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County-level city
Dunhuang City (red) in Jiuquan City (yellow) and Gansu
Dunhuang City (red) in Jiuquan City (yellow) and Gansu
Dunhuang is located in Qinghai
Location relative to Qinghai
Country People's Republic of China
Province Gansu
Prefecture-level city Jiuquan
Elevation 1,142 m (3,747 ft)
Population (2000)
 • Total 187,578
Time zone CST (UTC+8)

Dunhuang (   ; Chinese: 敦煌; pinyin: Dūnhuáng, also as simplified Chinese: 炖煌; traditional Chinese: 燉煌; pinyin: Dūnhuáng in ancient times meaning 'Blazing Beacon') is a county-level city (pop. 187,578 (2000)) in northwestern Gansu province, Western China. It was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road and is best known for the nearby Dunhuang Caves. It has also been known at times as Shāzhōu (沙州), or 'City of Sands',[1] "or Dukhan as the Turkis call it."[2]

Dunhuang is situated in a rich oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan (鸣沙山, meaning "Singing-Sand Mountain"), named after the sound of the wind whipping off the dunes, the singing sand phenomenon. Dunhuang commands a strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route and the main road leading from India via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia,[1] as well as controlling the entrance to the narrow Hexi Corridor, which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an (today known as Xi'an) and Luoyang.[3]

Administratively, the county-level city of Dunhuang is part of the prefecture-level city of Jiuquan.


The ruins of a Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) Chinese watchtower made of rammed earth at Dunhuang.

There is evidence of human habitation in the Dunhuang area as early as 2,000 BC, possibly by people recorded as the Qiang in Chinese history. Its name was also mentioned as part of the homeland of the Yuezhi in the Records of the Grand Historian, although some have argued that this may refer to an unrelated toponym, Dunhong. By the third century BC, the area became dominated by the Xiongnu, but came under Chinese rule during the Han Dynasty after Emperor Wu defeated the Xiongnu in 121 BC.

Dunhuang was one of the four frontier garrison towns (along with Jiuquan, Zhangye and Wuwei) established by the Emperor Wu after the defeat of Xiongnu, and the Chinese built fortifications at Dunhuang and sent settlers there. The name Dunhuang, or Blazing Beacon, refers to the beacons lit to warn of attacks by marauding nomadic tribes. Dunhuang Commandery was probably established shortly after 104 BC.[4] Located in the western end of the Hexi Corridor near the historic junction of the Northern and Southern Silk Roads, Dunhuang was a town of military importance.[5]
"The Great Wall was extended to Dunhuang, and a line of fortified beacon towers stretched westwards into the desert. By the second century AD Dunhuang had a population of more than 76,000 and was a key supply base for caravans that passed through the city: those setting out for the arduous trek across the desert loaded up with water and food supplies, and others arriving from the west gratefully looked upon the mirage-like sight of Dunhuang's walls, which signified safety and comfort. Dunhuang prospered on the heavy flow of traffic. The first Buddhist caves in the Dunhuang area were hewn in 353."[6]

During the time of the Sixteen Kingdoms, Li Gao established the Western Liang here in 400 AD. In 405 the capital of the Western Liang was moved from Dunhuang to Jiuquan. In 421 the Western Liang was conquered by the Northern Liang.

In later centuries, during the Sui and Tang dynasties, it was a major point of communication between ancient China and Central Asia. By the Tang Dynasty it became the major hub of commerce of the Silk Road. Early Buddhist monks arrived at Dunhuang via the ancient Northern Silk Road, the northernmost route of about 2,600 kilometres (1,600 mi) in length, which connected the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an westward over the Wushao Ling Pass to Wuwei and on to Kashgar.[7] For centuries, Buddhist monks at Dunhuang collected scriptures from the West, and many pilgrims passed through the area, painting murals inside the Mogao Caves or "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas."[8] A small number of Christian artifacts have also been found in the caves (see Jesus Sutras), testimony to the wide variety of people who made their way along the Silk Road.

