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Cultural Crossroads

Inclusiveness made Dunhuang a cultural confluence in history, and now young people in China are reviving that spirit

By Ding Si , Li Yalong Updated May.1

Visitors look at exhibits in the “Buddhist Shrine, Silk Road and the Yangtze River – Collections of Dunhuang Grotto Murals” exhibition held at the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing, July 15, 2021

Dunhuang in Northwest China’s Gansu Province is a unique place where the world’s four major cultural systems – Chinese, Indian, Greek and Islamic – met and integrated, according to Ji Xianlin, a prominent Chinese historian, Indologist, linguist, and paleographer (1911-2009).  

In a world plagued by ethnic and religious conflicts, what can be learned from the history of Dunhuang on the ancient Silk Road, once known for its cultural integration and harmony?  

In an interview with NewsChina, Professor Zheng Binglin, director of the Institute of Dunhuang Studies at Lanzhou University, Gansu Province, reveals how the experiences of yesterday could serve as a guide for today’s world.  

NewsChina: Why did Dunhuang become a confluence of the four major cultural systems that Ji refers to?  

Zheng Binglin: We should start with a look at China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Last year, I studied more than 30,000 interpretations of ancient writings on bamboo and wooden slips during the Han-era unearthed in the Dunhuang area. I found that China-West cultural exchanges reached an unprecedented high level during the Western Han (206 BCE-8 CE). Why did Emperor Wu of the Western Han (who ruled from 141-87 BCE) fight the Huns? The Huns controlled the region that stretched from China’s northeast to the Hexi Corridor in today’s Gansu Province in northwest China, as well as the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in alliance with the ethnic Western Qiang. So the Huns’ control of the Hexi Corridor, the gateway that linked the Central Plains (mainly the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River) ruled by the Han, and the Western Regions, isolated the Han Dynasty from external communication. To change this situation, the Han imperial government had to break the blockade.  

Back then, the “Western Regions” included roughly what is today the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China’s northwest and parts of Central Asia. Home to multiple ethnic groups, including the Wusun, the Dayuezhi and the Qiang, it was controlled by the Huns. To better get to know the area and ward off Hun attacks, in 138 BCE, Emperor Wu dispatched his envoy Zhang Qian to seek allies to fight the Huns. Zhang Qian brought back rich knowledge and information about the area, leading to the opening-up of the famous Silk Road.  

Meanwhile, the young Han general Huo Qubing made two military expeditions to the Hexi area after 121 BCE, which led to the surrender of the Hun’s Hunye King who killed the Hun leader. The Hexi area then came under control of the Han.  

After this, the Western Han government invited the Wusun back to Hexi, which had been pushed out to central Asia by the Huns, a proposal that was not met with keen interest. The Western Han then sent people from the Central Plain to Hexi and set up prefectures and counties (whose heads were appointed by the central government) there to bring it under direct governance.  

After acquiring Hexi, the Han dynasty set up Jiuquan Prefecture in the area in today’s Gansu Province. With the development of trade and transportation between China and the Western Region, and the growing importance of Dunhuang along the Silk Road, the Han government set up Dunhuang Prefecture in 111 BCE. Ever since then, Dunhuang has been a pivot of exchanges between China and the Western Region.
NC: After the Han Dynasty took over Hexi, how did it run and develop Dunhuang?
ZB: The move to establish Dunhuang Prefecture marked a change in the Han’s control of the area from being a military establishment to administrative management. The first immigrants were from the former Han garrisons in Dunhuang, followed by officials, peasants, convicts and exiles. As they migrated to Dunhuang, they also brought in advanced Han culture from the Central Plain. Dunhuang culture developed and flourished.  

After Zhang Qian completed his second mission to the Western Region (115 BCE), the Han’s exchanges with the Western Region became more frequent, so Dunhuang became a transportation hub on the Silk Road. There were courier stations in Dunhuang that received merchants and envoys from different kingdoms. Dunhuang set up a special reception agency for foreign envoys, receiving kings, envoys, noblemen and other visitors to the Han empire. The agency offered standards of hospitality according to the status of the guests.  

With people and merchants from the Western Region coming to Dunhuang for economic and trade activities, a local market developed. The Dunhuang market traded goods such as spices from India, coral from Persia, silver from the Eastern Roman Empire, fur products from the Mongolian Plateau, pigments from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, distiller’s yeast and seasoning powder from the Western Region, as well as silk and ironware from the Central Plain. Dunhuang was staffed with interpreters, and demand was high for these linguistic professionals. This reflects the high degree of foreign exchanges in the region.  

In order to consolidate the defense of Dunhuang and manage local ethnic minorities, the Han government built a defense system with fortresses and settlements for ethnic minorities who came and pledged allegiance to the empire.  

With the gradual collapse of the Hun regime, the Han government governed the Western Region on a large scale, setting up the Protectorate of the Western Regions (60 BCE), offering food, lodging and guides for envoys and merchants, in a move that facilitated prosperous exchange along the Silk Road. Dunhuang became an indispensable player on the Silk Road, transitioning from a place of military importance, governance and supplies to a hub for merchants and travelers.  

NC: How did all the diverse cultures in Dunhuang integrate and coexist?  

ZB: Chinese culture melded with other cultures in the Dunhuang area. Multiple religions, such as Buddhism, Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Bon all coexisted in harmony, highlighting the inclusiveness of the Han culture. Buddhism became Sinicized in China. According to excavated Han records on bamboo and wooden slips, there was a place called Futuli in the Dunhuang area. Futu refers to a Buddhist temple, and li means village. Futuli was a village established by Buddhist temples. This shows that Dunhuang was the first stop for Buddhism after it arrived in China.  

In Dunhuang, people of all ethnic groups could intermarry, and there were no conflicts among religions or ethnic groups, which developed on their own and enjoyed an appropriate status. This cultural tolerance and openness matured during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and continued in the following dynasties. In addition, the prosperous Han culture and education from the Central Plain influenced the countries across the Western Regions.  

The Silk Road was a road of arts, along which Buddhist and Zoroastrian arts from the Western Region integrated with Han culture, and then returned to Dunhuang. Today, traces of this integration and coexistence of ancient cultures are clear in Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves. As a cultural confluence, Dunhuang brought together the cultures of the Western Region and Central Plain.  

NC: There is a revival in interest about traditional culture, and young people are fans of Dunhuang. What’s your take on this phenomenon?  

ZB: It’s good to see that young people love Dunhuang culture. Ancient Dunhuang was the confluence of the world’s cultures, or a place of cultural exchange through which people could see the world. I would like to encourage young people to have a broader mind and a global perspective, and see the world, travel the world and embrace the world through Dunhuang.  

The study of Dunhuang also requires a global perspective that involves seeing Dunhuang in the world and seeing the world in Dunhuang. Research with a narrow national perspective and lack of inclusiveness will be short-lived, whereas research with an inclusive and global perspective will have timeless significance. It is the inclusiveness of the Chinese culture that underlies the confluence of the four major cultural systems in Dunhuang and China’s long-term prosperity. 

Zheng Binglin