China’s Belated Response: The End of Foreign Expeditions
At the time Stein and Pelliot were buying themanuscripts one after another, China was not yet aware of the importance of these historic materials.
And, by the time they realized, it was already too late. When they realized the tragic loss of part of their own heritage, China firmly shut the doors to further foreign excavations and research, and these doors have remained tightly shut since.
The news of the discovery of the library of manuscripts in the Dunhuang cave had been reported to the authorities at the time of their discovery.
First the report had been reported to local authorities in Dunhuang, who then reported to the government office (Yamen) at Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province. Because the estimated cost of transport of all the manuscripts from the caves to Lanzhou was as much as 5000 to 6000 in sycee silver.
The Yamen at Langzhou was unable to part with such a large amount of money at that time and so notified the Yamen at Dunhuang to keep the items where they were found. Thus, for seven long years, the Dunhuang manuscripts were left stacked in the grotto without being shown much if any particular interest.
It was during this period when the manuscripts seemed to have been for all intents and purposes abandoned that Stein came to Dunhuang.
Therefore, Wang Yuanlu, ignorant of the value of the manuscripts, sold them for a very low price compared to their actual value, and used the money for the repair of the grottoes, which was his own main concern. This was followed by Pelliot who came and purchased numerous manuscripts, shipping them back to France.
Pelliot, after sending off the bulk of his treasures from the Library Cave, perhaps relieved that his yield was already safely out of China, took some of the manuscripts and traveled to Nanjing, Tianjin, and Beijing(19), and showed them to the renowned historian Luo Zhenyu and other Chinese scholars.
Greatly shocked by what they saw, the Chinese realized at last how serious the situation was. The Qing dynasty government gave orders to protect the remaining Dunhuang manuscripts, and by 1910, had takenmeasures to move them to the Jingshi Library (京師), now the National Library of China, in Beijing.
The scattering of the remaining manuscripts continued despite government decrees.
Government employees at Lanzhou and other places en route of the transport of the manuscripts to Beijing stole the manuscripts one after another. These thefts included that by Beijing officials, such as Ministry of Education official Li Shengduo 李盛鐸 after the manuscripts had finally arrived in Beijing.
Furthermore, since a significant amount of the manuscripts were left at Dunhuang, several hundred scrolls of sutras were bought by the Japanese Otani Expedition (Zuicho Tachibana and Koichiro Yoshikawa) in 1912, and a total of more than 10,000 items were bought by the Russian explorer Oldenburg.
These removals of manuscripts and antiquities from Dunhuang caused great anger among Chinese scholars. As a consequence, the excavating and taking away of the antiquities by the foreign expeditions at Tarīm Basin in the name of “archaeological research” came to be regarded as the looting of antiquities.
Indeed, Stein’s “research” was so thorough that nothing important was left behind.
The German expedition was also blamed for its exhaustive cutting away and removal of the murals from grottoes at Bezeklik and Kizil. The latter act was especially criticized with eyes toward foreign expeditions growing increasingly angry.
External factors also contributed to the ending of exploration activities in Central Asia.
First, the First World War broke out in Europe where many of the foreign expeditions originated and who would be therefore less in a situation to be able to go out to explore.
Second, domestically in China, the new trends emerged creating a mood not hospitable to the outflow of antiquities. This happened as a byproduct of movements against foreigners in general, which were intensified by the 1925 incident in Shanghai(20) in when a British policeman shot and killed a Chinese student.
The race for antiquities finally ended after 1916, the year Stein ended his third mission (1913 - 16).
The American explorer Langdon Warner visited Khara-Khoto, however, in 1923 - 24 and Dunhuang in 1925. He is known for having attempted to chemically peel away murals from cave walls. He also purchased a statue of Bodhisattva.
Two years later, Hedin, the pioneer of Central Asian exploration, revisited the Tarīm Basin after 20 years.
His main purpose was to prove his “Wandering Lake” theory through scientific research with his team of archaeologists and other experts (Hedin (right) and Bergman (left), archaeologist(21)).
However, the Hedin team was not permitted research on their own, and was made to carry out a joint research project with Chinese researchers (Sino-Swedish Expedition).
The large volume of wooden strip manuscripts dating mainly from the latter half of the Early Han Dynasty period which they discovered (Juyan 居延 Han Manuscripts) around the Edsin-Gol River at the Northwestern border of the region, were not allowed to be removed from China.
The days of free movement within Chinese borders by foreign expeditions were already a thing of the past. Hedin, who showed up first to kick off this great race for antiquities in the Tarīm Basin, coincidently played a role as one of the final players to pull the curtain down as well.
To Learn More
Peter Hopkirk, Foreign devils on the Silk Road: the search for the lost cities and treasures of Chinese Central Asia. London: Murray, 1980.
Tamio Kaneko, Sei’iki Tanken no Seiki (Century of Silk Road Expedition), Iwanami Shinsho; Shin’akaban 776. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 2002.
Kyūya Fukada, Chūō Ajia Tankenshi (History of Expedition in Central Asia). Tokyo: Hakusui sha, 1971.
Jeanette Mirsky, Sir Aurel Stein, Archaeological Explorer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1977.
Albert von Le Coq; translated by Anna Barwell, Buried treasures of Chinese Turkestan London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1928.