Shaping the Stein collection’s Dunhuang corpus (1): Wang Yuanlu: the first ‘curator’

The history of the Dunhuang collection items that now form part of the Stein collection at the British Library is inseparable from the extraordinary story of Cave 17’s discovery, which is, in turn, closely linked to the monk named Wang Yuanlu. This blog post focusses on Wang, the man who discovered the small walled-up cave. It is the first of three articles exploring the way in which the Stein Collection’s Dunhuang corpus was shaped.

Wang, keeper of the Mogao Caves and guardian of Cave 17

Photograph of Wang Yuanlu taken by Stein (c) Photo 392/26(327)

Originally from Hubei, Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 (1850–1931) moved to the Mogao Caves, in Gansu province, around 1899 (Wang, 2007: 3–6). This Buddhist site, once an important centre on the Eastern Silk Roads, had remained a place of worship but had fallen into relative disuse. Soon after he arrived, Wang started to raise funds for the restoration and upkeep of the caves. In June 1900, as he was clearing the sand from the corridor of a large cave-temple, Wang Yuanlu stumbled upon the concealed entrance to a small room.

The room, now known as Cave 17 or the ‘Library Cave’, contained tens of thousands of manuscripts, printed documents, paintings and textiles. These materials, which date roughly from the 4th to the 11th centuries, have since revolutionised our understanding of China and Central Asia. Probably sealed up at the beginning of the 11th century, they had remained hidden for nearly one millennium and constitute a rare time capsule.

Wang alerted the authorities but no measures were taken until 1904, when orders came from the provincial government in Lanzhou to ensure that Cave 17’s contents were back in situ and safely guarded. This task was delegated to Wang Yuanlu, who put a locked door on the entrance of Cave 17 and kept the key. He thus became the keeper of the newly found hoard, which nobody could access in his absence (Stein, 1912: 29; Pelliot, 1908: 505).

From 1900 onwards, Wang Yuanlu gave several items from Cave 17 to local officials. He chose well-preserved manuscripts, which were made of fine paper and had beautiful calligraphy, as well as several remarkable silk paintings (Rong, 2013: 90–1). This shows that he was able to select the most visually striking specimens, and also that he was probably aware of the value of the items that had been deposited in the cave. In addition, we know that Wang Yuanlu emptied the room and later placed all the bundles back in (Stein, 1921: 808–9), meaning that he is the only person to ever have an overview of the Cave 17’s contents as a whole.

Although he was a relatively newcomer, Wang became rapidly embedded in the local Buddhist community. When the explorer Marc Aurel Stein first visited the site in March 1907, Wang Yuanlu was absent and had locked Cave 17. However, a young monk showed Stein one of the Chinese scrolls from the cave. The “beautifully preserved” manuscript had been lent to his spiritual master, a Tibetan lama, in order to give “additional lustre” to his small private chapel (Stein, 1921: 801–2). This proves that Wang agreed to let the resident monks use items from Cave 17 for their ritual practices. Stein later observed that local Buddhist monks shared the guardianship of the Mogao Caves and lived in harmony with Wang Yuanlu (Stein, 1912: 29).

Photograph of a Tibetan monk at the Mogao Caves (c) Photo 392/26(327)

Hundreds of manuscripts and paintings were possibly dispersed between the discovery of Cave 17 and 1907 (Rong, 2013: 84–102). Yet, it is Wang’s transaction with Stein in 1907 that marked the scattering of the newly found hoard on a large-scale. We will now see that it was Wang Yuanlu, rather than Stein, that set the terms of their exchange.

Wang and Stein

Photograph of the caves near the centre of the Mogao caves site, 17 May 1907 (c) Photo 392/26(323)

Marc Aurel Stein came back to the Mogao Caves in May 1907. This time, he got to meet Wang, who only allowed him to quickly look inside Cave 17. From his rapid examination, Stein reported that there were two categories of bundles: the ‘miscellaneous’ bundles, filled with manuscripts in various languages and formats, paintings and ex-votos; and the ‘regular’ bundles, which he assumed mostly contained Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts (1921: 814).

