The Chinese under Tibetan rule

We’ve become accustomed to thinking Tibet in terms of its present status, subsumed by China, so it’s interesting to consider the time when Tibet was an occupying force in parts of China. It’s fairly well-known that the Tibetan army was once a very effective war machine that even got as far as occupying the Chinese capital in 763. But what was it like to be a person of Chinese background living under Tibetan occupation?

After their town fell to the Tibetans in 786, the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang were forced to abandon many of their cultural customs. For instance, they had to wear Tibetan clothes, and were only allowed to put on their traditional outfits on special occasions. A passage from the New Tang Annals suggests that this was a cause of secret sorrow:

The inhabitants of the city all adopted foreign dress, and submitted to the enemy; but each year when they worshipped their ancestors, they put on their Chinese clothes, and wept bitterly as they put them by.

The strains in the relationship between the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang and their Tibetan overlords can be seen in some of the letters from the sealed cave in Dunhuang. One letter (Pelliot tibétain 1083) deals with about a situation in which Tibetan officials were basically kidnapping Chinese women to be their wives. The letter is from the Tibetan minister responsible for the whole region, who had received several petitions from local Chinese about this abuse of power by Tibetan officials. To his credit, he responded by banning the practice of kidnapping, saying that the women should be able to marry according to their own wishes.

Another letter (Pelliot tibétain 1089) is a response to an uprising by the Chinese in Dunhuang against their Tibetan masters, in which some Tibetans were killed. In response to demands from the Chinese officials for greater powers, the letter sets out the hierarchy of official positions. The long list is a treasure-trove for those who study the bureaucracy of the Tibetan empire. But let us just note one thing: the letter makes it clear that even the lowest-ranking Tibetan is of higher status than the highest-ranking Chinese.

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Not that relations between the Tibetan masters and their Chinese subjects were all about hostility. Over time, a generation of Chinese grew up in Dunhuang, learning to read and write (and presumably, speak) Tibetan. Many of them even had Tibetan names. On the other hand, there was no attempt to stop people using the Chinese language, so a generation of children grew up bilingual.

Out of this came one of the great translators of the time, Go Chodrup. His work translating Chinese texts into Tibetan came to the attention of the Tibetan emperor, who issued Chodrup with commissions to translate Buddhist sutras. Though this point is much contested, it seems that Chodrup was a Chinese (his other, Chinese, name was Facheng) from the same Wu clan as the influential priest Hongbian (see the last post). Much later, some of Chodrup’s translations were accepted into the Tibetan Buddhist canon — a lasting effect of the cultural pluralism at Dunhuang.

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The Tibetanized Chinese people of Dunhuang proved to be useful to the Tibetan empire in another way. With its sophisticated papermaking resources, Dunhuang was an ideal scriptorium, and in the early ninth century thousands of copies of sutras were written here. Most of the scribes were Chinese, but they were overseen by Tibetans. Discipline was tough: wasted paper would be punished by flogging, and failure to produce the sutras on time could result in a scribe’s property being impounded, or his family being held hostage (see this post).

Presumably this didn’t happen too often, for Dunhuang turned out to be a very efficient scriptorium for the Tibetan Empire. Manuscripts of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras produced here have been discovered recently in monastic libraries Central Tibet. How do we know they came from Dunhuang? Because they are signed by the same scribes, Chinese scribes, seen in the colophons of the manuscripts found in Dunhuang itself.

Of course, some of these Chinese scribes must have felt a little rebellious under the thumb of their Tibetan masters. One wouldn’t necessarily expect to see examples of this, history being written by the victors, and so on. But I recently came across a little poem scribbled on a piece of scrap paper owned by one of the scribes (this paper is known as legtsé, wrapping paper for bundles of blank pages delivered to scribes). The scribe has signed it thus:

This is the scrap paper of Lenho Wenman. Anyone who steals it will be cut into pieces!

Elsewhere on the paper this pugnacious scribe has written the first lines of a poem. Here is my very loose translation:

We are the subjects of Tibet,
Which comes down on us like hammer blows
Though the tiger is noble
To challenge it is a great thing!

Eventually, Tibetan rule was seriously challenged by a local Chinese movement called “Return to Allegiance” which reclaimed Dunhuang in the year 848. The Chinese were their own masters again, yet they were not the same as they had been before the Tibetans came. They continued to use the Tibetan language, and to practice Tibetan Buddhism, for many years to come.

