The Mogao Caves is a Buddhist sacred site, yet interestingly enough the turn of events led a Taoist to make great contributions to the preservations of Sakyamuni’s teachings.
During the Qing Dynasty, a poor Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu was wandering Shanwei Mountain when he stumbled upon the deserted Mogao caves. Humbled by his discovery of such a magnificent creation, he appointed himself guardian of the caves, devoting the rest of his life to the protection and reparation of the sacred site.
In 1900, as Wang Yuanlu set out cleaning and repairing the caves, he stumbled into a hidden square cache sized 2.6 meters wide and deep and 3 meters high concealed behind the north wall of a corridor. Behind the wall he discovered a trove containing scores of cultural relics spanning from the time of the Sixteen Kingdoms to the Song Dynasty (4th to 11th century). Over 50,000 artifacts including historical texts, manuscripts, ancient instruments, paper paintings, silk paintings, embroideries and textiles lay hidden in the trove Reclining Buddha in cave 148, second largest reclining figure in Mogao from sight for centuries. This was known as the library cave.
In a bid to protect these precious relics, Wang Yunlu repeatedly informed the Qing government of his discovery, even writing to Empress Dowager Cixi. However due the Imperial court’s pre-occupation with political turmoil at the time, his calls fell on deaf ears. As word of Wang Yunlu’s discovery spread to the West, the discovery caught the attention of many Western archaeologists and explorers, who used treacherous means to acquire large amounts of the expansive collection from the honest Wang Yunlu. Majority of the precious contents of the library cave are now scattered throughout the globe under 30 institutions and private ownership across 13 countries including Britain, France, Japan and Russia. Only 8,757 pieces remained in China and are now archived at the Imperial Library of Peking
The short-sighted and derelict government at the time was unable to protect China’s national treasurers at the Mogao Caves. The loss of these precious relics to various other countries marked a great national tragedy.