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Periodization of Mogao Caves

The Dunhuang Academy has spent decades of efforts to identify the contents of the Mogao paintings and stucco images/dunhuang and has published its findings some years ago. 12 The publications have categorized the contents into the following periods:

  1. The period of Sixteen Kingdoms (366-439): seven caves.

  2. The Northern Wei period (439-534) and Western Wei period (535-556): ten caves in the early phase, and ten caves in the later phase.

  3. The Northern Zhou period (557-580): fifteen caves.

  4. Sui Dynasty (581-618): seventy caves.

  5. Early Tang, the first years of the Tang Dynasty (618-704): forty- four caves.

  6. High Tang (the period which witnessed the high tide of the Tang imperial power, 705-780): eighty caves.

  7. Middle Tang (the phase of decline of the Tang power, 781-847) also known as the Tubo (Tibetan) period because Dunhuang was under Tibetan occupation: forty-four caves.

  8. Late Tang (the last phase of the Tang Dynasty, 848-906, during which Dunhuang returned to Chinese rule because of the military feat of a local general Zhang Yichao): sixty caves.

  9. The Five Dynasties (907-923): thirty-two caves.

  10. Song Dynasty (only the early part, 960-1035): forty-three caves.

  11. Western Xia (1036-1226): eighty-two caves.

  12. Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty (1227-1368): ten caves.

It is no easy task to sort out the problem of periodization among the 492 caves left behind by a history of seventeen hundred years full of vicissitudes. We salute the researchers of Dunhuang Academy for their monumental task although allowances for inaccuracies can still be made. In sorting out this historical mess at Dunhuang, the Academy has not only been backed by the academic resources of entire China, but also by the richness of China's historical tradition. There are thousands of tons of archival documents for researchers to wade through.

It was this rich archival resources that have been put to good use by the Dunhuang Academy. In a way, the historical orderliness in the study of Dunhuang art is a result of Chinese sensitivity to historicity. This is not to take away the credit which is due to Professor Duan Wenjie and his colleagues of Dunhuang Academy, particularly Professor Shi Weixiang.

We have translated in this book four articles of Duan Wenjie which provide a chronological overview of the development of Dunhuang art. In these four articles Duan Wenjie has virtually reworked the nine dynasties periods of Dunhuang art into four historical phases:

(1) Pre-Tang--4th to 6th century

(2) First half of Tang--7th to 8th century

(3) Second half of Tang--9th to 10th century

(4) Post-Tang--10th to 15th century

This is obviously a Tang Dynasty-oriented division, highlighting the great achievement of Dunhuang during the Tang period which is traditionally regarded as the golden period of cultural development in China, like the Gupta Period in India.

Dunhuang art during the pre-Tang phase can be described as a new-born baby growing into an adolescent. It may also be likened to a joint venture in its initial period when imported components occupy a dominant portion in its production. Indigenization is still at an early stage. In his article, however, Professor Duan quite firmly emphasizes the national art traditions of the Han and Jin dynasties, and draws frequent comparisons between the Dunhuang paintings and the pre-Mogao tomb paintings in Hexi and other Chinese areas.

The important pre-Tang caves are: Nos. 248, 249, 251, 254, 257, 263, 272, 275, 285, 288, 290, 296, 428, 431, 435. In Cave Nos. 249 and 285 there are a lot of paintings which puzzle the researchers and evoke heated debates in seminars and writings. It is hoped that Indian scholars with a rich knowledge of legends and mythology can contribute new ideas to the debate. My humble submission is that in these and other caves during this phase, Sino-Indian intercultural contact was an open book which should not be interpreted with preconceived notions. Different methods/versions of identifications should be entertained.

Tang Dynasty is usually divided into (1) Early, (2) High, (3) Middle, and (4) Late Tang, with the abdication of Emperor Xuanzong I (712-755) as the watershed. Professor Duan has used this watershed to divide the Dynasty vertically into two halves. The first half, i.e., Phase II (7-8th century) of Dunhuang art is generally regarded as the zenith of achievement in Dunhuang which corresponds to the hightide of achievement in the Tang Empire itself. There is a logical connection or linkage between the two. To pursue our earlier analogy, in this phase Dunhuang art has entered its prime of life; and the process of indigenization is well underway.

