. In any case, Wang took it upon himself to restore and maintain the caves. With no training and few resources, his efforts were slow and ad hoc.

It was during that process that a flickering candle — some sources say a cigarette — led to the discovery of the Library Cave and the tens of thousands of documents, stacked 10 feet high, contained within.

The manuscripts in what came to be known as Cave 17 were remarkable for many reasons. The sheer volume was one, but their condition, their variety of languages and topics, and the long time period they cover are all extraordinary. The dry desert cave protected the documents from moisture and sunlight, as did their increasing isolation over the centuries. About half of the scrolls were in Chinese or Tibetan; the other half were written in Sogdian, Uyghur, Sanskrit, or other Silk Road languages. The oldest text in the cave is from 405, and the latest from 600 years later. Shortly after that — sometime in the 11th century, it seems — the cave was sealed, and it remained that way for close to a millennium.

Illiterate, Wang could not know the true value of what he had found, but he brought some of the documents to the governor of Gansu province, hoping to sell them or at least prove the worth of his efforts. The government in Lanzhou had at least some idea of their importance, but with the Qing empire clinging to existence, a comprehensive plan to evaluate the find, let alone catalog and preserve it, was impossible. The governor-general ordered the documents securely locked up in the cave to prevent theft.

Although the story of Dunhuang and its treasures is well known, it is rarely associated with Wang Yuanlu. Wang’s identity is not secret, but what happened next overshadowed his role in the discovery, and led to him being cast as a villain by many.

Rumors of the discovery swirled quickly across Eurasia. European explorers Sven Hedin, Aurel Stein, and Paul Pelliot, among others, flocked to Dunhuang. Stein purchased the first batch of documents — some 10,000 scrolls — for the equivalent of £130 in 1907. Frenchman Paul Pelliot, who unlike Stein could read Chinese, got fewer documents, but more important ones. Significant chunks of the collection found their way to London, Paris, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Budapest, and dozens of other locations. Beyond the purchase of documents, later expeditions, including ones from American Ivy League universities, chiseled wall frescoes from other caves and relocated them to museums in Europe and the United States.

For their actions, these Europeans — especially Aurel Stein — are seen as vandals, thieves, and imperialists in China. Wang Yuanlu, who sold off the treasures, was a dupe or a traitor, who traded his nation’s patrimony for a few dollars. The plunder of China’s treasures is a tangible indicator of the century of humiliation that saw China under the thumb of European and American colonizers. Chinese nationalists blamed European imperialism and deception, and corruption by local Qing officials. Even suggestions that the treasures were safer outside of China during the upheavals of the early 20th century were undermined when World War II damaged artifacts in Paris, London, and Berlin.

In recent years, organizations like the International Dunhuang Project have worked to make the dispersed Dunhuang manuscripts available to scholars around the world, first on microfilm and now digitally. It is a rare case of, for now anyway, a happy(-ish) ending.

But the takeaway lessons of the Dunhuang manuscripts remain complex. Peter Hopkirk’s 1980 book Foreign Devils on the Silk Road was the first English-language retelling of the discovery and plunder, a story that evokes Indiana Jones (indeed, several of the Dunhuang explorers are rumored to have been prototypes for Steven Spielberg’s fictional archeologist). But Justin Jacobs’s more recent The Compensations of Plunder gives a more nuanced account of “how China lost its treasures.” Jacobs puts it succinctly: “The explanatory framework of coercion, deceit, and corruption, is inadequate” to fully make sense of what happened. Jacobs compellingly illustrates how imperialism and greed, as well as local initiative and self-interest, played a role, but above all he suggests that nationalism — as it so often does — has recast the past in its service.

From today’s nationalist perspective, it is unforgivable to sell or give away one’s national heritage. But is that really the right lens for viewing the actions of 1900? Jacobs write rhetorically, “If Wang Yuanlu was not a greedy simpleton, if [Qing official] Pan Zhen was not a corrupt bureaucrat, and if Aurel Stein was not a dishonest and deceptive imperialist, then what else could account for each man’s unforgivable and inexplicable betrayal of the now valorized ‘Chinese nation?’” Jacobs insists we must not reduce each of these men to nationalist cliches. “In order to restore agency to Wang Yuanlu and Pan Zhen, we must accept the possibility that they were rational human beings…and that what they were doing made sense within the…contexts of their day.”

Jacobs’s attempt to restore agency and rescue the reputations of men like Wang Yuanlu (less so the Europeans and Americans) is bold, and controversial. Did Wang do the right thing — by any standard — when he sold off the Dunhuang horde? Perhaps not, but it is certainly worth remembering that he is responsible for making one of the great archeological finds of all time.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.