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Salient Features of Dunhuang Cave Art

Appendix 1

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The Dunhuang Grottoes are both a rare national treasure of China as well as a unique cultural heritage of all mankind. They stand out among the art treasures of the world by virtue of their colossal scale, the centuries-long span of history of their creation and preservation, the kaleidoscopic richness and variety of their contents, the consummate skill of the artists, and not the least, the remarkably good condition in which they have been preserved.

Since Dunhuang was at the hub of cultural exchanges between China and the West along the "Silk Road", the caves of Dunhuang possess a special geographical and cultural significance. In the past, the nationalities of Wusun, Yuezhi and Huns had lived in this area. Dunhuang province and the gateway of Yang Guan and Yumen Guan were established in the Han Dynasty: envoys, merchants and monks from China going abroad and their Western counterparts entering China had to pass through these passes. We may, therefore, say that since ancient times, Dunhuang has been the metropolis of "intercourse between China and other nations"--- an area of intercultural synergism. Dunhuang art is inevitably a result of the blend of multitudinous elements and styles, but it remains a part and parcel of the cultural and art system of China.


Chinese Characteristics of the Cave Architecture

Buddhist cave art originated in India and spread to the Western Regions where it assimilated the local elements and underwent various transformations. The original Indian rock-cut architectural style of the vih¡ras and caityas assumed new forms, and by the time it reached Dunhuang, it became even more removed from its Indian style. The chan ku (dhy¡na-guh¡) or meditation caves and the narrow corridors of Dunhuang are different from the Indian pillared hall. Both sides of the corridor are attached to small meditation cells which are an exact replica of the dhy¡na-guh¡ of Subashi in Kuca. The central-column (caitya) caves of the Northern Wei were different from the caves with a pillared hall and a central st£pa native to India. The former developed from the tunnel caves of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and underwent a transformation at Kizil in the Western Regions. During the latter half of Northern Wei, the central column developed into a multi-storeyed st£pa of Chinese pavilion style. However, the functional aspect of the caitya, i.e., allowing the devotees to circumbulate around the st£pa was still preserved. The back chamber of such caves has a flat chessboard ceiling while the front chamber has an inverted V-shaped ceiling. Chinese style altars are carved out from both the walls below the ends of the inverted V.

Flying figure, Cave No. 25, Yulin Grottoes, Middle Tang

Flying figure, Cave No. 25, Yulin Grottoes, Middle Tang

The architecture of early caves at Dunhuang was enriched by the integration of features of Chinese wooden architecture. The ceiling shaped like an inverted dipper was transformed into a decorated canopy from the Sui and Tang dynasties onwards. The central altar has steps leading to it in the front and a rear screen at the back with railings on all sides. On the outer walls of the altar are painted the gates, celestial musicians and animal decorative motifs. On the inner walls of the altar are painted sets of continued screens. The caves show a process of secularization which in turn meant an increase in the assimilation of the palace architectural style, augmenting their Chinese flavour.


Indian Flying Figures to the Chinese Flying Fairies


Cave No. 248, Northern Wei

Cave No. 248, Northern Wei


Bodhisattva, Cave No. 79, High Tang

Bodhisattva, Cave No. 79, High Tang

All ancient civilizations of the world have their own flying deities. The Greeks have cherubims, their angels with wings. The Chinese "yuren" with feathers growing out of their arms are popularly known as flying fairies. Indians have winged angels as well as flying figures with halos, surrounded by floating clouds. The Dunhuang flying figures originated in India. After entering Kuca they assumed a round face, handsome eyes and a short and stout body. They continued to be represented in the nude in the original Indian style but were shown with a big Persian scarf wound around them and not riding on the clouds. After these figures reached Dunhuang, they merged with the symbolism of Chinese flying fairies, the yuren. By the end of the 5th century, they had been given plump faces, long eyebrows and slit eyes, the hair tied in a top knot and the semi-naked upper torso covered by a big scarf over the shoulders. There were no haloes. These became the flying figures of the Chinese style in Dunhuang.

The Sui emperors were obsessed with flying figures. They constructed mechanical devices in their palaces so that flying figures could raise the curtains, as if recreating scenes from the Buddhist paradise. This was the time when the art of flying figures at Dunhuang reached its zenith. During the Sui Dynasty they appeared in large numbers in a variety of postures and moods. The Sui caves at Dunhuang display an extravaganza that included not the flying figures alone: the musicians in Devapura also take on wings and are shown in circular flight around the caves.

