Interior of Cave No. 249, Western Wei
Dunhuang was one of the four provinces of the Hexi region created during the era of Han Emperor Wu (141-89 B.C.). An important and newly emerged centre in Hexi during the Han Dynasty, it included six counties and two gateways with a population of nearly forty thousand.
During its early stages, the Han Dynasty adopted a series of military measures such as the construction of fortifications, warning towers, garrisons and a wall of defence inside the territory of Dunhuang.1 During Eastern Han a colonel was posted in Dunhuang for the protection of the Western Regions. Later, General Suo Ban stationed his troops at Yi Wu. These were all measures to deal with the invasions and harassment by Hun chieftains. In the second year of the Yonghe Era (137), Governor Pei Chen of Dunhuang led three thousand soldiers to the west to attack the Huns; by killing their chieftain Hu Yan he ensured the safety of the Western Regions and Hexi.2 These incidents prove that Dunhuang was a strategic area which could be used to launch an offensive; at the same time during the Han and Jin as also in later times, it proved to be a place that could be easily defended.
In order to protect the border, the Han Dynasty also paid attention to the agricultural production of Dunhuang by constructing dams and reservoirs; initiating water conservation and irrigation projects; reclaiming virgin land, settling troops and civilians by allotting them plots. Colonel Cui Buyi who was in charge of fisheries taught farming to the common people. Colonel Zhao Guo who was in charge of granary introduced "daitianfa" (cultivation of fields in alternate strips in alternate years) in order to extend cultivated land by dry land farming. Together, these measures boosted agricultural production in Dunhuang. During the period of the Three Kingdoms, Governor Huangfu Long popularized ploughing and sowing. The Annals recorded the event as: "Saving labour by fifty percent and increasing harvest by fifty percent."3 Consequently there was a substantial rise in grain output.
The monasteries too resembled the manors since they maintained "Samghika households" (sengzhihu ) and "Buddha households" (fotuhu).* Both the manors and the monasteries had in their fold a large number of peasants who were cruelly exploited by their masters.
The development of feudal economy brought with it the prosperity of feudal culture. During the Han and Jin Dynasties there appeared several litterateurs in Dunhuang, like the famous calligrapher and writer, Zhang Zhi and Suo Jing. Particularly during the last years of the Western Jin, many litterateurs with "profound learning in canons and history" took refuge in Liangzhou resulting in the flowering of Chinese culture in the Hexi corridor (which included Gaochang). A large number of manuscripts and murals discovered from the tombs of Wei and Jin periods at Jiuquan, Dunhuang and Turfan are the cultural assets of the times which provided the basis for the development of Buddhist art.
After Dunhuang had become a province, exchanges between China and the Western countries grew rapidly. Zhang Qian's huge second embassy of three hundred-strong to the Western Regions had in its wake "the lining up of envoys on the roads". "A foreign embassy ranged from a hundred odd to several hundred persons." Chinese missions going abroad numbered between five to more than ten every year.
Those who went to neighbouring countries took about three years to return and those who went to far off countries came back only after eight to nine years.6 Owing to the frequent exchanges between China and the West, China's products, especially silk, flowed uninterruptedly towards the West. Western goods like hide and fur, asbestos and cloth also entered China. All east-west movements were routed through Dunhuang making it the hub of traffic between China and the West.
During the period of the Three Kingdoms, the Dunhuang Governor Cang Ci handled with competence China's foreign affairs with the western states. Any trader coming from the West would be "entertained" with hospitality. For those who specially came to Dunhuang to trade, the government "fixed fair prices and swapped with them the goods from warehouse". After the deal, escorts conducted them safely to the gateway of China. In case they wanted to visit Chang'an and Luoyang, "passes" were issued to them. Cang Ci's courteous treatment of traders of various nationalities from the Western Regions as well as other foreign traders, made him a household name in international circles.7
As Eastern Jin ended and Northern Wei unified North China, the "Silk Road" grew even more prosperous: "From Congling (Pamirs) it extended as far as the Roman empire, foreign merchants from innumerable states and cities came to the gateway."8 "The Biography of Pei Ju" in Sui Shu (Annals of the Sui Dynasty) informed that "from the Western Sea (Europe) there are three routes leading to Dunhuang....All routes meet at Dunhuang which is the gateway." In short, since the Han and Jin times Dunhuang was an important station handling economic and cultural exchanges between China and the West.
With the increased traffic between China and the West, Buddhism and Buddhist art also entered Xinjiang along the Silk Road and eventually moved further east along the southern and northern routes. The southern route ran through Khotan and Loulan to Dunhuang, and the northern route through Kuca and Gaochang to Dunhuang. From Dunhuang Buddhist art and religion spread further afield to Liangzhou and into the "heartland" of China.
As a foreign religion, Buddhism was "forcefully resisted" when it entered China. It provoked a series of conflicts like the "contention between Confucianism and Buddhism", between the "Chinese and alien", between "Buddhism and Taoism", between "black and white", and between the "destructibility and indestructibility of the soul". But Buddhism itself offered a superstructure that lent itself suitable for the feudal economy, together with professional efforts in producing annotations, commentaries and expositions, and it was made out that "Confucius was Buddha and Buddha was Confucius", "Confucius cured social illness, while Buddhism expounded the rationality of his teachings. The two together made up the head and tail and were one and the same."9 The exponents of Buddhism said that the Buddhist scriptures "embraced the virtue of the Five Confucian canons and expounded to a great depth", and they "embrace the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi and expound their ideas of void in noble words and with substantial truth, creating a sense of solemn inspiration among men. The teachings are brilliant as Buddhist doctrine is so profound that the gods themselves were moved; it is bright like sunshine, pure and fresh like the wind."10 Here was an attempt to synthesize Buddhism, Confucianism and metaphysics to meet the needs of the times.
We are told that during the era of the Western and Eastern Jin "the rivers are filled with corpses and the plains are bleached by white skeletons."11 In a society deeply scarred by wars and disasters the sinicized Buddhist ideology spread like an epidemic.
The minority nationals of the north founded several small dynasties; all of which patronized Buddhism. Each minority nationality had its own set of gods as their spiritual mainstay. Emperor Shi Hu of Late Zhou, Emperor Fu Jian of Early Qin, Emperor Lu Guang of Late Liang, Emperor Juqu Mengsun of Northern Liang, and all the emperors of Northern Wei vied with one another to recruit monks to translate Buddhist scriptures and disseminate the Dharma. Monk Fotudeng (Buddhacinga) of Kuca became famous for the magic tricks he performed to deceive the people even as the common people "vied with one another to construct temples and become monks"; thus Fotudeng got into the good books of Emperor Shi Hu. When he went to court, he was always carried in an ornamental chair by the courtiers to the neighbourhood of the throne while the Emperor rose to greet him. At that moment the master of ceremony would call out "The Mah� Achya!" then "all those in their seats would stand up to show the high regard he enjoyed."12 Buddhacinga was elevated to a position rivalling that of the King.
While agricultural production developed, Hexi and Dunhuang also saw the appearance of "wu bi" (fortified manor with defence forces). Depictions of such "manors" and "fortifications" are seen in the tomb murals at Jiayu Gate dating back to Wei and Jin dynasties. These "manors" had high walls, with watch-towers above the gates. Inside the "manor" were livestock pens, while outside there were tents in which the guards lived.4 One such manor was the Zhaoyu Manor in Gaochang village in Xidang township of the Dunhuang county during the Western Liang.5 During Northern Wei, it was said that "villages and manors interlinked with each other and there were numerous monasteries, temples and stupas."