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Indian Component of Dunhuang Art

It is time now to step into the other space of holistic domain, viz., art and culture belong to mankind as a whole, and no national boundary should be set for the study of any subject, including Dunhuang art. This is not to take away from China her claim for having created the art of Dunhuang. Nor is there any intention to play down the Chinese contribution to the development of Buddhist art in general, and Dunhuang art in particular. In fact, viewed in the holistic perspective, this Chinese contribution is not just for the development of Chinese culture and art, but for that of all people.

If we regard art and culture as a holistic growth of the mankind without the notion of national boundaries, then Dunhuang art can be placed at the midstream of the long river of the Buddhist culture and art which originated from India. The academic content of Dunhuang art is doubtlessly Indian. Moreover, it would be unthinkable that such magnificent Buddhist art could have blossomed at Dunhuang without the expert advice and guidance of people who were conversant with Indian art and culture.

Although we do not have a comprehensive record about the Indians at Dunhuang, traces of their presence and their contribution can be gleaned from various accounts. One of the first Indians at Dunhuang was the guru of the renowned DharmakÀema (231-308) who was the scion of a Central Asian family settled at Dunhuang for generations. We cannot identify the name of Dharmaraksa's guru who is recorded as "Zhugaozuo" (an Indian Mah¡thera). DharmakÀema changed his Chinese name from Zhi (indicating his Yuezhi ancestry) to Zhu (identification with India) after he began following the teachings of his Indian guru. Later, he became the celebrated "Zhu Fahu" of Chinese accounts. Inspired by his Indian guru, Dharmaraksa also journeyed to India in the latter half of the third century, and returned to China with scriptures and a working knowledge of 36 languages of India and Central Asia. He was the first scholar to establish an office at Dunhuang to undertake the translation of Buddhist scriptures from ancient Indian languages into Chinese. He was helped by a Chinese scholar Nie Chengyuan. From Dunhuang he went to Chang'an and Luoyang in interior China to end his life as a "Dunhuang Pusa" (the Bodhisattva from Dunhuang).

Another eminent Indian who was associated with the Buddhist centre at Dunhuang was DharmakÀema (385-433). Born in Magadha, he lost his father at the age of six, and became a child labourer, weaving carpets along with his mother for survival. At the age of ten, he was exposed to religious teachings under the popular guru, Dharmaya¿¡, and, in course of time, became an authority on Buddhism himself. He journeyed to Kashmir, and went on further to Kuca and Dunhuang. In 421, he became a favourite of the Northern Liang ruler, Mengxun, and cured the latter of his illness. When the overlord of north China, Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei, sent for Dharmakshema, Mengxun did not want to oblige, nor could he refuse. He despatched DharmakÀema to the Northern Wei court, but had him assassinated on the way in 433.

DharmakÀema lived on for many years at Dunhuang translating the scriptures and preaching. He propagated the teachings of Avalokite¿vara. It was said that the medicine with which he cured the ruler of Northern Liang was the text of Saddharma-pundarika which had just been translated into Chinese by another eminent Indian monk-scholar, Kumarajiva (344-413 or 350-409), entitled Miaofa lianhua jing. One of the chapters of Saddharma-pundarika was "Pumen pin" (Chapter on Universal Gate) which propagated Buddhism's universal power in rescuing mankind. DharmakÀema's use of this chapter as a magical medicine introduced a supernatural element into the text, and might have contributed to the chapter becoming a separate scripture entitled Guanyin jing (Avalokite¿vara S£tra). Dharmak¦ema himself became a legend and earned the title of "Yibole pusa", perhaps a transliteration of "Bodhisattva Ì¿vara".26

Professor Duan Wenjie has provided important information in his article on the Dunhuang art during the second half of Tang Dynasty that Gunabhadra (394-468) and Amoghavajra (705-774) visited the Dunhuang area during their sojourns in China. Gunabhadra, an Indian monk from Magadha, was an exponent of Mah¡y¡na doctrine, for which he earned in China the honorific nickname "Monkeyan" (Mah¡y¡na). He reached China by sea in 435, and was treated with hospitality and honour by the Song emperor Wen (424-453), the overlord of South China. He and Gunavarma from Kashmir were the two eminent Indian guests of the Song ruler, and both were active in preaching and translating scriptures. The La´k¡vat¡ra-S£tra was first translated into Chinese by Gunabhadra in 443,into Lengjiajing, which was used by another Indian, Bodhidharma (?-536), founder of Chan Buddhism in China, as the main text of his sect. Professor Duan has identified Gunabhadra as a source of inspiration for the Dunhuang art and his visit to Shazhou (Dunhuang) as one of the reasons for the increase in illustrations of sutras in the Dunhuang murals.