Tang Period (618-907) Buddhist sutra fragment from Dunhuang

As a frontier town, Dunhuang was fought over and occupied at various times by non-Han Chinese people. After the fall of Han Dynasty it was under the rule of various nomadic tribes such as the Xiongnu during Northern Liang and the Turkic Tuoba during Northern Wei. The Tibetans occupied Dunhuang when the Tang empire became weakened considerably after the An Lushan Rebellion; and even though it was later returned to Tang rule, it was under quasi-autonomous rule by the local general Zhang Yichao who expelled the Tibetans in 848. After the fall of Tang, Zhang's family formed the Kingdom of Golden Mountain in 910, and was then succeeded by the Cao family who formed alliances with the Uighurs and the Kingdom of Khotan. During the Song Dynasty, Dunhuang fell outside the Chinese borders. In 1037 it came under the rule of Shazhou Uighurs, then in 1068 the Tanguts who founded the Xi Xia Dynasty. It was conquered in 1227 by the Mongols who sacked and destroyed the town, and the rebuilt town became part of China again when Kublai Khan conquered the rest of China. Dunhuang went into a steep decline after the Chinese trade with the outside world became dominated by Southern sea-routes, and the Silk Road was officially abandoned during the Ming Dynasty. It was occupied again by the Tibetans in 1516, but retaken by China two centuries later ca. 1715 during the Qing Dynasty.[9]

Dunhuang classical dance

Today, the site is an important tourist attraction and the subject of an ongoing archaeological project. A large number of manuscripts and artifacts retrieved at Dunhuang have been digitized and made publicly available via the International Dunhuang Project.[10] The expansion of the Kumtag Desert, which is resulting from long-standing overgrazing of surrounding lands, has reached the edges of the city.[11]

In 2011 satellite images showing huge structures in the desert near Dunhuang surfaced online and caused a brief media stir.[12]


Buddhist caves

A number of Buddhist cave sites are located in the Dunhuang area, the most important of these is the Mogao Caves which is located 25 km (16 mi) southeast of Dunhuang. There are 735 caves in Mogao, and the caves in Mogao are particularly noted for their Buddhist art,[13] as well as the hoard of manuscripts, the Dunhuang manuscripts, found hidden in a sealed-up cave. Many of these caves were covered with murals and contain many Buddhist statues. Discoveries continue to be found in the caves, including excerpts from a Christian "Holy Bible" dating to the Yuan Dynasty.[14]

Numerous smaller Buddhist cave sites are located in the region, including the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, the Eastern Thousands Buddha Caves, and the Five Temple site. The Yulin Caves are located further east in Guazhou County.

Other historical sites

Crescent Lake


Night market

Dunhuang Night Market is a night market held on the main thoroughfare, Dong Dajie, in the city centre of Dunhuang, popular with tourists during the summer months. Many souvenir items are sold, including such typical items as jade, jewelry, scrolls, hangings, small sculptures, leather shows puppets, coins, Tibetan horns and Buddha statues.[15] A sizable number of members of China's ethnic minorities engage in business at these markets. A Central Asian dessert or sweet is also sold, consisting of a large, sweet confection made with nuts and dried fruit, sliced into the portion desired by the customer.


Yumen has a cold desert climate (Köppen BWk), with an annual total precipitation of 67 millimetres (2.64 in), the majority of which occurs in summer; precipitation occurs only in trace amounts and quickly evaporates.[16] Winters are long and cold, with a 24-hour average temperature of −8.3 °C (17.1 °F) in January, while summers are hot, with a July average of 24.6 °C (76.3 °F); the annual mean is 9.48 °C (49.1 °F). The diurnal temperature variation averages 16.1 °C (29.0 °F) annually. With monthly percent possible sunshine ranging from 69% in March to 82% in October, the city receives 3,258 hours of bright sunshine annually, making it one of the sunniest nationwide.

Climate data for Dunhuang (1971−2000)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) −0.8
Average low °C (°F) −14.6
Precipitation mm (inches) 0.8
Avg. precipitation days (≥ 0.1 mm) 1.5 0.9 1.2 1.3 1.3 3.7 4.8 2.6 0.9 0.5 1.1 1.3 21.1
% humidity 52 40 35 31 33 42 45 45 45 45 51 55 43.3
Mean monthly sunshine hours 219.0 218.6 254.9 282.4 320.2 313.6 318.9 316.1 296.1 280.8 230.4 206.8 3,257.8
Percent possible sunshine 74 73 69 71 72 70 70 75 79 82 77 72 73.7
Source: China Meteorological Administration


Dunhuang train station

Dunhuang is served by China National Highway 215 and Dunhuang Airport,

A railway branch known as the Dunhuang Railway (敦煌铁路) or the Liudun Railway (柳敦铁路), constructed in 2004-2006, connects Dunhuang with the Liugou Station on the Lanzhou-Xinjiang Railway (in Guazhou County). There is regular passenger service on the line, with overnight trains from Dunhuang to Lanzhou and Xi'an.[17]

