Learn Dunhuang

The Mogao Caves

  • Listed as a State Priority Protected Heritage Site in 1961;  
  • Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

“Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art. ” 

“The Mogao Caves fulfill Criteria (i)(ii)(iii)(iv)(v)(vi) of a world heritage site.”

                              ── UNESCO on the Mogao Caves


Dunhuang is the world’s largest and richest surviving site of Buddhist art. Dubbed as ‘archive of color sculptures and wall paintings’, the Mogao Caves represents a unique artistic achievement through approximately 45,000 square meters of murals that depict societies and lives at the crossroad of East and West centuries ago.

Threats to the Mogao Caves


Exposed to various natural and manmade factors for a millennium, the caves face considerable and even permanent damage.

  • The murals show signs of deterioration due to damage to the micro environment in the caves.
  • Murals are clay based, and therefore prone to deterioration and disintegration. For than half of the paintings in the existing 492 decorated caves suffer problems of various kinds, from flaking, cracking, to plaster disruption and microbial diseases. Even though protective measures have been taken to slow down further deterioration, funds are much needed to push forward protection, conservation and repair works.

    A photograph of the entrance corridor on the eastern wall taken in 1908, published in the Pelliot Catalogue for Dunhuang.

    A photograph of the same mural taken recently shows considerable damage and discoloration.


  • The expansion of tourism since 1980s accelerates damage to the cave paintings.
  • Like a fragile old man, the sustenance of the Dunhuang site relies on financial support and care. Works for preservation include: mural repair, protection and prevention against wind and sand erosion, reinforcement of cliff surface, construction of passageways, as well as digitisation of murals and the setting up of a risk assessment and alarm system.








Cracks and flaking on the southern wall of Cave 245.


Dunhuang Research Academy

The construction of the Mogao Caves began in 4th-century AD and continued until 14th-century AD. As the Silk Road became the central route of East-West trade, these caves, situated at the major stop of the route, naturally became the depository of cultural relics throughout those years. Yet the decline of Silk Road traffic has put out the limelight on this once popular site and for about 300 years, this treasure trove was left to fend for itself against theft, vandalism and erosion. In 1944, the Chinese government created the Dunhuang Art Institute to conserve and protect the Mogao Caves and to research the history of Dunhuang art. The institute was later renamed Dunhuang Institute of Cultural Relics and subsequently to its present name Dunhuang Research Academy (DHRA).

DHRA is responsible for the conservation, management and research of the Mogao Grottoes, the Yulin Grottoes and the Western Thousand-Buddha Grottoes at Dunhuang. The Academy receives financial support from the government for its day-to-day operation, and would welcome sponsorship from the private sector to fund some of its long-term projects.

After DHRA’s expansion in 1984, the caves’ conservation has been upgraded from rescuing protection to preventive protection by the joint effort between national and international science and technology research organization.






Works of DHRA

Dunhuang Research Academy is the first institution in China to specialise in grotto relic protection and conservation. Since the 1980s, it has been working closely with foreign institutions on mural conservation and restoration and is a leading expert in ancient mural conservation. It has been appointed by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China to manage the National Research Center for Conservation of Ancient Wall Paintings, jointly run by Shanghai Institute of Ceramics of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou University and Zhejiang University. The Center carries out protective work on Dunhuang caves as well as other cave temples and earthen archaeological sites across the country, especially in the Northwest region. 

As at 2013, The Center has worked on 53 relic protection plans, 16 ancient wall painting conservation plans, 10 earthen archaeological site plans and 37 digitisation plans. It is in the process of designing 15 national and industry standards, and building 5 promotional centres.

DHRA managed conservation and restoration projects in Potala Temple, Norbulingka, the Longmen Caves, Houtu Temple in Jiexiu, Shanxi, and the murals in Nanjing.  The map shows the extent of expertise support DHRA is offering nationwide.


Enviromental monitoring system employed by the Academy helps maintain the humidity and carbon dioxide level inside the caves.






Cliff surface reinforcement and passageways can preserve cliff surfaces from collapsing.






To know more works of DHRA, please search http://public.dha.ac.cn/

The Digitalization Project

Project Synopsis