The Tang Dynasty had three great rulers, Emperor Taizong (626-649), Empress Wu (684-704) and Emperor Xuanzong I. All the three shared one common experience --- they came to the throne by violating the traditional sacrosanct convention of succession. Their patronage of Buddhism had a personal motivation of acquiring for themselves the Bodhisattva image to wipe off the disrepute of usurpation. Empress Wu was the greatest rebel to Chinese convention which did not allow any place for a woman to hold public responsibility. She was the lone woman in Chinese history to become the "Son of Heaven" (the reigning ruler). It was no accident that the two giant Buddha images/dunhuang at Dunhuang came up during High Tang under the reigns of Empress Wu and Emperor Xuanzong I: the 33-metre "northern giant image" of Cave No. 96 was made in 695 during the Yanzai Era of Empress Wu and the 26-metre "southern giant image" of Cave No. 130 was made in 721 during the Kaiyuan Era of Emperor Xuanzong.

The foursome division by Duan Wenjie is an over-simplification which omits a short but not unimportant dynasty of Chinese history, the Sui Dynasty. We have seen that in a short span of 37 years during this dynasty 69 caves were created in Dunhuang, many of which were of a giant size. The glory of Dunhuang art during Sui had a historical background similar to that of High Tang --- both the emperors of Sui, Emperor Wen (582-604) and Emperor Yang (604-617), were usurpers to the throne, and both were among the greatest patrons of Buddhism in China. The peculiarity of Sui in Chinese history is similar to that of Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.): the fifteen-year-short dynasty of Qin played a pioneer role in unifying China. The systems established by it were followed up and developed by the 400-year-long Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). The same was true of the relationship between Sui and Tang. It is the Chinese convention to treat Qin and Han, and Sui and Tang as a continuous development. Thus, the second phase of Dunhuang art is inclusive of what was achieved during the Sui Dynasty. The important Mogao caves during this period are: Nos. 302, 305, 390, 419, 420 (of Sui), 23, 45, 57, 103, 148, 172, 144, 203, 217, 220, 320, 321, 322, 323, 328, 329, 332, 334, 375, 431, 445 (of Tang).

The third phase corresponding to the second half of the Tang Dynasty was a period during which Dunhuang maintained a separate political identity. During Middle Tang, Dunhuang was under Tibetan occupation, while during Late Tang, the local family of Zhang established its supremacy at Dunhuang virtually free from the long arm of intervention of the imperial government. As Duan Wenjie tells us, Buddhist art flourished during this period, but the spirit of grandeur and magnificence seems missing due to the lacklustre rule of the Tang Empire during this time.

The important caves belonging to the Tibetan period are: Nos. 112, 154, 158, 159 and those of Late Tang are: Nos. 9, 12, 85, 156, 196.

The last phase after the downfall of the Tang Dynasty is a period of decline in Dunhuang art. The immediate situation of China was that of disintegration and disorder. This period is known as the Five Dynasties in Chinese history. Dunhuang, however, maintained its comparative continuity and stability largely due to the local ruling family of Cao which played a role similar to that played by its predecessor, i.e., the Zhang family. The Song Dynasty was one imperial government in Chinese history which suffered a congenital deficiency in military power, although it was a period of prosperous trade and economic development. The Song government had enough problems with the northeastern invaders (Khitan, Nurchen and Mongol), and could not turn its eyes westward to develop Dunhuang. The succeeding Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty established a trans-European dominion and had a whole world to look after. Dunhuang was losing its importance in the overall situation.

The important caves belonging to the Five Dynasties are: Nos. 36, 61, 98, 146; of Song Dynasty: Nos. 55 and 76; of Western Xia, and of Yuan Dynasty are the Cave Nos. 97 and 3 respectively.


Buddhist Paradise in the Caves

Religion is an important cultural force which makes great contributions to culture. Religion enriches literature, art, architecture and other fields of culture. Buddhism is a shining example of this contributory function of religion. How Buddhism has enriched the literatures of India, China and other countries is a well-known fact. But, its contribution to the art of India and China is equally great, if not even greater than that to the Indian and Chinese literatures. Cave art is an invention of the ancient Indian Buddhists who had developed a peculiar rapport between the remote jungles and the bustling centres of humanity. The quest for enlightenment had first attracted them to jungles in the traditional spirit of sanny¡sa, while their missionary zeal had drawn them back from the jungles to the human gatherings to inform others about the enlightenment they had themselves attained.