A Kashmiri monk-scholar, Dharmamitra (357-442) reached Dunhuang from Kuca in 422. After staying for a few years, he left Dunhuang and went to Nanjing to become yet another Indian guest of the Song emperor Wen. Two hundred years later, Dharmagupta from South India arrived at Dunhuang in 590 and from there went on to the Sui capital Chang'an to become the honoured monk-scholar of Emperor Wen and later of Emperor Yang, both devout Buddhists.

Amoghavajra's original nationality is controversial. While convention identifies him as an Indian as Professor Duan has done, the recent Zhongguo dabaike quanshu (Chinese Encyclopaedia), volume on "Zongjiao" (religion), published in 1988 from Beijing, identified him as having come from Sr¢ Lank¡. Our holistic approach can accommodate him as one of the great exponents in Sino-Indian intercultural synergism because of his great contributions in popularizing Tantrism in China. His guru, Vajrabodhi (660-731), was an Indian monk and a great Tantric master who ordained Amoghavajra into monkhood in Luoyang in 724. After the death of his guru, he was sent to India with thirty-seven Chinese disciples to pursue further studies in Tantrism. He returned from India to China in 746. His academic excellence aided by his mastery of magical tricks, which have become legendary in China, gave a fillip to the popularization of Tantrism in the second half of Tang Dynasty. Professor Duan has rightly credited him with a significant contribution to the Tantric paintings which came to prominence in Dunhuang art during the same period. An inscription now preserved in the Historical Museum in Xi'an described Amoghavajra as "Sandai guanding guoshi" (The R¡jaguru who has baptized three Tang emperors). He was treated as a duke during his lifetime and awarded an honorific title after his death by the Tang government.

I have only cited a few Indian names because of the paucity of documentary evidence. It can be logically assumed that almost every well-known Indian who went to China from Central Asia lived for a while in Dunhuang, for it was the most important midway station in their long journeys.


Bodhisattva, Cave No. 204, Early Tang

Bodhisattva, Cave No. 204, Early Tang

Indian Influence on Chinese Art

Before discussing the influence, we must first acknowledge that the greatest Indian contribution to Chinese painting is the development of art and skill of "human figures" (renwu), one of the four disciplines of Chinese painting. But, so vitally important a genre in Chinese painting was not well developed before the introduction of Buddhist art to China. This reminds me of the story where the enchanting imperial lady Wang Zhaojun was bidding farewell to the Han emperor Wu before being despatched to the kingdom of a Hun chieftain to buy peace. Her profound sentiments were conveyed through her last glance at the emperor, creating an everlasting remorse in the latter.


The emperor then asked the palace painter Mao Yanshou to recapture this very moving parting scene. What artist Mao produced was far below the standard expected by the emperor. The furious monarch immediately put the painter to death for his failure in recapturing that moving, enchanting last glance of the departing imperial lady. Dunhuang art may be regarded as the hightide of this genre. Nowhere in China at any time had so much attention been put into the perfecting of human images/dunhuang as in the Mogao caves, although most of such images/dunhuang were meant to be deities. Our book is the witness of such immense Chinese effort in perfecting human figure painting. In their efforts the artists of Dunhuang benefited enormously by the Indian Buddhist paintings and sculpture. All the oldest Chinese masters of human figures such as Yan Liben etc. made their careers in Buddhist painting. They were self-trained disciples of Indian masters in this field. Though, there was a long process of Sinicization in human figure painting featuring the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as pointed out by Duan Wenjie, the Indian heritage has never been erased from Dunhuang art even in the latter phases. First, the characteristics of Buddha images/dunhuang remained Indian with the extraordinarily long ears, curly hair, sharp nose, rishi's pose, tropical costumes of the Indian Buddha preserved intact. Second, though there had been substantial modifications of the figures of Bodhisattvas, they still carried with them many original Indian characteristics, including the dhoti and the garland. Third, the Indian methods of differentiating various categories of deities and supernatural beings were observed by the book. The stereotype of Buddha in the centre, flanked by disciples, Bodhisattvas and lokap¡las was preserved, though with modifications. The Dunhuang human figure painting and stucco image-making is Sino-Indian joint venture, but the Indian infrastructure is unmistakably true. This Indian contribution to Chinese painting eventually filled up a vacuum, viz., helping "human figures" establish as a great discipline in Chinese art.