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Tibetan text

 IOL Tib J 1273: $/:/bdag cag cag ni bod kyi ‘bangs/ gar bab ni thog thog bzhin/ dpal kyang stag la ‘gran/ bzang khyad ni …

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Images

1. Seal from Pelliot tibétain 1089
2. Detail, including seal, from Pelliot tibétain 1083.

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References

The translation from the New Tang Annals is from: Bushell, Stephen W. 1880. The Early History of Tibet from Chinese Sources. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12: 435–541. (Quote from p.514)

For studies of the two Dunhuang letters, see the Old Tibetan Documents Online website.

On the Chinese-Tibetan names of Dunhuang residents, see: Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 1995. Old Tibetan Contracts from Central Asia. Tokyi: Daizo Shuppan.

And on multicultural Dunhuang, see this excellent article by Tokio Takata.

Finally, my thanks to Pasang Wangdu for discussing his insights regarding these Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts with me.

Secrets of the Cave III: The Cave of Monk Wu

Once upon a time, there was a monk called Hongbian. He was Chinese, but he grew up in a city ruled by the Tibetan empire. So, like everybody else in the city, he wore Tibetan clothes, and learned to read and write the Tibetan language. Because he was from the wealthy Wu family, he quickly rose in the ranks, eventually becoming one of the most senior monks in Dunhuang. This brought him in contact with orders that came from the emperor of Tibet himself.

More than once, the Tibetan emperor commanded that the city of Dunhuang should make hundreds of copies of Buddhist sutras in Tibetan. The copying of these sutras was a massive undertaking, almost turning the whole city into a scriptorium — on which, see my previous posts here. Hundreds of (mostly Chinese) scribes copied the sacred Tibetan syllables onto loose-leaf pecha pages and scrolls. The result was a series of monumental volumes of the Perfection of Wisdom sutra, and many hundreds of scrolls of the Sutra of Aparamitayus (the manuscript Pelliot tibetain 999 links Hongbian to the latter).

Many of these mass-produced sutras still exist today, because quite a few of them were placed in the Dunhuang cave. In an exciting new development, scholars investigating the recently opened libraries of Central Tibetan monasteries (including Drepung) have found more volumes of the same sutras, which seem to have been shipped there from Dunhuang. We know this because the colophons contain the names of the same Dunhuang-based scribal teams.

So Hongbian’s home was one of the major scriptoria of the Tibetan Empire. He was still there when the Tibetan rulers were kicked out of Dunhuang in 848. A few years later, he rose to the eminent position of the head of the Buddhist sangha in the whole of Hexi (basically modern Gansu province). Around the same time, he (and other wealthy relatives) paid for the excavation of a large cave shrine in the Dunhuang cave site. It was actually the third cave that he had commissioned, and all three now formed three stories of a cave temple.

This large new cave (now known as Cave 16) contained a small antechamber (Cave 17). It might have been a meditation retreat. Perhaps it was just for the storage of supplies. In any case, after Hongbian’s death in 862, it was converted into a memorial shrine with a statue of the revered monk in meditation, perhaps with his ashes beneath the statue. An inscribed stone recording his achievements was also placed in the cave. Over the next hundred years, Cave 17 later came to be filled to bursting with manuscripts, and Hongbian’s statue was taken out and put in the cave above.

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Going over this story of how Cave 17 came into being, it is surprising how little it features in the explanations for the manuscript hoard that we have looked at so far. This might be (as Yoshiro Imaeda suggested in a recent article) because the Tibetan aspect of the cave has been neglected. This might be because Dunhuang has been dominated by Sinologists, derspite the fact that the Tibetan manuscripts are nearly as numerous as the Chinese.

What about those massive volumes of Tibetan Perfection of Wisdom sutras found in the cave? These have been of so little interest to Chinese scholars in the 20th century that most of them remain in the stores of the Dunhuang city museum, only recently coming to the attention of a new generation of Chinese and Tibetan scholars. Yet they might be the key to understanding the manuscript hoard. And what about the collection of letters (in Tibetan) addressed to Hongbian? These represent Hongbian’s official responsibilities, and they may have been interred in the cave at the same time as the statue and stone inscription, or some years later. Here’s a detail from a letter addressed to “Khenpo Hongpen”:

So, were the first batch of manuscripts placed in the cave those that belonged to Hongbian himself? These could have been the ‘seed’ for future deposits of manuscripts, until the function of the cave gradually changed into a repository for manuscripts. Perhaps another early batch of manuscripts was deposited after the death of another famous figure from Dunhuang, the Lotsapa* (translator) Chodrup, whose Chinese name was Facheng, and whose family (like Hongbian’s) was Wu. This monk was a contemporary of Hongbian, who also worked during the last decades of Tibetan rule in Dunhuang, translating Chinese texts into Tibetan at the order of the Tibetan emperor. He was also involved in the mass-production of Tibetan Perfection of Wisdom sutras, as a senior editor. In the Dunhuang cave, we find nice copies of Chodrup’s finished translations as well as working notes that may even be in his own handwriting.