A part of the Buddhist process of enlightenment was to create an unreal world to wean people's minds away from the unreality of the material world where ego, greed and false pride dominated. Buddhist cave art was to provide people with refreshing scenes of heavenly bliss. When people saw the solemn and kind images/dunhuang of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, flying angels, celestial musicians and others, their minds were momentarily occupied by a sense of peace, tranquillity, and tenderness, quite forgetting the fevered anxieties and anguish of the material world of profit and power.

Considering the Indian tradition of sanny¡sa, caves in the remote areas understandably become important cultural centres. China has no sanny¡sa tradition, but, surprisingly enough, more caves with Buddhist art contents have been created and preserved in China than in India. And the Mogao Grottoes have, in some sense, surpassed all Indian grottoes in grandeur and in the duration of their preservation. How can one explain this phenomenon?

An explanation may, however, be found by examining closely the historical function of Buddhist cave art. It is born neither of escapism, nor of any obsession with the remoteness of the mountains: it is simply that the cave scene is best suited to create a mystic surrounding to accommodate the human imagination about paradise. It is a form of rational unreality , to retreat temporarily from mundane human unreality.

One also must note the qualitative changes in the preachings of Buddhism when it developed Mah¡y¡nism. Mahayana Buddhism distinguished itself from the earlier Buddhist teachings by shifting the focus from achieving individual enlightenment to awakening the entire social consciousness about an alternative spiritual world order. The Mahayana Buddhist world was an overwhelming new vision under the realm of the Dharmar¡ja --- Buddha. It was a new world created by the dynamic roles of Bodhisattvas. The Bodhisattva was the quintessence of Mahayana philosophy, being the concentration of enlightenment, compassion, dedication and self-sacrifice. It was the Bodhisattva philosophy which greatly attracted the Chinese to the fold of Buddhism. In comparison, India, the motherland of Mah¡y¡na philosophy, was not so overwhelmed by the Bodhisattva spirit as China was from the 5th century onwards.

The socio-political developments of China also provide an answer. As the largest human collective on earth for the last two thousand years, China has always been the concentration of tension, creativity, wealth, social mobility, power struggles and foreign invasions. When the Indian Buddhist expansion in Asia was at its most vigorous and creative stage (in the first six centuries of the Christian era) China was undergoing a prolonged period of horizontal and vertical human mobility and political instability with many a foreign tribe being integrated into the Chinese political and cultural system. This turbulent period generated a strong desire for an invincible political ideology on the part of the combative rulers and a longing for a better world to live in on the part of the common people. Buddhism, particularly of the Mah¡y¡na variety, could offer some satisfaction to both.

A salient feature of Dunhuang art is its wealth of details about the brave new world of Buddhahood promising salvation to all. For most people, whether they were aware or ignorant of Buddha's teachings, this world had all the attractions to offer. The colourful and magnificent paradise, the learned preachers of the dharma, i.e., Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, their eager and receptive audience in the company of the flying angels who shower petals from the sky, and the active musicians whose melody you can easily see in your imagination --- all make up a universe of love, harmony, joy and beauty. The art extravaganza in Dunhuang symbolizes the celestial extravaganza of the Buddhist cosmogony. In addition, there is the reiteration of compassion, humaneness and self-sacrifice through the detailed illustrations of J¡taka stories. It adds a dimension of nobility to the colour and grandeur. Yet, everything is very Chinese, with the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and flying angels having Chinese features for the most part, in addition to the Chinese landscape and living details of Chinese traditions and customs. Even Chinese historical events and cultural heroes figure in the paintings which are primarily meant for the propagation of Buddhism, a dominant Indian cultural tradition.

Mah¡y¡nism is a philosophy which has a semi-scientific mind in observing the universe. The Chinese literature, particularly the Tang poetry, has digested one of its scientific imaginations which is expressed in Chinese language as "Hengsha" (the sands of the Ganga). What this bisyllabic word conveys is the Mahayana concept that there are as many universes as there are sands in the Ganga. Though this is not a conclusion after scientific experiments it is a great scientific discovery all right. Again, Mah¡y¡na philosophy conceives that endless may be the universe it can be reduced to ashes, while every iota of ash can be magnified into a universe. This is dialectics applied with extraordinary imagination --- something in the arena of future science I suspect. I mention all this to say that Mah¡y¡nism is extremely rich in visual imagination. All art forms guided by this philosophy have the task of expressing this visual imagination before the naked eyes. From this viewpoint we might say that the Chinese creators of Mah¡y¡na art have been even more diligent than their Indian counterparts. Dunhuang art is a shining example of converting this visual imagination into concrete shape and colour. What the Dunhuang builders meant to achieve was to create the Buddhist universe before the eyes of the believers and the laity, and convince them that "fofa wubian" (Buddhadharma is boundless). There is another difference in national character between the Indians and the Chinese. The former are always more imaginative than practical while the latter are just the opposite. For instance, it is only the Indian mind that is capable of imagining the existence of a beautiful paradise, tranquil, clean, full of joy and colour and music. However, while describing all this in detail in the Sutras, the authors add a word of caution that all this is illusory, and that one should not take it seriously. The Chinese mind would not approve such an approach. It could not bring about such a wonderful imagination of the paradise. But, once it came to know about this imagination it would not allow it to disappear as illusion. Dunhuang art and the Buddhist art created elsewhere have formed a Chinese endeavour to concretize the imagination of the paradise just as the creators of Ajanta and Ellora had tried to do. The difference lies in the fact that the Dunhuang creators had done it with far greater sincerity and seriousness, trying to put in all their energies to convince the spectators that the paradise is real, and well before their eyes.

