In the 1890’s when a Taoist monk named Wang Tao-shih moved into one of the caves he found beneath the dust and grime some elaborate frescoes on the rock walls. The rear wall of the cave, however, had been plastered and some of the plaster had crumbled away, revealing a brick wall. Wang Tao-shih’s curiosity led him to remove some of the bricks. Through the opening he made, he saw a small room crammed with bundles of sewn-up bags. Opening one of the bundles, he was perplexed to find scrolls and texts which appeared to be quite old. He realized his find might be valuable and he didn’t know what to do. If his discovery became known, robbers would try to steal it. And he did not trust government officials; he feared they would seize the treasure trove and sell it for personal gain.
Wang concluded that his best course was to keep the find secret until he found someone who was qualified to evaluate it, someone he could trust. Carefully concealing the opening in the brick wall, he continued his simple life. Nevertheless, the concern he showed for his cave soon became apparent to the others in the community and rumors spread that there was something about the cave he was keeping secret.
Some years later, about the turn of the century, noted British explorer and archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein, set out to explore the old Silk Road. At Tun Huang he visited “The Caves of the Thousand Buddha’s” and heard rumors that Wang Tao-shih possessed something he would not talk about.
Stein had learned in his long experience to investigate rumors. He sought out Wang who readily showed him the frescoes. When pressed, Wang was polite but would not admit there was anything else significant about his cave. Yet Stein felt that Wang was not telling all he knew. He decided to cultivate the monk in an attempt to learn more.
The two men shared many cups of tea as Stein told Wang about his efforts to learn all he could about ancient China. Wang, impressed with the explorer’s erudition and sincerity, gradually came to have confidence in him. Perhaps, Wang thought, Stein was the man he had so long awaited. In the end he told Stein of his discovery and agreed to let him examine what was hidden behind the brick wall of his cave.
The first bundle that was opened contained a biography of a monk named Huan Tsang, a man Wang knew of and admired. He saw this as a good omen. With great care the other bundles were brought from the cave where they had lain hidden for some 850 years. A total of 1130 bundles each in a cloth bag, contained thousands of scrolls, texts, and documents; too many to list and identify on the scene.
Stein realized he had found a rich treasure and began negotiating with Wang to purchase the bundles. Only silver had any value in that remote place and Wang would accept only silver in payment. Using all the silver he could spare, Stein was able to purchase a large number of the bundles. With his treasure, including The Diamond Sutra, Stein set off on the long journey home, eventually depositing the oldest printed book in the world in the British Museum, where it is today.
As for Wang, he continued to dedicate himself to the welfare of others, as befitted a poor Taoist monk. He used the silver for other’s benefit, restoring some of the caves, planting trees, having wells dug and building a hotel for travelers.
The ancient texts brought to Europe by Stein attracted wide attention and led to Wang’s loss of the material remaining in his cave. While most of Stein’s treasure went to museums and libraries, some 3,000 texts went on sale in France and aroused the attention of Chinese imperial authorities. Government officials soon seized all the material that had remained with Wang, and he received no payment. These texts, so far as history knows, were lost.