The ‘regular’ bundles were sandwiched between two layers of ‘miscellaneous’ bundles. One layer was placed on top of the ‘regular’ bundles; another layer at the bottom was used to provide a stable basis for the piles of ‘regular’ bundles (Stein, 1912: 178–9). Wang Yuanlu had seemingly re-organised the bundles following an arrangement that he thought to be more appropriate and that possibly reflected his own appraisal of these materials. Indeed, it is quite telling that he started by presenting Stein with several of the ‘miscellaneous’ bundles. Stein remarked that Wang appeared to value these a lot less than the ‘regular’ monastic bundles (Stein, 1912: 178–9).

At no point during the process did Wang let Stein choose materials directly from the cave. He insisted on handing over each of the bundles that he retrieved himself from inside Cave 17. He was therefore able to guide the selection, by having already performed a form of sifting. The explorer spent several days looking through ‘miscellaneous’ bundles in order to extract any of the items that he found interesting (we will explore the content of these bundles in a separate blog post).

Composite image showing Cave 16 with the entrance to Cave 17 on the left and bundles of manuscripts. (C) Serindia, Fig 200.(c)

When Stein turned his attention to the ‘regular’ bundles, however, he was faced with a huge amount of resistance from Wang Yuanlu (Stein, 1921: 822). Wang explicitly stated that it would be impossible for Stein to purchase any of the ‘regular’ bundles. He explained that any deficiency in the piles of ‘library bundles’ would be noticed by his lay patrons and “lead to the loss of the position which he had built up for himself in the district by the pious labours of eight years and to the destruction of his life's task” (Stein, 1921: 824).

Wang insisted that he needed to consult his patrons before making any further decision and set off to Dunhuang to beg for alms, having previously conceded to sale of around 50 ‘regular’ bundles plus all the content from the ‘miscellaneous’ bundles. We do not know what happened while Wang Yuanlu was away, but upon his return a week later he sold another 20 ‘regular’ bundles to Stein. It is likely that he may have sought the opinion of his patrons about selling the regular bundles.


Wang Yuanlu, who took upon himself to act as the guardian of the Mogao Caves when he settled at the site, could also be considered the first ‘curator’ or ‘keeper’ of Cave 17’s contents. For his subsequent actions, which resulted in the scattering of the manuscripts, paintings and other items deposited in the small room, he has been described either as a naïve fool or as a thief. Through Stein’s narrative, we can see that Wang was neither.

Wang Yuanlu truly set the conditions for their exchange and planned what bundles to deliver, focusing initially on the items he held in the lowest estimation. When he eventually decided to part with the ‘regular’ bundles that he valued the most, he seems to have done so in consultation with his patrons. This highlights Wang Yuanlu’s agency and demonstrates that he was instrumental in shaping the now so-called Stein collection.

When Wang Yuanlu died in 1931, his disciples asked permission from local authorities to erect a stupa opposite the caves, demonstrating that they held him in high esteem. Wang's dealings with Stein and other explorers had not tarnished his reputation among them.

Further reading:

Pelliot, P. “Une bibliothèque médiévale retrouvée au Kan-sou”, Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient 8 (1908): 505-509.

Rong, X. Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, translated by Imre Galambos, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013.

Stein, M.A. Ruins of Desert Cathay: Personal narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China, London: Macmillan, 1912.

Stein, M.A. Serindia: detailed report of explorations in Central Asia and westernmost China, etc., Volumes 2 and 4, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921.

Wang, J 王冀青. Guo bao liu san: Zang jing dong de gu shi 國寶流散:藏經洞的故事, Lanzhou: Gansu jiaoyu chubanshe, 2007.


The research underpinning this post was funded by the Coleridge Fellowship.