Like the cave art of other places, the Dunhuang murals and stucco images/dunhuang were of the patrons, by the artists, and for the viewers. The local rulers of Dunhuang and their relatives in faraway places figure prominently among the patrons. There is singular absence of any evidence of substantial involvement of traders and merchants in the creation of art in the Mogao Grottoes. The bulk of the original viewers for whose sake this art was created comprised the ruling elite, the Buddhist (and perhaps Taoist) priesthood, and the visiting government officials, emissaries and traders, but the commoners were not excluded either.

I have mentioned earlier about the numerous caves a tourist can visit today in Gansu province alone. Here is a scenario very similar to the fact that Maharashtra is the cradle of cave art in India. The latter phenomenon is generally attributed to the strategic importance of Maharashtra in ancient India's foreign trade. Now, modern Gansu is situated in the Hexi Corridor of ancient times which had such a strategic importance since the Han Dynasty onwards as has been alluded to earlier. Moreover, the Silk Road that connected the Hexi Corridor with the wider world was a much busier highway of international trade than that existed in ancient Maharashtra. It is this historical and geographical background that provides us with an answer about the prosperity of cave art in Gansu.

The art in the Mogao Grottoes has been preserved so well not only because of the remoteness of the site from human activities such as wars and robbery but also because of consistent human care over the last one-and-a-half millennia. This reveals the popularity of Dunhuang art among Chinese communities both high and low. The Dunhuang literature also testifies to this popularity. There is also reason to believe that this art treasure has endeared itself to foreign visitors throughout history.

In Dunhuang and elsewhere, the ancient Chinese conceived Buddhist caves as temples; each cave created was a temple added. Temple Culture was not a Chinese invention, but one clearly imported from India through Central Asia. By "temple culture" I mean the concentration of wealth, money, manpower, materials, artistic talents and engineering skills that go into the creation of a holy shrine to serve as the cultural centre of society. Prior to the advent of Buddhism in China, there was only the Palace Culture, with a similar concentration of resources to create the grandeur of the king's or emperor's residence.

Temple Culture had an obvious advantage over Palace Culture. The former could be enjoyed by both the rulers and the commoners while the latter was for the exclusive indulgence of the privileged few. China was a land which witnessed frequent incidents of peasant rebellion. The rebel armies hated the palaces and were inclined to destroy the palaces whenever they seized any; they never showed this hostility towards the temples. In other words, Temple Culture was accepted by all the classes in China, some with indifference, others with enthusiasm. Tang poetry, the high watermark of Chinese literature, is replete with descriptions of the poets' visits to the Buddhist temples. Even more extraordinary was the Tang poets' practice of using the walls of the Buddhist temples to inscribe their newly created poems. The famous duo of the eighth century poets, Bai Juyi (772-849) and Yuan Zhen (779-831), must have used thousands of square metres of the temple walls to record their sentiments for each other in rhyme, according to Bai Juyi's own confession. A unique historical event which took place during the eighth and ninth centuries was when the scholars gathered in the imperial capital to appear in the last test in the imperial examination (started during the Tang Dynasty as the main institution of recruitment of high-ranking administrators). Many of the examinees went to the premises of Dayanta (Great Swan pagoda) in Chang'an where the renowned Tang pilgrim, Xuanzang, had lived and worked, to inscribe a poem or two on the walls.13 This fondness for Temple Culture also contributed to the popularity of cave art in China.

