Secrets of the Cave II: The “Library Cave”

The really frustrating thing about the discovery of the Dunhuang cave, source of the earliest Tibetan manuscripts, is that nobody recorded what it looked like when it was reopened after some 900 years. Aurel Stein — who didn’t discover the cave, but was the first person on the scene to record what he saw, wrote:

Mixed up with these disarranged leaves, Chinese and Tibetan rolls, and portions of large Tibetan Pothis, there were found convolutes of miscellaneous Chinese papers, written on detached sheets. The utter confusion prevailing in these bundles and their careless fastening, often without an outer cloth cover, clearly showed that no trouble had been taken to preserve the materials in whatever kind of arrangement they might have originally been found.

Stein himself contributed to the problem. He had to negotiate with the Chinese monk Wang Yuanlu, who had discovered the sealed cave and was wary of the foreigner’s motivations. So Stein did not press Wang for access to the cave himself. Instead, Wang climbed inside and handed manuscripts out, and Stein (and his Chinese assistant) examined them in the larger space of Cave 16 (as you can see in the picture above). So, we have no archeological record of how the manuscripts were arranged in the cave before it was sealed, and this is one reason why nobody has yet been able to agree why the manuscripts were put in there in the first place.

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When Stein wrote about his discovery of a cave full of manuscripts at Dunhuang, he called it a “monastic library” but I don’t think he really considered this very seriously, and he didn’t offer any theories about why a Buddhist monastery would place its whole library in a cave. Then, later on, when scholars looked more closely at the manuscripts which had monastic library stamps, they saw that they came from a variety of different monasteries. Why would that be?

Well, it could all be down to a monk called Daozhen, a member of the Sanjie monastery. In the year 934, he spent some time in his monastery’s library, and noticed how poorly stocked it was. Filled with religious enthusiasm, he vowed to make it better:

I will go carefully through the cartons and storehouses of all the families, seeking after sold and decayed scriptural texts. I will gather them in the monastery, repair and patch them from beginning to end, and pass them down the ages. Their light will beautify the gate of mystery for ten thousand generations and one thousand autumns.*

As Stephen Teiser has pointed out, Daozhen was no ordinary monk, but a member of one of the ruling families of Dunhuang, with plenty of connections to the wealthy laity. So it would not have been difficult for him to approach them for manuscripts which they no longer needed. Another scholar, Rong Xinjiang made the leap to arguing that the fruits of Daozhen’s labours are the contents of the Dunhuang cave itself.

As he promised in his vow, Daozhen collected unwanted fragmentary or duplicate manuscripts, and used them to fill gaps in the Sanjie monastery’s library, or to repair incomplete works in that library. Thus according to Rong, the existence of so many incomplete manuscripts in the Dunhuang cave is due to Daozhen’s efforts in collecting manuscripts from elsewhere. Rong also pointed out that many of the manuscripts are not actually incomplete, and seem to have been originally stored in the cave in neatly catalogued bundles.

Then in the early 11th century, Rong argues, the entire library of the Sanjie monastery was moved over to the Dunhuang cave and sealed. Why? Probably for its own safety, for fear of the Islamic armies who were threatening the Silk Route cities to the west. Thus for Rong, the contents of the Dunhuang cave represent a complete monastic library, rather than a variety of libraries and personal collections.

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Rong’s theory is thorough and well-argued, and many have found it very convincing. You can read it yourself, in English translation, online: see the link below. But it is not actually conclusive. Shortly after Rong published his theory, another scholar (Dohi Yoshikazu) attacked it, arguing that only about 200 manuscripts can be shown to come from Sanjie monastery, which is a tiny fraction of the thousands of manuscripts from the cave. Nor is there any evidence that this monastery was near the caves (most if not all were several miles away in the nearby town). He also pointed out that another monastery in Dunhuang (Baoen), was inspecting and restocking its library at the end of the tenth century. So Sanjie was hardly a unique case.

Ultimately, I don’t think that Rong’s argument is necessarily wrong. It’s more that he presents it as a rebuttal of all other theories, especially that of what he calls “the sacred waste school.” When we don’t have command of all the historical facts, it doesn’t seem very wise to identify oneself with one particular theory to the exclusion of all others. Even if we accept that the Sanjie library really was sealed up in the Dunhuang cave, does that mean that it couldn’t also have been a repository for other pious deposits as well? And if we see something in Rong’s theory that this library was put in the cave to save it from non-Buddhist invaders, do we have to give up the possibility that people placed manuscripts in the cave at other times and for other reasons?

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Dohi Yoshikazu. 1996. “Tonko isho fūhei no nazo wo megutte” 敦煌遺書封閉の謎をめぐって. Rekishi to chiri: Sekaishi no kenkyū 486: 32–33.

Rong Xinjiang. 2000. “The Nature of the Dunhuang Library Cave and the Reasons for its Sealing.” In Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 11: 247–275. Online version here.

Stein, M. Aurel. 1921. Serindia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (quotation above from vol.II, p.811)

Teiser, Stephen. 1994. The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

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1. Photo showing Cave 16 and the manuscripts piled up for Stein to examine near the entrance to Cave 17, the “library cave”.

2. The manuscript Or.8210/S.5663, which was commissioned by Daozhen.

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* This is part of the colophon to the National Library of China manuscript Xin 新 329. The translation is from Teiser 1994. Daozhen’s commissioning of manuscripts is mentioned in another colophon, in the manuscript Or.8210/S.5663.

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