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Located behind the north wall of Cave 16’s hallway, Mogao Cave 17 is the well-known Dunhuang Library Cave. It was built during the Dazhong and Xiantong periods of the late Tang Dynasty (851-862 A.D.) to serve as the memorial hall of Dunhuang’s chief monk Hong Bian. Hong Bian, whose secular surname was Wu, had been a monk since his childhood. He was a knowledgeable scholar proficient in the Tibetan language and a master in Buddhism. He was devoted to the translation of Buddhist scriptures and texts. In the second year of Dazhong of the Tang dynasty (848 A.D.), Zhang Yichao led an uprising overthrowing the Tibetan rule over Dunhuang and the Hexi region, and pledged allegiance to the Tang Imperial Court. Taking his contribution and assistance to Zhang Yichao’s reclaiming of Dunhuang and Hexi, Hong Bian was granted the title of Chief Monk of Hexi by Emperor Xuanzong, taking charge of Buddhist affairs of the Hexi region.
Mogao Cave 17 is not big. The chamber features a near square floorplan and an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling, with a height of three meters from the floor to ceiling. There is a rectangular meditation platform in front of the north wall. On it sits the statue of the monk Hong Bian. The statue is of typical Dunhuang realistic style. The monk is dressed in a shoulder-covering kasaya and sitting cross-legged. He has piercing bright eyes, a prominent skull and a full face with a strong forehead and cheekbones. The middle-aged monk’s dignity and confidence is in his brow ridges, corners of the eyes and mouth.
On the north wall behind was painted two banyan trees with a clean water bottle and a cloth bag hanging on the branches. Under the east banyan tree is a Bhikkhuni holding a fan painted with a pair of phoenixes. Under the west tree is a Upasika holding a staff and a piece of cloth. They were both attendants of Master Hong Bian.
For reasons which remain unconfirmed, but may include changing times or war, many Buddhist scriptures and paintings, musical instruments used in Buddhist ceremonies and other religious, and social documents were concealed in Cave 17 in the early 11th century. More than 50,000 cultural relics were hidden in this cave. A wall was built to seal the entrance and was decorated with mural paintings to cover it up. As a result, the Library Cave was concealed in the desert for over nine centuries.
In 1900 (May 26th of the 26th year of Emperor Guangxu’s reign during the Qing Dynasty), the secret chamber was accidentally discovered by Wang Yuanlu, a Taoist priest, when cleaning up the sand piled up in the Mogao Grottoes. In the chamber were found about 50,000 pieces of ancient literature, cultural relics and artworks, spanning seven successive centuries, from the 4th to the 11th (from the Jin Dynasty to the early Song Dynasty, including the Sixteen Kingdoms Period, Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang and the Five Dynasties). The literature unearthed was rich in content and subjects, ranging from astronomy and geography to contracts of pawn and transactions, covering various fields such as politics, economy, military affairs, literary art, medicine, science and technology, ethnic affairs, religious affairs, arts, and people’s livelihood. In addition, there was also literature written in scripts of Central Asia and other ethnic groups such as ancient Chinese, Kucha, Sogdiana, Sanskrit, Turkic, Uighur, Khotan and ancient Tibetan. Among the Dunhuang Manuscripts were about 36,000 pieces of Chinese literature. An incredibly great number of literary and cultural relics have been unearthed from the Library Cave, the rarity of which has shocked the world.
Tragically, from 1905 to 1915, expeditioners like Marc Aurel Stein from the UK, Paul Pelliot from France, Tachibana Zuicho and Yoshikawa Koichiro from Japan, and Sergei Fedorovich Oldenburg from Russia arrived one after the other and purchased nearly 40,000 documents, scriptures, and other cultural relics from Wang Yuanlu at deceitful prices. For this reason, most of the best Dunhuang Manuscripts are disbursed abroad.
Dunhuang Manuscripts , oracle bones from the Yin ruins, the archives of Ming and Qing Dynasties, and wooden and bamboo slips of the Han Dynasty unearthed in Juyan were named the four major archaeological discoveries of China at the end of 19th century. The cultural relics discovered in the Library Cave have provided extremely precious literary data for the study of Chinese foreign history and culture during the Middle Ages. As a result, Dunhuangology (Dunhuang studies) has emerged as a new discipline in the research field.