There are plans to extend the railway from Dunhuang further south into Qinghai, connecting Dunhuang to Yinmaxia (near Golmud) on the Qingzang Railway. Construction work on this Golmud–Dunhuang Railway started in October 2012, and is expected to be completed in 5 years.[18]

See also



  1. ^ a b Cable and French (1943), p. 41.
  2. ^ Skrine (1926), p. 117.
  3. ^ Lovell (2006), pp. 74-75.
  4. ^ Hulsewé, A. F. P. (1979). China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC – AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. E. Brill, Leiden. pp.75-76 ISBN 90-04-05884-2
  5. ^ Hill (2009), p. 133.
  6. ^ Bonavia (2004), p. 162.
  7. ^ , C.M. Hogan, the Megalithic Portal, ed. A. Burnham"Silk Road, North China". 
  8. ^ The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, by Frances Wood
  9. ^ Whitfield, Roderick,  
  10. ^ "The International Dunhuang Project".  
  11. ^ , AFP, Nov 20, 2007"Ancient Chinese town on front lines of desertification battle". 
  12. ^ , MSNBC"Odd patterns in Chinese desert? Spy satellite targets.". 
  13. ^ Dunhuang Mogao caves art museum
  14. ^ Syrian Language "Holy Bible" Discovered in Dunhuang Grottoes
  15. ^ China. Eye Witness Travel Guides. p. 494. 
  16. ^ "Dunhuang Climate − Best time to visit". Retrieved 2009-12-06. 
  17. ^ Dunhuang Train Schedule (Chinese)
  18. ^ 格尔木至敦煌铁路开工, Renmin Tielu Bao, 2012-10-20


  • Baumer, Christoph. 2000. Southern Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Sir Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. White Orchid Books. Bangkok.
  • Beal, Samuel. 1884. Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang. 2 vols. Trans. by Samuel Beal. London. Reprint: Delhi. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. 1969.
  • Beal, Samuel. 1911. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang by the Shaman Hwui Li, with an Introduction containing an account of the Works of I-Tsing. Trans. by Samuel Beal. London. 1911. Reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi. 1973.
  • Bonavia, Judy (2004): The Silk Road From Xi'an to Kashgar. Judy Bonavia – revised by Christoph Baumer. 2004. Odyssey Publications.
  • Cable, Mildred and Francesca French (1943): The Gobi Desert. London. Landsborough Publications.
  • Hill, John E. 2003. "Annotated Translation of the Chapter on the Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu." 2nd Draft Edition.[1]
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. [2]
  • Hill, John E. (2009). Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. BookSurge, Charleston, South Carolina. ISBN 978-1-4392-2134-1.
  • Hulsewé, A. F. P. and Loewe, M. A. N. 1979. China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC – AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. E. J. Brill, Leiden.
  • Legge, James. Trans. and ed. 1886. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: being an account by the Chinese monk Fâ-hsien of his travels in India and Ceylon (AD 399-414) in search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. Reprint: Dover Publications, New York. 1965.
  • Lovell, Julia (2006). The Great Wall : China against the World. 1000 BC — AD 2000. Atlantic Books, London. ISBN 978-1-84354-215-5.
  • Skrine, C. P. (1926). Chinese Central Asia. Methuen, London. Reprint: Barnes & Noble, New York. 1971. ISBN 416-60750-0.
  • Stein, Aurel M. 1907. Ancient Khotan: Detailed report of archaeological explorations in Chinese Turkestan, 2 vols. Clarendon Press. Oxford. [3]
  • Stein, Aurel M. 1921. Serindia: Detailed report of explorations in Central Asia and westernmost China, 5 vols. London & Oxford. Clarendon Press. Reprint: Delhi. Motilal Banarsidass. 1980. [4]
  • Watson, Burton (1993). Records of the Grand Historian of China. Han Dynasty II. (Revised Edition). New York, Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-08167-7
  • Watters, Thomas (1904–1905). On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India. London. Royal Asiatic Society. Reprint: 1973.

External links

  • The International Dunhuang Project - includes tens of thousands of digitised manuscripts and paintings from Dunhuang, along with historical photographs and archival material
  • British Museum: A Christian figure, ink and colours on a fragment of silk from Dunhuang
  • Dunhuang Collection at the British Museum
  • Dunhuang Collection at the National Museum of India
  • "Dunhuang". Silk Road Seattle. USA:  
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