Connections with the Divine: Religious Life in Dunhuang

07 December 2022 - Neil Schmid (Dunhuang)
Connections with the Divine: Religious Life in Dunhuang
online guest lecture series at the BuddhistRoad project, CERES, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Lecture Series Overview:

Chinese scholarship on the Dunhuang Caves and materials from the so-called Library Cave, one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, has expanded rapidly over the past twenty years. An ever-increasing number of academics, research projects, and publications have provided a wealth of scholarly resources for the field. This corpus of research merits more attention from western scholars, not just in Dunhuang Studies but from across a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. This series of six talks will explore this breath of Chinese scholarship and provide a guide to major areas within Dunhuang Studies, its key scholars, publications, research projects, institutions, and trends.

This series of talks also takes an ethnographic approach on two levels. The first is that Dunhuang materials, given their range and diversity, can be viewed as a coherent dataset, the closest we have to an ethnographic collection for medieval Eastern Central Asia. In this sense then, they should be valued in their complex, interdisciplinary entirety. Second, concentrating on Chinese Dunhuang research in the 21st century, these talks also engage an ethnological approach to the academic realm in order to examine how subfields of Dunhuang Studies are delineated in light of institutions and ongoing social forces. Availing my position as someone in the field of Dunhuang Studies working at a Chinese research institute, I will provide on-the-ground observations through discussions with members of the scholarly community in China (i.e., ‘thick description’), with an emphasis on the explanation of behaviour and agency that accepts emic categories of division of Dunhuang resources and analyses their origins and usages, as well as how those categories may enhance or constrain research together with the production of knowledge and its dissemination.

Each of these lectures will systematically cover the following areas: 

Finally, given the framework and sponsor of these talks, the resources explored will be keyed to the seven thematic research clusters of the BuddhistRoad Project (Center for Religious Studies, Ruhr-Universität Bochum) to further scholarship on topics within the context of Eastern Central Asia and their relation to Chinese Dunhuang Studies.


This third talk explores the Dunhuang caves (i.e., Mogao, Yulin, Western and Eastern Thousand Buddha Caves, and Wugemiao) which, together with their material culture and textual resources, are fundamentally Buddhist in nature. Given that much of 21st century Chinese scholarship on Dunhuang has focused on Buddhism, this talk first examines the rich corpus of research on Buddhist texts, doctrines and ritual. Research over the past twenty years has also increasingly turned to non-Buddhist religions and practices, ranging from Syriac Christianity to Manichaeism. We then examine how at the heart of this interest is the ever-increasing contemporary Chinese focus on the Silk Road as a conduit of transmission that served to establish religious networks of exchange across Eastern Central Asia.

Neil Schmid is Research Professor at the Dunhuang Academy. His scholarship centres on Dunhuang and explores a range of topics, including the role of Buddhist literature in ritual and art, medieval economic development, Esoteric Buddhism (Chin. mijiao, 密教), and the ritual aesthetics of painting and architectural space of the Mogao Caves. He is currently at work on several monographs, including From Byzantium to Japan: Ritual Objects and Religious Exchanges Across Eurasia in Late Antiquity, tracing the flow of exotic goods and ritual paraphernalia along the Silk Road, and the first-ever critical bibliographical survey of Dunhuang materials, entitled The Comprehensive Guide to Scholarly Resources for Dunhuang Studies.