Temple Culture reached its zenith in China during the beginning of the ninth century when Emperor Xianzong (805-820) started a rage of worshipping the holy relics of Buddha including some finger bones which were said to have been left behind by the Enlightened One. Incidentally, the same finger bones were rediscovered a few years ago, and are now exhibited at Famen Monastery in the outskirts of Xi'an as an international tourist attraction. (Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was scheduled to see them during his historic China visit in 1988, but only the journalists in his entourage saw them.) Han Yu, an eminent scholar-courtier, represented against the Chinese Son-of-Heaven (the Tang Emperor) paying homage to the relics of a "foreigner" (Gautama Buddha). He said that if there was to be retribution for his not showing reverence to the almighty deity he would gladly bear the consequences. Paradoxically, no curse fell upon Han Yu, but the emperor, who nearly beheaded Han Yu for his insolence and went ahead with his programme of imperially sponsored national celebration of the Buddha relics, died suddenly after the gala event as if a spell had been cast upon him. This frenzied festivity took place with hundreds of thousands of people filing in long queues to pay homage to the finger bones after the emperor had first done so. One of the crazy devotees cut off his arm while another put fire on his head in front of the sacred relics to anticipate some miraculous cure. No miracle ever occurred, but thousands of the audience watched the agony suffered by the ones with a bleeding arm and a burning head. The emperor's sudden death added insult to injury while the entire Chinese nation recovered from the excessive enthusiasm for miracles by Buddha.

Han Yu, who is mistakenly considered a staunch xenophobic anti-Buddhist in non-Chinese scholarly quarters, was quite an objective observer without any malice towards the religion imported from India. He composed a poem in honour of a Buddhist head monk and his monastery. The poem refers to a visiting Indian monk by the name of "Sangha" who had built up a monastery in the spirit of "where there is a will there is a way". While the sky was the limit for funds, Tang Emperor Zhongzong (705-709) christened it as "Puguangwang si" (Monastery of Visvaprabharaja). Han also described the prosperity of the Buddhist Temple Culture:

"For what, may I ask,

Has the Buddha come from the west,

While the four seas race forward

Indulging in building activities?

Towering mansions and pavilions

Cut asunder the sky line,

Throwing rivals far behind."14

An even more interesting poem of Han Yu's which has a bearing on our discussion is his "Huashan nu" (The girl of Mount Hua) in which the poet narrated a sensation created in the capital, Chang'an, by a Buddhist nun, who had dressed up like a Bodhisattva inside a nunnery. The citizens of Chang'an rushed to the premises of the nunnery to see the spectacle, and the pseudo-Bodhisattva was summoned to the palace to satisfy the curiosity of the imperial ladies. In the same poem, Han Yu described the Tang capital as a city full of Buddhist pomp and show:

"Preaching Buddhist scriptures

In the streets west and east,

The noise of bells and shells

Deafen the imperial mansions.

Heavenly bliss to seduce

And attributions to deter,

Like duckweeds

The audience gathers."

In the same poem he also informs us that while the Taoists had tried to emulate the feat of their Buddhist counterparts, the few listeners gathered in their temples were like stray stars in the vast sky.

What Han Yu has illustrated in his two poems can be described as an audio-visual extravaganza of Buddhist Temple Culture in China. With its foreign origin and sophisticated theology, Buddhism would not have infiltrated into the Chinese masses had the Chinese preachers not resorted to this audio-visual extravaganza. Once this presentation caught the imagination of the Chinese masses, Buddhist teachings took root in the folklore of China, and through China, spread further afield to East and Southeast Asia.

The Tang Dynasty saw not only the climax of Temple Culture in China, but also the highest achievements in Dunhuang art as alluded to earlier. While Dunhuang art should certainly not be treated as a phenomenon isolated from the universal Temple Culture in China, there is justification to highlight it as a unique culture in its own right, and as a bright jewel of Sino-Indian intercultural synergism.

The historical ruling classes of China did not sacrifice the Palace Culture while embracing the Temple Culture. In fact, they incorporated the Temple Culture into the Palace Culture to make the former serve the latter. From the Dunhuang paintings we can clearly see the attempt on the part of the Chinese ruling elite to invigorate the ruling system by absorbing a part of the Mah¡y¡na cosmology into China's governing ideology. Paradise scenes figure quite prominently in the Dunhuang paintings. We see the shadows of the Chinese rulers in the characterization of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and we see the female inmates of the Chinese palaces (imperial ladies, maids, singers, dancers and musicians) in the flying figures, celestial musicians and even the attendant Bodhisattvas. The houses depicted in the paradise are in the style of actual Chinese palace architecture.

