Dunhuang is a city (pop. 187,578 (2000)) in northwestern Gansu province, Western China. It was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road. It was also known at times as Shāzhōu , or 'City of Sands', a name still used today. It is best known for the nearby Mogao Caves.
It commands a very strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route and the main road leading fromIndia via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia,as well as controlling the entrance to the narrow Gansu 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.
Dunhuang, being surrounded by high mountains,has an arid, continental climate. The annual average temperature is 9.48 °C(49.1 °F), but the monthly daily mean temperature ranges from 24.6 °C(76.3 °F) in July down to −8.3 °C (17.1 °F) in January. The city is extremely hot in summer and cold in winter, and usually has sharp temperature differences between day and night. Precipitation occurs only in trace amounts and quickly evaporates.
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. Dunhuang was one the frontier garrison towns established by the Emperor Wu after the defeat of Xiongnu, and the Chinese built fortifications at Dunhuang and sent settlers there. In 121BC, following General Huo Qubing’s military victory over the Xiongnu, the Chinese fortified and settled here. From Jiayuguan and the Great Wall the Silk Road caravans wound their way westwards towards the cotton-producing oasis town of Dunhuang. The Wall was extended to Dunhuang and a line of fortified beacon towers stretched westwards into the desert. By the 4 Century AD the Silk Road had made Dunhuang a cultural melting pot. The name Dunhuang, or Blazing Beacon, refers to the beacons lit to warn of attacks by marauding nomadic tribes. During the Sui andTang dynasties, it was a major point of communication between ancient China andCentral 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. 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." A small number of Christian artifacts have also been found in the caves, testimony to the wide variety of people who made their way along the Silk Road.
The commercial prosperity provided a basis for a flourishing and diverseBuddhist community. Most Buddhist monks came to China from India and Central Asia by way of the Silk Road. As the westernmost Chinese station on the route,Dunhuang became the ideal place for these foreign monks to learn the Chinese language and culture before entering central China.
Foreign monks and their Chinese disciples formed the earliest Buddhist communities at Dunhuang in the late 3 and early 4 centuries. Many Buddhist sutras were translated at Dunhuang and then distributed into central China. Monk Zhu Fahu, a famous translator of Buddhist texts, organized his translation team at Dunhuang and became known as“The Bodhisattva of Dunhuang". Enormous economic and human resources were used to produce Buddhist sutras and to build places of worship, including thousands of cave temples.