Dunhuang inherited the conventional Indian pattern of Buddhist art in which everything centres around the focal theme, i.e., the Buddha image. As regards the landscape, the Amit¡bha-S£tra alludes to only one sun, one moon and one Mount Sumeru in every "small chiliocosm" (xiaoqian shijie ). Then, a thousand small chiliocosms form a "medium chiliocosm" (zhongqian shijie), and a thousand medium chiliocosms form the "great chiliocosm" (daqian shijie) which is the Tri-sahasra-mah¡-loka-dh¡tu (sanqian daqian shijie). The Guanwuliangshou jin (Amit¡yus S£tra) says that Mount Sumeru is surrounded by seven continents and eight seas (qishan bahai ). A recent study points out that highlighting the central theme is ideologically built into the artistic conception of the Buddhist caves.27 The study shows that what has been created on the walls of Mogao is a complex composition of various dimensions and depths to exhibit the omnipresence of the almighty Buddhadharma.28 This is indeed a profound observation. If we look at the scenes, whether those depicting the J¡taka stories, the life of Gautama Buddha, or paradise, there is a deliberate design of asymmetry and imbalance to remind the viewers that there is not just one sequence or level, but several sequences and levels incorporated into space. The logic behind this treatment is to disrupt the perceptions of the common people and to lead them into the endless depth of the Buddhist universe.

Professor Duan has referred to the traditional Chinese style of Ren dayu shan (human figures bigger than mountains) in landscape paintings. I wonder if this style did not derive from the Buddhist strategy of creating depth by deliberately disturbing the natural uni-dimensional proportions. Just as a camera can highlight a central figure by reducing the distant objects into miniature proportions, similarly the proportional enlargement of the Buddha figure in Buddhist cave art results in miniaturization of all, shrinking the sizes of natural surroundings, including mountains --- a typical example of "Ren dayu shan".

Professor Duan has discussed in many places the introduction to China of the Indian "three-dimensional technique" in colouring. From his discussion there seem to be two different streams of three-dimensional painting: one springing from Indian source and another from Chinese source; in the Dunhuang murals of Tang the two streams flowed into a confluence to produce magnificent paintings. Western scholars have often pointed out that Indian sculpture, matchless in its grandeur, must have exercised a great influence on Chinese art, particularly Chinese sculptures from the sixth century onwards.

As said earlier, Dunhuang art is a synthesis between Buddhism and art, providing immense scope for us to study the Indian influence on Chinese art. Dunhuang, in the first place, emulates Ajanta of India in employing artistic talent in the propagation of a religious ideology. This employment is virtually the exclusive invention of Buddhism, although other religions have emulated it and shown equal competence in it. This employment itself brought about a revolutionary change in the nature and social functions of Chinese art. Of course, we have Professor Duan to remind us time and again that Dunhuang art has exhibited a strong dynamism in employing religious propaganda to boost the morale of Chinese regimes, which amounts to "de-religionization" in Buddhist art. Here we see an interesting historical phenomenon of Chinese art first being exposed to religionization, and then starting a process of de-religionization. It is through such an interactive process of development that Chinese art moved into higher and more striking achievements.

In the logic of cultural relativism, Dunhuang art is both an intercultural and intracultural development. First, the culture of Dunhuang had to indulge in an intercultural exercise to allow itself to be externalized. Then it proceeded to internalize the exotic cultural element into its own body. The changes of Dunhuang art during various periods formed a process of intracultural development. Once internalized, Buddhism and Indian culture, Buddhist art and Indian art, became a part of Dunhuang's intracultural development. It is worth noticing that feminization of the deities and the celestial beings began not at the very beginning of Dunhuang art, but during High Tang. As Professor Duan informs us, the Bodhisattvas of Dunhuang during Tang Dynasty were more comparable to the Indian goddesses in posture and temperament than they had been in earlier times. This phenomenon brings out the fly-over type of intercultural and intracultural tracks in contrast to unilinear parallel-track development.