A distinctive feature of the human faces painted and moulded at Dunhuang during the Tang Dynasty and even afterwards is the double-chin. A typically perfect face was created during the High Tang at the Fengxian temple among the Longmen caves near Luoyang --- that of the standing giant Vairocana Buddha which has impressed many a foreign dignitary, including the Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao. The statue is considered as the best sculpture ever made in China. The face is the combination of compassion, wisdom, tranquillity, handsomeness, and, last but not least, prosperity. Quest for prosperity is a Chinese psyche. The double-chin is the very symbol of prosperity. Not only the Vairocana Buddha of the Longmen caves has the double-chin, but the images/dunhuang of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, flying figures created from the Tang Dynasty onwards at Dunhuang all have double-chins. Not only that, all the portraits of the patrons and their family members, even the maids have double-chins. Double-chin is, thus, a human sign of prosperity transposed to the images/dunhuang of the celestial beings. This is also an evidence of the intermingling of the Palace Culture with the Temple Culture in China.

Buddhist preachers in ancient India created a duality in their representations of the two worlds: they painted the mundane world in dark colours and then offered an alternative world of Buddhahood steeped in heavenly bliss. Under the influence of Confucianism, the Chinese cultural tradition emphasized the inherent goodness of men. "Everyone can become a sage" (Renjie keyi wei Yao Shun ), claims the Chinese saying. It was on the basis of this idea that Chan/Zen Buddhism gained its mass following in China with its propagation that every human being was a potential Buddha. In this connection, I have found a very interesting article by Professor Jiang Boqin of Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou which described Dunhuang as one of the earliest bastions of Chan Buddhism in China. The article mentions that in the Mogao Caves No. 144 and No. 196 of Late Tang we find inscriptions depicting the patrons as people who had achieved "dunwu" (instant enlightenment).15 This is an important revelation showing the eagerness of the creators of some of the Dunhuang caves to enlist themselves in the Buddhist holy order. This underlines a part of the mundane motivations in the creation of the visual extravaganza of Dunhuang, viz., to glorify their own association with the Brave New World of the Buddha so that their prominent social standing on earth would long endure. To such builders of the Dunhuang art caves, to exhibit the glories of Buddhist paradise was like exhibiting their own riches and luxuries. In this way, they also transformed the Heavenly Bliss into their own properties. This is not a strange phenomenon in ancient and modern India where we see the creation of magnificent temples as an expression of household splendour. ( A business house of modern India is the most enthusiastic builder of Hindu temples in all the big cities and important places of the country.) This is happy marriage between Temple Culture and Palace Culture. This, in a way, is a significant and positive aspect of China's absorption of ancient Indian culture and art.

Art is for popular appreciation, but it essentially serves certain social needs. The wealth of iconography in Buddhist art in general and in Dunhuang Buddhist art in particular, clearly indicates the sophisticated social functions which symbolism is intended to serve. We should have no difficulty in relating this art to the history of the socio-cultural reality of Dunhuang.


Visual Glory of Ideology


Cave No. 428, Northern Zhou

Cave No. 428, Northern Zhou

Some fundamental questions have to be asked in our discussion of the magnificent phenomenon of Dunhuang art: (1) Is it an expression of religious faith or artistic pursuit, or both? (2) If it symbolizes both religious faith and artistic predilection, does it mean that the creators of Dunhuang art have adulterated their religious authenticity with mundane concerns?


Before directly answering the first question, let us reflect on the Indian religious art the style of which was set up by the ancient Buddhist art. One thing that strikes any viewer of Indian religious art is the obvious intention to depict the fair sex, even the goddesses, with a passionate mundane perspective. The extreme example is, of course, the Hindu sculpture of Khajuraho. The Buddhist discipline in ancient India was quite strict about womanizing. It is clearly stated in the scriptures that any male inmate in Heaven (Chinese term "Tianzi") would be banished to mankind or Hell if he is momentarily seized by sexual passion while living with the female inmates there (Chinese term "Tian nu"). Yet, we see in Ajanta and elsewhere that women have been depicted by the creators of ancient Buddhist art to appeal to male sensuality. I am making this observation not to debase the nobleness of Buddhist art, but only to highlight an internal contradiction between the ancient Indian asceticism and the human nature in appreciating the feminine charm and beauty. This religious dilemma of Indian Buddhism has already indirectly answered the two questions posed by us. Religion, after all, is a worldly, human affair. It cannot be dehumanized in life and in art.