The flying figures of the Tang Dynasty neither had wings nor rode on the clouds, but they flew gently and danced in a carefree manner in the sky by means of a long scarf exactly as the famous Chinese poet, Li Bai, has described in his poem:

"Lotus in their delicate hands,

Behind the deities and fly high,

Like lightning their colour'd bands

Rising up and floating in the sky."

This was the typical artistic image of Chinese flying fairies.


Feminization of the Bodhisattvas

Cave art originated from India. In the Indian caves, the proportions of the body, the postures and facial expressions of the figures were all constructed in the realistic manner but the treatment was, at the same time, highly imaginative. The figures showed a strong sex distinction both in their physique and in expression: the male figures had plump faces, moustaches and robust bodies. The female figures had round faces, big eyes, long eyebrows, thick lips, full breasts, slim waists, broad hips and bare feet. The sex organs of male and female figures were also clearly shown. The Kucan figures had inherited this style but did not favour the appearance of naked deities. After entering Gaochang, the Indian Bodhisattvas lost their gender distinctions. The eight categories of supernatural beings present behind the Buddha also lacked distinctions of age and sex. This feature may be observed in the figures of a majority of the early Dunhuang caves. On the one hand, it conformed with the Buddhist preaching that in BuddhakÀetra there is no sex distinction, and on the other hand, it was also in line with the Confucian value system which shunned physiological differences between the sexes and regarded the exhibition of nudity as an affront to tradition and morality. From the Sui Dynasty onwards, the Bodhisattvas underwent a clear process of feminization. The faces of the deities became plump and charming. Greenish moustaches appeared over the lips, the chests were flat and the postures elegant and graceful. Dao Xuan, the eminent monk-scholar of Early Tang, observed: "During the Song and Qi Dynasties (420-502) Bodhisattvas had thick lips, high noses, long eyes, plump cheeks...like strong men. From the Tang Dynasty onwards, the Bodhisattvas began to resemble female celestial musicians painted in soft strokes. Thus, today we compare palace maids with Bodhisattvas." The figures of the Bodhisattvas painted by Zhao Gongyou were colourful, soft and beautiful, with mysterious clothes and beautiful eyes, like those of the court ladies. People lamented that the real purpose behind the painting of Bodhisattvas was lost. Both the Dunhuang and Heartland painters made the images/dunhuang of Bodhisattvas more feminine and worldly in order to "please the viewers". The Dunhuang murals bear witness to this trend.


Portraits of the Donors in Dunhuang Caves:  A Special Class of Portrait Painting in Chinese Art

We have not yet discovered this category of paintings in the Indian Buddhist caves. The caves of Kuca have some portraits of the donors among the murals but they are rarely accompanied by inscriptions. In contrast, in Dunhuang, even in the earlier caves during the latter half of the Sixteen Kingdoms, we see groups of portraits of donors labelled by inscriptions, lining up the walls. Their presence may be attributed to the Confucian tradition of ancestor-worship. The practice of making portraits of ancestors which had already been in vogue from the Han Dynasty onwards gained a special place for the donors and benefactors in Buddhism here.

Initially, only the individual donors were portrayed. Later, the entire family or a clan became subjects of portraits. From the Western Wei onwards, this trend transformed the Buddhist temples into family temples, reaching a peak during the Tang Dynasty, as may be seen in Cave No. 220 of the sixteenth year of the Zhenguan Era (642), also known as the "Zhai Family Cave". From Zhai Siyuan to his ninth-generation descendant, Zhai Fengda of the Five Dynasties, the cave had built up a visual genealogical tree in the murals for a span of 280 years. Zhai Fengda even had the portraits of his next and third generation painted in the cave, extending the genealogical record to ten-odd generations. This was truly a family temple!

In Cave No. 98 dating from the Five Dynasties, we have another "Cao Yijin Cave", where there are altogether 169 portraits of the donors. They include portraits of the Zhang and Suo families who were related to the Cao family. Cao's son-in-law, the Khotan King Li Shengtian, officers of the military command as well as Cao family's relations, Uighur Princesses, Cao Yijing and his immediate descendants for three generations including daughters and sons-in-law, all are arranged according to seniority. There is also a group of huge life-size and larger-than-life portraits, even more prominently displayed than Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Moreover, their portraits have made a circle around the cave in great style as if they were there not to pay homage to Buddha, but to parade themselves and to be worshipped by their admirers --- almost setting up a cult of the Cao family. This is a classic instance of the reflection of China's feudal society and patriarchal order in the Buddhist cave art milieu.


