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Dunhuang and the Social Contract

BuddhistRoad Guest Lecture

BuddhistRoad Guest Lecture Series by Neil Schmid (Dunhuang Academy)

The lecture will be available live at Zoom. Please pre-register until 28 June 2022, 12 pm. Zoom lecture times: 2 pm (Amsterdam, Berlin, Rom, Vienna); 8 pm (Peking); 8 am (East Coast)

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: 

  • compilation and editing of primary source materials for all fields
  • major scholars and publications, cooperative projects
  • research trends (themes and topics)
  • reference and research tools

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 second talk explores recent Chinese scholarship on the social contract at Dunhuang: governing structures, statecraft, foreign and ethnic relations, economic compacts and trade, as well as lay-clerical relations. Also discussed is research on aspects of ‘civil society’ which, in the context of Dunhuang, was largely organised through kinship relations as well as social and religious associations. At the heart of much of this research is a focus on the fundamental shift during the Tang and Guiyijun periods (7th–11th c.) that witnessed an increasing vernacularisation in terms of patronage together with a shift from aristocratic elites with connections to the Chinese heartland to more bureaucratic and local modes of governance.

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.

To join the lecture, please register at https://ruhr-uni-bochum.zoom.us/meeting/register/u5UvcOqoqD4sGdAh_VtWK4BstG1CS1wSSlvP

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