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Paper flowers - The Stein Collection

The Stein Collection

  • Object:

    Paper flowers

  • Place of origin:

    Dunhuang (discovered)

  • Date:

    7th century to 10th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Coloured cut-out paper

  • Credit Line:

    Stein Textile Loan Collection. On loan from the Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India. Copyright: Government of India

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

These nine paper flowers are of coloured paper resting on a square of fabric. They were recovered from Cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes. This shrine site is one of China’s great Buddhist pilgrimage complexes and is situated near the oasis town of Dunhuang.
The site is also part of an area of Central Asia we now call the Silk Road, a series of overland trade routes that crossed Asia from China to Europe. The most notable item traded was silk. Camels and horses were used as pack animals and merchants passed the goods from oasis to oasis. The Silk Road was also important for the exchange of ideas. Whilst silk textiles travelled west from China, Buddhism entered China from India in this way.
These paper flowers were brought back from Central Asia by the explorer and archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943). The Victoria and Albert Museum has around 600 ancient and medieval textiles recovered from the Silk Road by Stein at the beginning of the twentieth century. Some are silk while others are made from the wool of a variety of different animals

Physical description

Nine paper flowers of various shapes consisting of coloured and inked paper cut and pasted together. Some petals are missing. The flowers are resting on a square piece of fabric (hemp, samite) with stitched-down loop of blue silk in the middle of the fabric and tufts of silk attached in each corner.

Weave structures:
1. hemp
Warp: hemp, S twisted, single, undyed, 10 warps/cm; Weft: cotton, S twisted, single, undyed, 9 wefts/cm. Weave structure: 1/1 plain weave. The fibres are frayed and no diagnostic cell ends could be found, but frequent cross-markings, dislocations and longitudinal slits, combined with an anti-clockwise twist in the drying-twist test all indicate hemp, Cannabis sativa L. (P. Walton-Rogers, May 2007)

2. Samite
Main warp: silk, single, pale, red, uncountable: Binding warp: silk, single, pale red, uncountable; Weft: silk, red, green, green, yellow and blue, etc. uncountable. Weave structure: 5-end weft faced compound satin on both sides

Place of Origin

Dunhuang (discovered)


7th century to 10th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Coloured cut-out paper


Length: 17.5 cm, Width: 17.5 cm

Object history note

One flower showing Stein number possibly in Stein's handwriting or that of his assistant, Miss F.M.G. Lorimer.

Historical context note

Dunhuang is at the eastern end of the southern Silk Road, in present-day Gansu Province. It lies between the western reaches of China and the Tarim Basin. When China began to expand into Central Asia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Dunhuang served as a base for military operations and trade. In the succeeding centuries, Buddhist shrines were established southeast of Dunhuang in a series of man-made caves called Qianfodong, "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" (today also known as the Mogao Grottoes). Here spectacular cave temples were cut out of the cliffs, beginning in the fourth century AD. Over a period of several centuries, communities of Buddhist monks filled the caves with splendid sculpture and wall paintings. These included colossal Buddha statues, painted clay sculptures of deities, elaborate murals of Buddhist legends, and thousands of tiny painted Buddha images; all of which gave the site its name, Qianfodong. Buddhist cave temples had first been established in at Bamiyan (Afghanistan) and Gandhara (formerly in India, now Pakistan). At Qianfodong, Stein found paintings of graceful figures in the Gandharan style among landscapes and buildings that were distinctly Chinese; a fusion of Indian and Chinese art, which he had noted elsewhere along the Silk Road.

In 1900, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered a secret cave at Qianfodung, which contained thousands of documents and paintings. Stein purchased a significant amount of this material from Wang during his visit to the Dunhuang in 1907. Among the many religious works were Buddhist, Jewish, Nestorian, Daoist and Confucian texts; all of which dated from approximately 400 to 1000 A.D. Numerous languages were represented as well, including Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Hebrew. Stein also acquired many textile pieces. Most of these were silk, for Dunhuang lay on the main trade route between silk-growing regions of China and Central Asia. Elaborate embroideries depicted Buddhist legends and processions of donors. Patterned silks included Chinese and Sassanian (Persian) designs. From China came floral and geometric patterns, combined with figures of animals and birds. Sassanian motifs included pairs of confronted ducks, lions, and other beasts, combined with medallions and quatrefoils. Stein also found undecorated silks used as processional banners and valances for decorating bases of statues. The cave was sealed soon after 1000 A.D., apparently to protect the contents from invading armies. The V&A holds, on loan, a large number of textiles from Dunhuang, including plain and pattern woven silks in many colours, painted Buddhist banners and canopies, and wrappers for Buddhist texts.

Descriptive line

Cut and pasted coloured paper flowers, from Dunhuang, 7th-10th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Stein, Aurel, Serindia: Detailed Report of Exploration in Central Asia and Westernmost China Carried Out and Described Under the Orders of H.M Indian Government , 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921), II, p.954.
Zhao Feng, ed. Textiles from Dunhuang in UK Collections. Shanghai: Donghua University Press, 2007. pp. 289.

Production Note

Found in Cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas).


Paper; Silk thread


Cut-out; Paper-making

Subjects depicted



Archaeology; Textiles


East Asia Collection

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