Illustrations of the Universe of Mah¡y¡na S£tras

Ma¡y¡na Buddhism prospered in China and developed into many sects. All the major texts such as the Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka S£tra, the Avatamsaka S£tra, the Vimalak¢rti-nirde¿a S£tra, the Amit¡bha S£tra, the Maitreya S£tra, etc. have been represented through detailed illustrations at Dunhuang. Usually, an entire painting is composed around a single s£tra. Similarly, a J¡taka also makes a whole painting, which can also be passed off as a s£tra illustration. However, a huge s£tra illustration is a collection of many stories. We do not come across any such illustration among the Buddhist monuments in any Buddhist country before the second half of the sixth century, nor do we have any examples in Central Asia. This is the exclusive creation of Chinese painting masters in order to propagate the teachings of the Buddhist scriptures.

The information we have at present based on the known ancient paintings shows that as early as the latter half of the Northern Wei huge illustrations of Sukh¡vat¢ and Vimalak¢rti had already appeared in Chinese style. In general, Dunhuang was a step behind the style prevailing in "heartland" China. The illustration of s£tra began in the "heartland" from the Sui Dynasty onwards and reached a climax by the Tang. In all, there are 1,102 large depictions of twenty-odd sµutras in various Tang caves. Prominent among them are the illustrations of Sukh¡vat¢, BhaiÀajyaguru, Maitreya, Vimalak¢rti, as also from the S£tra of Bao'en jing (S£tra for Redemption from Indebtedness) and Miyan jing (Ghanavyµuha S£tra). If we add to these the illustrations of the J¡taka stories, the number will go up to approximately 1,350. This entitles Dunhuang Grottoes to proclaim itself as the greatest kingdom of illustrations of Mah¡y¡na S£tras in the world today. Particularly from the Tibetan periods onwards, depictions of various Buddhist sects were put together in a single cave, vying with one another in magnificence and style.


Vimalakirti Sutra, Cave No. 159, Middle Tang

Vimalakirti Sutra, Cave No. 159, Middle Tang

The s£tra illustrations are the concrete manifestations of abstract tenets. In the process of concretization, scenes of magnificent palace buildings, pavilions and gardens are transposed to the paintings. In these s£tra illustrations we see an aesthetic universe further divided by religious, political and ethical realms. We have here special Chinese features of the synthesis of the three schools of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.


Dunhuang Murals: A Treasury of Music and Dance

Music and dance make up the totality of the Dunhuang murals which project art as an entity composed of multiple elements. We have three major categories of music:

  1. Heartland Chinese music as accompaniment for song and dance, such as "Qingshang" music and "Yan" music;

  2. Music for song and dance from the Western Regions, such as Kucan music and Shule (Kashghar) music; and

  3. Foreign music for song and dance such as "Tianzhu" (Indian) music.

The most popular music for song and dance in the Hexi Corridor was the "Western Liang Tune" (xiliangyue) which was a synthesis of the tune from Kuca with that of "heartland" China. With the prosperity of the "Silk Road" and development of Buddhist art in Dunhuang, Indian music left a deep impact on the tunes prevalent at Dunhuang.

Musicians and dancers, Cave No. 220, Early Tang

Musicians and dancers, Cave No. 220, Early Tang

The music for song and dance in Dunhuang murals can further be divided into two categories: the celestial and the secular tune. The so-called celestial music comprises the tunes created during the appearance of the deities in the world of BuddhakÀetra. We see the tune when the celestial musician is represented all over the Dunhuang caves of the early period. We also see it in the giant canvases of magnificent life of the Sukh¡vat¢ created in their grandeur during the Tang Dynasty, such as the scenes of "Huxuan" (foreign) dance painted in Cave No. 220 and "zhezhi" (lotus) dance in Cave No. 217. The secular music includes the music played in the song and dance of real life. In "the Painting of Zhang Yichao on his journey" we see the music played by his singers and dancers. We also see it in the musical band (qingshangji) and acrobatic show in another painting depicting his wife, the "Lady of Song". We see it again in the dance scene in the painting called "Marriage" when the lute is being played to the liuyao tune. The Devas participating in the celestial music and the mudr¡s and postures of Bodhisattvas are those who convey the music of Indian dances. But all the musical tunes were internalized by the artists of the Tang Dynasty and were absorbed into the gigantic system of Chinese music and dance in the spirit of continuous synthesis, characteristic of China's national ethos.

Dunhuang Cave Art and Theology

The cave art of Dunhuang derived from the style and technique of Buddhist art of the Western Regions. Its main purpose was to exalt the noble examples of the life of Buddha and stories about his previous lives in accumulating philanthropic virtues. Thus, we have a vigorous propagation of tragic themes such as Prince Sattva feeding himself to the tigress, King áibi cutting off his flesh to feed the eagle, King Chandraprabha offering his head to a Brahmin a thousand times, Sush¡nti feeding his parents with his own flesh. Through this propagation of the spirit of self-sacrifice, the ultimate idealism of becoming a Buddha is kept alive.


