Aurel Stein at Dunhuang

The Mogao rock-cut temple complex near Dunhuang in 1907 during Stein’s visit.
The British Library, Photo 392/26(323).

As many readers of my blog post and other publications will know, I worked for many years as curator of a collection of manuscripts now held at the British Library and mainly excavated by Aurel Stein (1842–1943) on three expeditions to eastern Central Asia between 1900 and 1916. Around 15,000 of these — including fragmentary pieces — were acquired from the so-called ‘Library Cave’ at Mogao near Dunhuang in what is now northwest China. This was a cache of manuscripts, paintings and textiles dating from c.400-c.1000 that had been stored inside a small rock-cut room. Its door had been plastered over and painted, probably around 1000, and it was only rediscovered in 1900.1 Stein arrived there in 1907 by which time the cave’s contents had been removed and an unknown numbers of paintings and manuscripts presented to local officials.2 The bulk of the material was returned to the Library Cave, whether in the same order or not is unknown. Sadly, the original order of the cache was not documented but, as several curators and scholars have already observed, the notes made by Aurel Stein, seven years after the discovery, could provide some clues. Despite this, to date here has been little systematic attempt to collate these data, make them publicly available and see what they might tell us.

A forthcoming paper, co-authored with Paschalia Terzi, addresses this and also provide a detailed presentation of the data to facilitate further research. However, it will undoubtedly be a while before this paper appears in print. Given the recent publication of another co-authored article on a Dunhuang painted banner (see below), Stein and Dunhuang are on my mind. So here I give a snippet from the forthcoming paper concerning Stein’s acquisitions from the Library cave. This is work in progress and any comments will be gratefully received.

Article on a Buddhist banner, probably from Dunhuang, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Metropolitan Museum Journal, 55, 8–25).

Stein first visited the Buddhist site at Dunhuang in 1907 on his second expedition (1906–08). He was assisted by a Chinese secretary, Jiang Xiaowan 蔣孝琬 (Jiang Siye, d. 1922), from whom he learned basic conversational Chinese during the months of their travels. Jiang was also responsible for sorting and numbering many of the manuscripts from Cave 17 in Khotan at the end of the second expedition (see below).

Jiang Xiaowan secretary on Stein’s second expedition, sorting through Chinese material at the end of the expedition. Khotan, 31 July 1908.
The British Library, Photo 392/26(831).

The Library cave had been discovered by Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 (c.1848–1931), originally an itinerant monk who had settled at the Mogao Buddhist site before 1900. Wang set about fundraising to renovate the Buddhist rock-cut temples, concentrating on their statues. This was a private endeavour. The site, although in much disrepair, was still in some use with at least one resident Tibetan monk. It was also the focus of an annual festival. However, many of the rock-cut temples were partially filled with sand, blown in from the dunes on the cliff above. It was, reportedly, during the clearing of the sand from the corridor of one temple, now numbered Cave 16, that the hidden entrance to the Library Cave, Cave 17, was discovered.3

Wang Yuanlu, guardian of the Dunhuang Mogao rock-cut temples,outside the monk’s quarters opposite Cave 16. Dunhuang Mogao, 11 June 1907.
The British Library, Photo 392/26(327).

To understand Stein’s acquisitions and documentation at Dunhuang Mogao, it is first important to be clear about how and when he acquired material from the Library Cave, especially as there were at least four separate episodes of acquisition on his second and third (1913–16) expeditions. Following Paschalia’s suggestion, we refer to these as ‘Acquisition Events’. These are listed below in the form Acn, Ac for Acquisition, followed by number, dated — where possible — and explained. Ac1 is subdivided into 4 parts, important for understanding the documentation. The relevance of this will be discussed in detail in our forthcoming article.

Second Expedition

Ac1: Dunhuang Mogao, 21 May–13 June, 1907.
Stein arrived at the Mogao Buddhist complex on 21 May 1907. On the evening of 22 May, Wang gave Jiang a small bundle of manuscripts from Cave 17 to take to Stein’s tent for examination. On 23 May Wang showed Stein Cave 17 and took Stein and Jiang bundles from it which they examined during the day in the antechamber to Cave 16 (see below). These bundles contained many paintings and banners. They made initial selections. Jiang was allowed by Wang to remove these selections in the middle of the night and take them to Stein’s tent, which was pitched in front of the cliff. This activity continued for 5 days and nights.[Ac1a]

After this time Wang emptied the cave and stacked the bundles in the corridor of Cave 16 (completed by nightfall 28th May). Stein took a picture of this. However, it was double exposed and so the one often reproduced is, in fact, a re-creation made by drawing the bundles onto the negative of an image of the empty corridor and making a print from this altered negative (see sequence below).

