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Life Cycles: Calendars, Festivals and Death at Dunhuang

BuddhistRoad Guest Lecture


Online Event

BuddhistRoad Guest Lecture Series by Neil Schmid (Dunhuang Academy) -Postponed from 23.11.2022

The lecture will be available live at Zoom. Please pre-register until 17 January 2023, 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 lecture begins with a review of Chinese scholarship on Dunhuang manuscripts that offers key insights into the vibrant exchange of medical and scientific knowledge across Eurasia, often embedded in religious discourse. These exchanges influenced multiple domains of life at Dunhuang, including the astral sciences and calendrics. Over the last twenty years work in China has begun showing an increasing interest in these areas and, as well as in the relationships between related texts and visual materials in Dunhuang caves. One of the strengths of recent scholarship has been research on the festival and seasonal year, which fundamentally configured lay and religious life at Dunhuang. In keeping with the topic of the quotidian, this lecture will also examine recent scholarship on fundamental issues concerning the death and the life cycle, including karmic, together with the role of these play in the construction of Dunhuang caves.

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/u5wuce-sqz4jHtxufA-DBFigio0mp7v9EBvo

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