Musicians and dancers, Cave No. 220, Early Tang

Musicians and dancers, Cave No. 220, Early Tang

During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, there were periods of national unification and great progress in political economy which gave rise to the sudden rage for the illustrations of Mah¡y¡na S£tras.

The depictions of the paradise scenes of Maitreya, of BhaiÀajyaguru, and of Amit¡bha and also of the episodes from the Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka S£tra and the Vimalak¢rti-nirde¿a-S£tra replaced the dominant tragic mood of the earlier scenes of sadness and tragedy with scenes of peace and prosperity: represented by high-rise buildings and pavilions and magnificent singing and dancing. Beliefs that one can attain Buddhahood immediately after death or reach Sukh¡vat¢ by chanting the scriptures for only seven days have replaced the earlier idea of becoming the enlightened one only after an endlessly long course of asceticism. The following set of beliefs are now held by the devotees:

  1. Blessings for the deceased: Hoping the souls of one's late parents and ancestors be liberated from Hell and reborn in Sukh¡vat¢.

  2. Blessings for the living: Some manuscripts of Dunhuang paintings read: "Wishing that my family members hold good positions and have a peaceful life"; "Wishing that my old mother and all her descendants be delivered from sufferings"; and "Wishing that my master, the Duke of Cao, be safe and sound" and so on.

  3. Attaining Buddhahood (a general wish): Some manuscripts have the following prayers: "Praying that all the dead souls take birth in Sukh¡vat¢"; "Wishing that all the beings of this world attain enlightenment" and "Wishing all beings to become Buddha at once". Among all the instances, the strongest desire is to have blessings for the living. For example, in the illustrations of chapter on Samantamukha in the Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka S£tra and Avalokite¿vara S£tra as well as Sahasrabhuja-Sahasranetra Avalokite¿vara, there are numerous scenes which show that if the suffering beings chant the name of Avalokite¿vara, they will be delivered from their suffering instead of attaining Buddhahood after death. Thus, the aim of the paintings depicting Sukh¡vat¢ is to obtain deliverance from the sufferings of this world and to go to Sukh¡vat¢ to attain Buddhahood through the worship of Buddha. But this is easier said than done because of the nine hierarchical qualifications which pursue one's life even up to the paradise. Buddhist theology has undergone a thousand years of transformation in China through the influence of the Confucian ethics rooted firmly in this life and in this world.

The Exchange of Mural Composition Techniques between China and India

The Dunhuang murals derive their technique from two sources: one is the traditional Chinese mural technique, based on the experience of tomb murals of the Han and Jin Dynasties; the other is the one which came from India via the Western Regions. Both these sources have their distinct national features, reflected in characterization, line drawing, composition, colouring and capturing of the mood. In this paper, I shall focus only on the two entirely different methods of three-dimensional effect used in the cave murals.

"Aotufa" or the Indian technique that has travelled to China from the Western Regions aims at creating a three-dimensional effect by varying the pigments to effect light and shade. This method which has spread from Ajanta had already undergone many modifications before reaching Dunhuang. What the Dunhuang artists have learnt is the usage of reddish-pink colour for painting the body, vermilion-red for the eye-sockets, nose, wings and the contours of face in order to highlight light and shade, and finally using white for the bridge of the nose and the eye- ball because these parts are the brightest. With the passage of time, the pigments have changed colour. The muscles have taken on a greyish-black colour; this is particularly true with the white bridge of the nose, resulting in the appearance of the Chinese character in the face. This colouring technique prevailed in the Dunhuang caves for more than 250 years.

The traditional Chinese colouring technique is a simple one in contrast to the Indian three-dimensional method. Only a red patch is painted on the cheeks and on the upper eyelids which nevertheless imparts a three-dimensional effect. This technique was introduced from the Warring States period and came to maturity during Western Han. It entered Dunhuang by the end of the fifth century where it co-existed for nearly a hundred years with the light-and-shade technique of the Western Regions. At the end of the sixth century during the Sui Dynasty, the western and Chinese colouring techniques fused into one, which relied mainly on colouring variations combined with light and shade touches. In the beginning of the seventh century (Tang Dynasty), a brand-new Chinese three-dimensional technique was evolved.