Double exposed photograph taken by Aurel Stein at Dunhuang Mogao showing an image of the Khotanese queen and family in Cave 61 (to left, oriented sideways) superimposed on an image of the corridor of Cave 16 piled with manuscripts removed from Cave 17 (entrance to the right).
The British Library, Photo 392/57.
Stein’s photograph of Cave 16 at Dunhuang Mogao, with the entrance to Cave 17 (the Library Cave) on the right. June 1907.
The British Library, Photo 392/57.
Print made by Aurel Stein to reproduce the double exposed image. The bundles of manuscripts, table and bench were drawn onto the negative of the image of an empty cave 16 shown above. The print from this doctored negative was reproduced in The Ruins of Desert Cathay, Fig. 188 and Serindia, Fig 200.

Wang then presented many ‘regular’ bundles to Stein and Jiang containing mainly Chinese scrolls (see image below) and Tibetan pothi (Ac1b) (Ac1c). Wang returned all the material to the cave overnight on 30th May, completed by morning of 31st May. Regular bundles were added by Wang to Stein’s selections at the end of this period during the negotiations for purchase. (Ac1d: probably about 40-50 bundles). In total, Ac1 consisted of 90 bundles containing about 1200 items.

Images showing a group of what Stein called ‘regular’ bundles from the Library Cave, consisting of Chinese scrolls held mainly in hemp wrappers. The British Library, Photo 392/27(589).

I should add here that, although the Library Cave provenance is clear for most of the material in Ac1, some material was certainly added by Wang to the cave’s contents from elsewhere at the site as Stein notes.4

Ac2: Anxi, October 1, 1907
Later in their expedition, Jiang returned to Dunhuang from Anxi where the previously-acquired manuscripts were being stored. He buys more bundles from Wang which he takes to Anxi. (Serindia, 825)—variously 220 or 230 bundles, consisting of about 3000 scrolls. These were originally packed in huge bags and transferred to crates in Khotan in July 1908.

Third Expedition

Ac3: Dunhuang Mogao, April 1914
Stein returns to Dunhuang. He buys another 570 Chinese scrolls from Wang Yuanlu which fill five cases as large as a pony could conveniently carry. This is after the remaining Chinese scrolls in the caves have been officially removed to Beijing (in 1909–1910). Stein is not the only one to be offered scrolls by Wang purportedly from the Library Cave after this and he assumes that Wang had hidden some of the Cave’s contents from the officials in 1909. It is possible that some of the manuscripts acquired in this manner could be forgeries.5

Ac4: Various, 1912-14
Stein mentions purchasing manuscripts which had Dunhuang as their purported provenance during his 3rd expedition at several places and from several sources [eg 192: 830]. He also noted that many officials, including George MacCartney, the UK Consul based in Kashgar, had such manuscripts. It is also possible that some of the manuscripts acquired in this manner could be forgeries.

In the forthcoming article, Paschalia and I discuss how material from these four acquisitions can be distinguished and identified using Stein’s documentation and other clues. This is important in order to assess the levels of certainty as to the Dunhuang Library Cave provenance of this material. In the course of this, we suggest how this documentation might reveal something about the original ordering of the manuscripts in the Library Cave. Details and a link to the publication will be given on this page.

Thanks to John Falconer, Imre Galambos, Mélodie Doumy, Sam van Schaik and Helen Wang for clarification and data on some details of this article.


  1. Imre Galambos and Sam van Schaik discuss the various theories given for the purpose and closing of the Library Cave in the chapter ‘The Dunhuang Manuscripts’ (2012: 13-34).
  2. This is discussed by Rong Xinjiang (201: 84–102) 82–4).
  3. Rong Xinjiang (201: 82–4).
  4. Stein 1921: 829.
  5. See Whitfield 2000, introduction and various essays for discussion of this.


Galambos, Imre and Sam van Schaik. 2012. Manuscripts and Travelers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: deGruyter.

Rong Xinjiang, Imre Galambos (trans.). 2013. ‘The Discovery of the Dunhuang Library Cave’ in Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, Leiden: Brill.

Stein, Aurel. 1912. Ruins of Desert Cathay. London: Macmillan and Co.

Stein, Aurel. 1921. Serindia. London: Oxford University Press.

Whitfield, Susan (ed.). 2000. Dunhuang Manuscript Forgeries. London: The British Library.

This entry was posted in Aurel Stein, British Library, Buddhism, cultural heritage, Dunhuang, Silk Road archaeology, Silk Road art and history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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