Is this a pattern? First Hongbian’s manuscripts are deposited, then a few years later those of his relative Facheng/Chodrup. And then, on the same model, the manuscripts and paintings collected by other monks, once they had passed away. I don’t want to overstate this, but even the pious monk Daozhen (who we talked about in the last post) might be part of this pattern. If Daozhen’s personal manuscript collection was interred after his death, this would also account for the evidence that Rong used for his idea that the cave represented the collection of a single monastery.

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I don’t want to argue for a “funerary deposit” theory to displace the “sacred waste” and “monastic library” theories. After all, human life is organic and messy and rarely reducible to single explanations. Over 150 years, our cave went through several incarnations: storage closet (perhaps), funerary shrine, manuscript repository. The man who built the cave died, a statue of him was placed inside it, and then his letters and books, and those of other people too, and then so many manuscripts that his statue had to be taken upstairs. Other people, born long after the cave was first made, came and performed rituals there, and more manuscripts were deposited, until the cave was filled to the brim. And then it was closed, and then…

What I’m trying to say is, it’s probably better for us to think of this cave in terms of “multiple uses” rather than single, conclusive theories. But let’s always keep Hongbian in the picture. Nowadays, his statue has been put back in the cave, and he sits in meditation under the shade of the tree that was painted on the wall behind him over a thousand years ago. It seems right that Hongbian himself should also return to the centre of our discussion of the manuscripts in the cave.

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References

This post could not have been written without this superb article by Yoshiro Imaeda, in which he does not put forward a new theory about the manuscript cave, but sensitively reviews what has been written in the past, especially in the light of the Tibetan manuscripts:

Yoshiro Imaeda. 2008. “The Provenance and Character of the Dunhuang Documents.” Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko 66: 81–102.

This article is also worth reading (and is available on JSTOR):

Ma Shichang. 1995. “Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family at Mogao Ku, Dunhuang.” World Archaeology 27.2: 303-317.

And for those who read Chinese:

Ma Shichang. 1978. “Guanyu Dunhuang cangjingdong de jige wenti” 關於敦煌藏經洞的幾個問題. Wenwu 12: 21-33, 20.

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Images

1. Hongbian’s statue, back in Cave 17.

2. Pelliot tibétain 1200, a letter addressed to Hongbian.

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Note:

* The spelling of this mysterious word in the Dunhuang documents is usually lo tsa pa.

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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References

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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Images

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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Note

* 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.

Secrets of the Cave I: “Sacred Waste”

The Tibetan manuscripts from the sealed cave in Dunhuang are still the earliest that we have (along with those from the Tibetan forts in the Taklamakan desert). So, some readers might be surprised to hear that there is absolutely no agreement about why they were put in the cave, and why it was sealed up. Our failure to answer these questions remains deeply problematic. How much can we say for sure about these sources for Tibetan culture and history if we don’t know these basic facts about the reasons they have survived to this day?

Marc Aurel Stein was the first archeologist to reach the caves and gain access to the manuscripts. (He did not however, discover them; that honour goes to the Chinese monk Wang Yuanlu.) In his immense reports of his expedition, Serindia, he speculates about why the manuscripts were placed in Cave 17 (the number he gave the manuscript cave). He suggested that they were essentially discarded manuscripts, which nobody needed anymore, but could not be destroyed because of their sacred, Buddhist content. They were, in his influential phrase, “sacred waste”.

This idea was widely accepted by Dunhuang scholars like Akira Fujieda, and many still argue for it. In China it has a name:  feiqi shuo, the “waste theory.” I’ve always found it a bit unsatisfactory as an explanation. For one thing, it doesn’t easily explain all the non-religious manuscripts in the cave, or the many beautiful and complete manuscripts (and paintings too). It seems a bit naive about the complexities of material culture. And most of all, this apparently pragmatic explanation doesn’t really engage with Buddhist ritual practice.

