September 16, 2008

Who made the manuscripts?

The caves of Dunhuang were part of an extended Buddhist compound, and this religious slant is apparent in the manuscript collection. Of the digitized documents, only about 425 are secular works; the rest are various Buddhist texts including prayer sheets and canonical sutras. Many of the texts have colophons identifying the scribes; a number of these identify the writer as a “bhiksu” or a fully ordained Buddhist monk. There are also references to monastery libraries and a system of organization; some scrolls were labeled with descriptors such as “9th scroll in the 15th bundle”. At least one scroll (Or.8210/S.296) had been a part of two different monastery libraries.

The secular texts were likely written by educated laypeople; China at the time had a well-developed educational system, a civil service whose members were appointed based on rigorous government exams, and a flourishing scientific community. One of the more extraordinary finds at Dunhuang was a remarkably accurate star chart (Or.8210/S.3326) from 940 A.D. Other secular documents include medical texts and literary works.

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