I am trying to analyse Dunhuang art not purely from the technical aspect of artistic execution, but with a macroscopic perspective of cultural relativism. I would very much wish that those scholars who sit on mounds of information will view the development of Dunhuang art from such a perspective. Cultural relativism is the very life of every culture, particularly cultures such as the one to which Chinese art belongs, which have a great vitality to survive long historical vicissitudes. Cultural relativism is a part of the cultural ecology where we do not use arithmetical methods to quantify or enumerate exotic influence, or compare the indigenous and the exotic in a one-to-one equation. As I see it, Buddhism gave Dunhuang art just such spiritual nutrient as the fresh air gives a plant oxygen. This spiritualism created an almost invisible change in the line drawing, colouring, composition and characterization of Dunhuang art. The absorption of such a spiritual nutrient goes through the process of externalization and internalization, or, in other words, Indianization and Sinicization. This continuous process of Indianization and Sinicization has settled down in the development of Dunhuang art and become its own metabolism.

I am not an artist by training, but am more familiar with the process of cultural relativism in the development of Chinese literature. Tang poetry, for example, has acquired the process of Indianization and Sinicization as its own metabolism. Great Tang poets, like Li Bai (701-762), Du Fu (712-770), Wang Wei (701?-761), Bai Juyi and many others were interacting with Buddhist spiritualism and the great masterpieces of Tang poetry sounded like preachings for peace, compassion and even the Bodhisattva spirit of self-sacrifice with an ardent wish to rescue humanity from sufferings. Yet, such preachings sound so Chinese, so natural, as though they had always been a part of the Chinese ethos which in fact was not.

In the same way Indianization and Sinicization must have become a process of metabolism in the development of Dunhuang art, and through Dunhuang art, to have become a process of metabolism in Chinese culture and art in general. I may have trodden on territories on which I cannot claim a firm standing, but after interacting with Dunhuang scholars in several seminars organized by the Dunhuang Academy and conferences of the Chinese Association of Dunhuang and Turfan Studies in the past ten years, I am gradually feeling confident about my hypothesis that the artistic symbols of the dragon (long ) and the phoenix (feng ) which are so integral to Chinese folklore have incorporated some of the supernatural powers of N¡gar¡ja and GaruÎa through the Sino-Indian intercultural process; Dunhuang art has played an important role in such an incorporation. Those who are familiar with Chinese art may not fail to notice the importance of a set of what I call "Sino-Indian intercultural symbols", i.e., dragon, phoenix, flaming pearl (symbol of dharmaratna or Amit¡bha), lotus petals, Mount Sumeru, sea waves, the svastika, among the decorative motifs in porcelain, stone-sculpture, wood carving, palace architecture, emperor's dragon robe, etc. during the Ming and Qing dynasties. I feel that Dunhuang art has definitely played a role in their incorporation into Chinese art.

I may touch here on another aspect, viz., the technique of Dunhuang cave art. For instance, the stucco images/dunhuang at Mogao seem to have adopted the age-old Indian technique of "making images/dunhuang of the deity" which is still prevalent among the Bengal artists who create images/dunhuang of Durg¡ and K¡l¢ by the thousands every year. Unfortunately, no detailed study has been undertaken about such an important topic. It is hoped that after the publication of this book many Indian scholars and specialists will join the ranks of Dunhuang scholars which, I am sure, will enrich the present state of Dunhuangology.


Dunhuang Academy and Dunhuangology

In this section I would like to give a brief introduction to the institution headed by Professor Duan Wenjie as well as to Professor Duan himself who is the central figure of this book. Our story goes back to June 25, 1900, when a Taoist priest, Wang Yuanlu, who was the custodian of the Dunhuang caves, discovered by accident a sealed cave (now Cave No. 17) full of ancient manuscripts, printed material and silk-paintings. While this was reported to the imperial court in Beijing, the priest and a magistrate, Wang Zonghan, started pilfering pieces of their choice. Priest Wang started a small business by selling things out of the collection at throw-away prices in Dunhuang and its neighbourhood. When Aurel Stein reached Xinjiang in 1908, he heard about this repository; it was one of the chief reasons that brought him to Mogao.

Stein, Pelliot, and a number of other foreigners got cartloads of the priceless manuscripts and paintings transported away from Dunhuang at the cost of a small bribe to priest Wang. Pelliot travelled back to France enroute Beijing, and requested a well-known Chinese scholar, Luo Zhenyu, to edit them into a volume which was published as Dunhuang shishi yishu (Manuscripts of the Dunhuang Caves). Stein and Pelliot contributed to make Dunhuang famous all over the world, while the Beijing government remained indifferent. Luo Zhenyu and other Chinese scholars had to manage a travel grant to go to London and Paris to copy the manuscripts by hand and thus make a beginning of Dunhuang studies in China.