It is exactly this dichotomy in religious art which enables the atheists of modern China to regard the Dunhuang art as something of the highest cultural achievement of the nation while making no secret of their antipathy towards Buddhism as a religion. But, it is simply illogical to compartmentalize the aspect of art of Dunhuang art from its religious aspect. Art and religion are symbiotic in Dunhuang art. One cannot imagine that such art achievement could have been attained without the religious inspirations and drive as we have witnessed in the Mogao caves. Thus, we have a holistic answer for Dunhuang art, appreciative of both its religious idealism and humanistic art depiction.

However, there is a silver lining at Dunhuang regarding the sensual appeal. As Duan Wenjie informs us, there are some nude figures in the Dunhuang paintings. These examples belong to the early periods, and are few and far between. One significant modification of female figures in the Mogao paintings is to erase their breasts, particularly in the topless presentations. China had a tradition of strictly non-exhibition of sexual love and passion. In the Tang dynasty, Buddhist preachers in the capital, Chang'an, were accused of telling "obscene" stories to the audience whereas they had actually talked about only normal life stories between men and women. Eventually, such preachings known as "Sujiang" (popular speeches) were banned by Chang'an municipal government. We can see that the Buddhists were under great constraints in presenting their visual discourse to the public. Dunhuang furnishes a typical example of such a prudent and responsible attitude. By and large, what we see in the Mogao caves is not only high standard of art presentation but also dignified moral teachings as well. In other words, the inherent dilemma of religious art has been satisfactorily handled at Mogao. Dunhuang art has achieved a spiritual elevation of the mundane taste while presenting a highly satisfying popular art to the masses.

Hong Yiran, the late Chinese expert on Dunhuang art, thought that Buddhist art in general and Dunhuang art in particular represented a futile experiment in employing a visual medium to illustrate a metaphysical ideology. He cited the illustrations of Mah¡parinirv¡na in the Dunhuang murals to substantiate his thesis. The Indian concept of Nirv¡na, he said, was a complex and sophisticated idea of the destruction of the flesh ushering in the liberation of the ego within the birth-death cycle. This represented a dialectical relationship between life and death, mortality and immortality. Based on this ideology the Buddha figure in the scene of Mah¡parinirv¡na always had an appearance of ease and tranquillity leading popular Chinese tradition to mistakenly refer to it as the "Sleeping Buddha", while the scene of grief-stricken mourners standing by him (some even cut parts of their own bodies to lament the great loss) ill-matched this tranquillity and contradicted the very conception of Nirvana thus creating confusion in the minds of the viewers.16

However, what is regarded by Hong Yiran as a "futile experiment" may, indeed, be one of the most striking successes of Dunhuang art. It is, in fact, one of the most powerful expositions of Buddhist ideology ever created by man. We had a wonderful piece of Mah¡parinirv¡na in the Exhibition of Dunhuang Art in New Delhi, and most of us who have seen it have felt the impact of the persuasive power of the Buddhist ideology. One can only imagine how much greater would have been its impact in ancient times when religious beliefs had not as yet been challenged by science.

Let us, for a moment, consider Dunhuang art in the wider context of the interactions between the Chinese culture and Buddhism. There is no question of a ”Buddhist Conquest“of China (the title of a well-known and very well-written book). 17 China, a culture as highly developed as that of India, accepted Buddhism on her own terms. In other words, Buddhism was never at any time imposed on her; she sought Buddhism voluntarily and chose to conduct Buddhist evangelism in a manner which she thought best suited to promote her national interests. This, in fact, was the basic difference between the fate of Buddhism and that of all other foreign religions which have never succeeded in commanding universal belief throughout Chinese history.

The greatest charm of Indian culture and Indian Buddhism which appealed to the Chinese culture and society lay in its rich imagination and in a refreshing inventory of symbolism. Many among the Chinese ruling elite in history liked the Buddhist symbolism not because of its inner logical perfection, but because of its social functions, the superiority of its cultural content and finally its suitability to the Chinese socio-political milieu.

Bai Juyi was an example of the best and most successful intellectuals of the Tang culture who had first distinguished himself in the imperial examinations, and later had a full scholar-official career, basking in the sunshine of imperial grace. He was also posthumously honoured by the imperial government, the emperor himself composing a hymn to mourn his demise. On the other hand, he also showed strong pro-Indian sentiments by naming himself "Letian" (Devananda) and "Xiangshan" (Gandham¡dana). His friend, the poet Liu Yuxi, jokingly described him as a "devil fallen into the holy order" because his predilections were Buddhism, poetry, alcohol and women.