The Fusion of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism

In the early phases of Dunhuang art, the thrust was on the illustration of Buddha's sermons, Buddha's life-story, the J¡taka tales which focus on Buddha's previous lives in self-sacrifice to rescue others, and also those Buddhist stories which expound the working of Karma. In addition, there were a thousand meditating Buddhas. This range of contents exalted the attainment of Enlightenment through the practices of the six p¡ramit¡s (commandments) and the achievement of a sombre and tranquil mood.

During the late Northern Wei, there appeared in Dunhuang the sacred figures of Taoism, such as the god Dongwanggong, goddess Xiwangmu, Fuxi, N£wa, the Necromancer, the four guardian angels (the Red Bird, Xuanwu, Green Dragons and White Tigers) and the winged angels, in addition to the warrior Wuhuo. Scenes of floating and swirling clouds and celestial flowers also appeared to create a dynamic scenario. Bodhisattvas with "elegant bones and handsome faces" painted in the style of South China are seen wearing a long gown and shoes with high heels and raised front. These were the images/dunhuang of Chinese elite. We have in these paintings a reflection of Buddhism internalizing Taoist mythology after it had settled in China.

From the Sui and Tang dynasties onwards there appeared many fake s£tras authored by the Chinese. Bao fumu enzhong jing (s£tras for Redemption from Indebtedness) was an adopted version of Xiaojing (Canon of Filial Piety) produced by Chinese writers. Some caves of the Tang Dynasty contain illustrations of this s£tra. The central portion is given to Buddha while the surrounding walls feature the ten months' cycle of a child during pregnancy, the different stages of rearing the child into a grown-up, the son's disobedience to his father and other kinds of misbehaviour against his parents. This is not a propagation of Buddhism but an exaltation of Confucian filial piety. At the heart of several illustrations of "Sukh¡vat¢" we discover the political and ethical realms of Confucianism. A scholar of the Southern and Northern Dynasties has aptly said, "If Buddha had been born in China, he would have been Confucius and if Confucius had been born in the West he would have been Buddha."

Dunhuang: The Confluence of Chinese and Foreign Styles of Cave Art

In the middle of the third century B.C., King A¿oka patronized Buddhism in a big way. Buddhist art developed in India in the first century. The Hellenistic style of Buddhist art appeared in Gandh¡ra and subsequently spread to other countries. Around the second century, it entered Khotan from Afghanistan. In the Minfeng tomb of Han style, south of Tianshan Range in Xinjiang, we discover the Hellenistic style of Bodhisattva images/dunhuang and the Chinese dragon design. In the temple ruins of Nuoqiang we discover the painting of Sud¡n¡ J¡taka. At the same time, to the north of Tianshan Range, centring around Kuca, we come across the art style of Bamiyan from the Kizil caves which merged with Kucan customs and folklore to create the typical Kucan story paintings.

However, Kucan art still carried within it elements of Indian, Afghan and Persian influence. More important is the contribution of Chinese painting. Hence a multi-faceted style of Western Regions came into existence.

Since the Jin Dynasty, Gaochang has always been governed by a Chinese regime, and Chinese culture has been deep-rooted. The nude paintings which came from the west were resisted by Confucian ideology. The sex of the Bodhisattvas was underplayed. Buddha and other deities became sexless celestial beings. The painting style here was closely associated with the "heartland" Chinese style. Gaochang was thus really the starting station of intercultural synergism in art between China and the West.

After the spread of Buddhist art to Dunhuang, more elements of Chinese culture were internalized from the very inception. We see examples of this in the gate-shaped altar, the inverted V-shaped ceiling, group painting in serials, and in the free and bold stroke work. However, the western style was still being preserved. During Northern Wei, the sinicization of figures and development of comic-strip compositions were in evidence. Although the Indian and Persian elements are still visible in the style, due to the westward expansion of Buddhist art of "heartland" China, especially that of South China (under the regimes of the Southern Dynasties), the heartland style became prominent in theme, characterization, line drawing, colouring and in its stereoscopic effect. This development took the process of sinicization in Dunhuang cave art to a high tide. At the same time, the Western style and the Heartland style interacted and also co-existed at Dunhuang, creating a new situation. After the Taihe Era (828-835), the "heartland" painting style spread to Western Regions, Central Asia and India along with the travels of Chinese monks such as Songyun, Huisheng and others to India. The Dunhuang Grottoes were undoubtedly the melting pot of the culture and art of China and the Western styles.

Translated by Sonu Agnihotri

This was a paper presented by Prof. Duan Wenjie at the international seminar on "Cave Art of India and China",

held in New Delhi, on November 25-27, 1991. --- Editor

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