In 1941, the famous Chinese painter, Zhang Daqian (Chang Ta-ch'ien), led a team of assistants (including his son, nephew and students) to the site of Mogao and camped there for two-and-a-half years. The team numbered the caves, repaired and copied some mural paintings, and exhibited the copies in the war-time capital, Chongqing, and also published the copies of Dunhuang murals in three volumes. Meanwhile, the historian, Xiang Da, also visited Dunhuang and sent a detailed report about the ongoing damages sustained by the historical treasure at Mogao. He succeeded in arousing a tremendous concern about Dunhuang art among the ruling elites which prompted Yu Youren, one of the top leaders of the Nationalist Government (who hailed from an area neighbouring Dunhuang), to urge the Ministry of Education to establish an institution at Mogao to look after the art treasure.

A small cell consisting of six persons was set up in 1944 known as "Dunhuang yishu yanjiusuo" (Research Institute of Dunhuang Art). The Institute was set up as hurriedly as it was wound up in 1945 in the wake of the Japanese surrender. A year later, after the Nationalist Government had recovered from the excitement of victory, it decided to re-establish the Institute. The task was entrusted to Chang Shuhong, who earlier had been the Director of the Institute. He recruited a number of young art students from Lanzhou, including Duan Wenjie, and planted at Mogao the seeds of an institution, which in course of time has developed into a unique academic campus.

Almost immediately after Chang Shuhong and his team had settled down to work there sounded the gunfire of the Civil War (1947-49). The overwhelming problems of the Nationalist Government as well as the great distance between Nanjing and Dunhuang made it virtually impossible for the Nanjing regime to do much for the historical art treasure.

In September 1949, the People's Liberation Army occupied Dunhuang in its westward march to recover Xinjiang, but the new government was still too busy in taking over the country to pay attention to the priceless Dunhuang treasures. Only in 1951 did the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China take over the institute at Dunhuang and changed it into "Dunhuang wenwu yanjiusuo" (Research Institute of Dunhuang Relics) which meant entrusting the responsibility of conservation and protection of the monument to an institution which had earlier been set up only for studying its art.

In 1956 Premier Zhou Enlai took personal interest in Dunhuang, and sanctioned a large grant for repairing and protecting the monument. In 1961 the Mogao Grottoes were declared to be a specially protected historical monument by the State Council. In 1962 an inspection team led by Vice Minister, Xu Pingyu, was sent by the Ministry of Culture to Dunhuang, which resulted in another grant for taking up the largest ever renovation works at Mogao in 1,600 years. A 400 metre-long suspended corridor was constructed to provide easy access to each and every cave. In 1964, the Director of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics along with the Vice-Governor of Gansu province visited the Dunhuang Institute which brought yet another round of logistical support of resources and manpower. We have included in this volume the paper presented by Duan Wenjie in our Seminar on "Indian and Chinese Cave Art" which gives us an indication of the Chinese government's attention to the Dunhuang treasure.

There was a time when scholars outside China used to say that although Dunhuang was inside China, Dunhuang studies were conducted only outside China. Professor Duan considered this a stigma and was determined to erase it. Under his leadership, the Dunhuang Academy has taken up research topics in right earnest and has produced many quality research articles. In 1985 when Professor Duan Wenjie was lecturing at Tokyo, Professor Akira Fujida went from Osaka to Tokyo to congratulate him for the research achievements of the Dunhuang Academy in recent years. Fujida, one among those who had held the view that research on Dunhuang was conducted outside China, conceded that the Academy had the largest and strongest research force in Dunhuang studies today.29

The Dunhuang Academy has devoted a large part of its energy in copying the murals of Mogao, Yulin and other grottoes. Until June 1989, forty-three well-established painters had copied 2,251 paintings comprising a total footage of 1,185.63 square metres. Although this is but a small fraction of the murals, it is quite a substantial documentation. The 1991-92 Dunhuang Exhibition in New Delhi has shown us that some of these copies, particularly those done by Professors Duan Wenjie and Shi Weixiang, are masterpieces which have resurrected the life of the ancient Dunhuang art-works and transposed the fixed wall murals to mobile canvases to be viewed by art lovers all over the world. As the murals are gradually deteriorating despite the best efforts of the conservationists the copies can be preserved for posterity. These clearly dated copies can be taken as a point of reference in future in the likely event of some of the murals deteriorating further or even disappearing. We have already had an example of such a copy in the New Delhi Exhibition: the painting "A Tantric master looking in the mirror", Cave No. 465, Yuan Dynasty (1227-1368), is now a priceless possession as the original on the wall from which the painting was copied has now been ruined.


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