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Actually, Stein himself had a more nuanced view (he usually did). In Serindia he mentioned that some of the bundles of manuscripts looked as if they had been picked up and deposited in the cave as a religious (or as he put it, “superstitious”) act. This touches on a truth that the phrase “sacred waste” does not — that the act of depositing manuscripts can itself be a religious act. But what kind of religious act might lie behind depositing manuscripts in a cave?

As well as scraps and fragments, the cave contains hundreds of complete copies of the same sutra.We know that many of these were copied for patrons, from a single copy of the Lotus Sutra for a nun mourning the loss of her mother, to hundreds of copies of the Sutra of Aparamitayus to ensure the long life of the Tibetan emperor. Apart from the merit generated by the writing of these manuscripts, they had no other use. Placing them in the cave was the final act in a ritual process. This has been put nicely by John Kieschnick in his book on Buddhism and material culture:

In this context, the prodigious store of copies of the Diamond Sutra at Dunhuang, virtually identical in content and originally belonging to only a few monastic libraries, begins to make sense: for the most part these are “receipts” for merit-giving transactions, rather than scriptures that were read.

This also explains the presence of Buddhist paintings, many of them in good condition, in the cave. The pictures of donors that are often found at the bottom of these paintings show that they too were commissioned, painted, and finally deposited, in the process of creating and dedicating merit.

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Now, what if all the Buddhist manuscripts deposited in the cave (not just the sutras explicitly copied to generate merit) had a ritual function? This struck me a few years ago when I read Richard Salomon’s thoughts on the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in the world: the Kharosthi scrolls.

It can be safely assumed that the manuscripts in question, regardless of their specific character or condition, were understood and treated as relics. The status of their written representations of the words of the Buddha as dharma-relics, functionally equivalent to bodily relics of the Buddha or other Buddhist venerables, is widely acknowledged in the Buddhist tradition. Thus, the essential motivation for interring manuscripts is obvious; it was a form of relic dedication.

Of course, the Kharosthi manuscripts are not the Dunhuang manuscripts (as far as we can tell, the former seem to have been buried in the foundations of a monastery). Still, this way of looking at the Dunhuang manuscripts makes me doubtful of the highly pragmatic explanations of the “sacred waste” theory, like Akira Fujieda’s idea that the manuscripts were disposed of once printing was introduced to Dunhuang. Or Fang Guangchang’s theory that they were taken out of local monasteries after a large-scale inventory project.

So, if the phrase “sacred waste” brings to mind some kind of fancy landfill site, understanding the manuscripts as relics might bring us closer to the world of the Buddhist monks of Dunhuang. If the manuscripts were “functionally equivalent” to the body of the Buddha, every time someone deposited a manuscript in the cave it was a ritual act, pregnant with symbolism, and operating in the system of merit creation and dedication. Even if we don’t chuck out the waste theory, this seems worth keeping in mind.

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References

Fang Guangchang. 1988. “Dunhuang yishu zhong de fojiao zhuzuo” 敦煌遺書中的佛教著作. Wenshi zhishi 1988.10: 87-90.

Fujieda Akira. 1966. “The Tun-huang Manuscripts: A General Description, Part I.” In Zimbun: Memoirs of the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies, Kyoto University 9 (1966):1-32.

Fujieda Akira. 1969. “The Tun-huang Manuscripts: A General Description, Part II.” In Zimbun: Memoirs of the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies, Kyoto University 10 (1969):17-39.

John Kieschnik. 2003. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. (quote on p.170)

Richard Salomon. 2009. “Why did the Gandhāran Buddhists bury their manuscripts?” In Stephen C. Berwitz, Juliane Schober and Claudia Brown (eds), Buddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual and Art. London and New York: Routledge. 19–34. (quote on p.30)

M.A. Stein. 1921. Serindia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (quote on p.820)

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Images

1.  Bundles of scrolls from the cave, photographed by Stein. (c) British Library, Photo 392/27(589).

2. A painting of Avalokiteśvara, one of the high-quality and undamaged paintings put into the cave in the 10th century. (c) British Museum (Stein Collection) 1919,0101,0.2.

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A final note…

If I seem to have missed things out in this discussion, that’s because it’s the first in a series. Next up, II: The Cave Library, and III: The Cave of Monk Wu.