The Monk Xuanzang is known to almost all Chinese. As one of the key characters in the classic Ming dynasty adventure story A Journey to the West, he features in everything from advertisements to blockbuster movies.
But the real Xuanzang was a Tang dynasty scholar who embarked on a 16 year expedition to retrieve sanskrit scriptures from India. On his return to China he passed through Dunhuang, a border town at the mouth of the Silk Road. The monk prayed in Buddhist temple-caves dug into a cliff face just outside the city, a place called Mogao. At the time, the area was flourishing with unprecedented spiritual and artistic activity. Each “grotto” was adorned with exquisite Buddhist frescos and sculptures that alluded to the fine artistry of the Tang period.
Xuanzang left behind several hundred sacred scrolls before returning to the capital Chang’an to spend the rest of his days translating the remaining scriptures. Soon his exploits would be incorporated into Mogao art, notably in Cave 204, where a mural depicts the monk’s epic pilgrimage.
Over 1,000 years later an adventurer from a very different place would arrive in Dunhuang. Aurel Stein, a Hungarian born British archeologist had far more pragmatic motivations for straying so far from home. He was in search of fabled Silk Road treasures.