Bai Juyi used to enjoy the best of the worldly life:

"I watch the dancing performance

Of the jade appearances of women,

And I listen to recitations of poems

With rhymes and rhythm ringing golden."18

Then there came a change in him after he had accepted the Buddhist teachings:

"Seven articles of true teachings

Of what the celestials were doing,

And one fascicle of scriptures

Enlighten me about the Bodhi nature.

Hence I come to realize

The futility of life

And the dust and dirt so perverse

That have entered my universe." 19

After this transformation, the poet began to express a world-view which was just the reverse of his earlier sentiments:

"Though whiling away time in a pub

No going astray from Dharma as such,

All music sounds to me hollow

And charming beauties sallow."20

Bai Juyi also composed a poem titled "Guan huan" (Seeing illusions) which saw "huan" (human happiness) as "qi" (grief), and life revolving around "ku" (dukha) and "kong" (¿£nya, i.e., void).21

However, in another poem titled "Sengyuan hua" (Flowers in the temple), he appreciated the beauty of the colourful flowering trees inside the Buddhist premises and likened the flowers to the scriptures and the blossoms of wisdom.22

In Bai Juyi, Buddhism had recruited a true follower who had not lost his sensitivity to beauty, but only discarded his mundane taste for the things of life which, he felt, appealed only to deluded minds. In a poem he composed in reply to his friend, Yuan Zhen, entitled "He Chenxia" (Morning twilight), he wanted to sing a hymn for Buddhism. He imagined the Great Compassionate One (cishi ) whose heart was with the masses of the world --- the one who was flanked by K¡¿yapa on the left and Indra on the right, with thousands of Bodhisattvas and millions of spirits and supernatural beings in his audience. He, the Buddha, worked tirelessly to impart his compassion to open the eyes of the blind; his wisdom was like the bright sun shining on mankind, and his blessings, like ”ganlu“ (amrita). How could the natural morning and twilight compare with the magnificence of the Jade Paradise (yucheng) of the Buddha?23 We might say that the paintings on the walls done by the contemporaries of Bai Juyi at Mogao were the visual equivalent of what he had depicted in this poem.


Another Chinese intellectual of a later period, the famous reformist Prime Minister of the Song Dynasty, Wang Anshi (1021-1086), composed a famous poem in praise of the Triratna, i.e., Triple Jewel (sanbao):

"With mass following

The Buddhist procession

Dignified and solemn.

I long

For a trip

Around Sukh¡vat¢

Bodhisattvas and saints

In blessed company.

An eternal farewell

To mundane folly."24

We have similar sentiments expressed by the monks who used to reside at Mogao during and before Wang Anshi's time, as seen in the song below written by an anonymous Dunhuang monk of the eighth century:

"The man reborn in Heaven

From a lotus he emerged

Angels hover around him

Petals rotate between spaces,

And gentle music enchants the sky.

Here I enjoy the celestial bliss

Better than I stay in paradise."

And again:

"The man reborn in Heaven

From a lotus he emerges

Washing off his mundane dirt

In the Pond of Seven Jewels,

Immersed in the culture of Truth

His nobleness free from abuse."25

The poet seems to speak like one who has seen the Sukhavati illustrations on the walls of Mogao Grottoes. When the Buddhist monks meditated and underwent their Dharma-culture inside the caves in front of these paintings, they felt it was "better than staying in the paradise".

All this augments my answers to the questions posed earlier. Yes, we have in Dunhuang art a strong component of religious faith which is only invigorated by the magnificent art. On the other hand, art has remained a faithful instrument at Dunhuang to develop and propagate Buddhism, even as new concepts and designs were explored in artistic technique and execution. Art and religion are in the happy situation at Dunhuang of being symbiotic, co-existing and mutually enriching. The Tang Dynasty witnessed a great development of both Buddhism and Chinese art while Dunhuang basked in its peak of glory. And the decline of Dunhuang art after the tenth century can also be attributed to the decline of Buddhism. Thus Dunhuang offers a remarkable evidence to our holistic perspective that art can hardly isolate itself from the other components of culture. Neither art, nor religion can be studied in arbitrary watertight compartments as is often the case in modern science and even in the social sciences.


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© 1994 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi