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Style and Artistry of Dunhuang Art


Interior of Cave No. 288, Western Wei

Interior of Cave No. 288, Western Wei

The Murals of Dunhuang Caves are rated among the rare treasures of the world not only for their enormous quantity, but also for their scale and richness of content and the consummate artistry with which they have been executed. Undoubtedly, they comprise China's great treasure house of ancient art. The murals may be broadly divided into seven categories:

  1. Paintings of Buddha;

  2. Buddhist tales;

  3. Traditional mythological themes;

  4. Illustrations of the sŁtras;

  5. Decorative patterns;

  6. Paintings of Buddhist historical events and of auspicious signs and lessons on discipline; and

  7. Portraits of donors.

Changes in Buddhist thought at various points of history have dictated the different characteristics of the caves, the selection of themes for the murals and the overall layout of the caves. However, it is possible to put together a holistic picture of most of the caves. In general, they have decorated ceilings in chessboard or skyboard pattern and have painted stucco figures of deities on the altars and in the niches. The walls on the four sides are covered by murals of varied themes and the floor with lotus patterns. One enters the caves and senses a mysterious atmosphere far removed from our mundane world and is at once fascinated and overwhelmed by the splendour and magnificence of the murals and stucco images/dunhuang. It is not only the overall effect of the combination of architecture, stucco images/dunhuang and murals, but, more importantly, the distinctive Chinese styles which have wrought the powerful and everlasting enchantment of the Dunhuang murals.

A national style develops only through the long history of its indigenous arts. The Dunhuang murals are no exception. They were created under the influence of the ideas and ideals as well as aesthetic temperament of China through art, language and expression of the national painting. It is the characteristic beauty of a national art which makes the murals attractive. However, the national style never remains constant; rather, it develops and changes along with the changing times. It always comes alive in the style of both an individual painter or a school of art specific to a period as well as in a particularly indigenous flavour.

The Dunhuang murals have passed through ten periods beginning from the Sixteen Kingdoms through the Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui Dynasty, Tang Dynasty, Five Dynasties, Song Dynasty and Western Xia up to the Yuan Dynasty. They can be broadly divided into three stages of beginning, climax and decline. However, in every period, whatever its duration, Dunhuang art bears the distinct imprint of its own times, and is clearly distinguishable from one period to another.

Dunhuang art was in its formative stage during the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms. There was Chinese culture and art grown under the influence of Taoism and Confucianism during the Han and Jin Dynasties as exemplified in the tomb murals of the Wei and Jin Dynasties (in the Hexi corridor). They provided the indigenous foundation for receiving the Buddhist ideology and accepting the already well-shaped Buddhist art from the Western Regions which was spreading steadily eastward along the "Silk Road". All this inevitably exercised a decisive influence on the art of Dunhuang.

Cave No. 272, Northern Liang

Cave No. 272, Northern Liang

The earliest of the handful of extant murals, painted in the Northern Liang during the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms, have as their central themes Buddha's life stories, Jˇtaka tales as well as illustrations of Buddha preaching Dharma. Most of the figures are shown wearing flower garlands or jewel-studded crowns, curly hair falling over their shoulders. They have oval faces, sharp noses, large eyes, long and pendant earlobes and a sturdy physique. The upper torso is partly bare, their chests adorned with necklace, a broad shawl draped over the shoulders, and a long dhoti girdling the loins.* The Bodhisattvas and secular kings are all in the costume of Western Regions.** Women of the laity wear Kuca dresses.

The background is of ochre-red on which appear simple and uninhibited colours. The technique of the three-dimensional method was adapted to achieve the light-and-shade effect of the faces. It was known as the "traditional method of Heavenly India" (Tianzhu yifa). Vermilion-red was always used for the contours of the face and the eye socket. These red circles formed by repeated application have now turned black. The eye and the bridge of the nose were painted with white powder. The colouring technique was to bring out the three-dimensional effect of the face and limbs of the figures. The figures were first sketched out in ochre; once the colouring was complete, vigorous and fine black lines were applied to finalize the contours.

The countenance, postures and the mood of the figures match with the milieu of the painting to produce an atmosphere of solemn and tranquil mystery. This is related closely to the religious practice of meditation prevalent in north China which endeavours to keep the mind away from the cares of the mundane world. This plain and solemn style followed the technique of the tomb murals of the Wei and Jin Dynasties in the Hexi region. The only departure from the tomb murals lies in the mood and the style which bear a marked influence of the Western Regions.

The murals of the Northern Wei were richer in content than those preceding them. The predominant theme was still the Buddhist stories which, in addition to Buddha's life stories and Jˇtaka tales, also had a new content of illustrations highlighting the working of karma.

Gradually the images/dunhuang got taller and the proportions between head and body became 1:6, 1:7 or even more disparate, so that some of the figures had legs twice as long as the torso. A new look was introduced by these slender figures with long limbs who were represented in lively movements. Even more evident was the change in the facial expressions: the earlier oval faces were being replaced by longish and leaner ones closely resembling those of the figures in the tomb murals of Dunhuang and Jiayuguan area of Wei and Jin vintage. They also belonged to the model of Gu Kaizhi's paintings as may be seen in the facial contours of the figures in his painting of "Female Historians". Here is an instance of a synthesis between Buddhist image-creation and the indigenous art tradition.

Cave No. 254, Northern Wei

Cave No. 254, Northern Wei

The composition of paintings improved greatly. The details of the Buddhist stories which were set in different times and at different places have been cleverly integrated on the canvas with background scenes of mountains, forests and animals that create a sense of space, making room for the Buddhist figures who are foregrounded. This method of composition capable of accommodating different historical events on the same canvas which had already gained currency during the Han Dynasty advanced a step further during the Northern Wei. More important is the emergence of figures clad in dark, long gowns of Chinese style in the comic-strip pattern of story paintings arranged horizontally, indicating the steady trend of Sinicization in Buddhist mural paintings, both in content and form.


The line drawings of the Northern Wei demonstrate greater maturity in skill and smoothness like "enchanting clouds and flowing water". The colouring also shows enrichment. The Western three-dimensional colouring technique has undergone innovation, making the facial features more rounded and the figures more realistic. Against the background of ochre-red the figures appear more magnificent and earnest.

After Yuan Rong, the king of Dongyang, assumed governorship of Guazhou in 524, the paintings begin to acquire the style of the Chinese "heartland".* This was due to the changes in the political system initiated by Emperor Xiaowen of Wei Dynasty introducing the ideology and art of south China to the north, which, in turn, created a tremendous impact on the cave art of north China.

In terms of content, the change brought traditional Chinese mythology into Buddhist stories. The images/dunhuang of the Bodhisattva became slender and tall, with thin faces, distinct eyes and thin eyebrows. They smile radiantly, exuding casual elegance. The majority wear long, dark gowns in Chinese style with a belt around the waist and shoes with a high front. The semi-naked figures covered by a shawl resemble the gentry of the Southern Dynasties. They are comparable in costume, countenance and style with the figures painted in "The seven sagacious men of the bamboo groves" (Zhulin qixian tu ) discovered at the site of Xishan Bridge at Nanjing and those painted in the tomb murals of the Southern Dynasties unearthed in Danyang. As a whole, they embody the style of "well-shaped handsome faces" which was a vogue started by Dai Kui and Gu Kaizhi reaching maturity with Lu Tanwei. This style of Chinese "heartland" characterization was universally adopted in the caves of the last years of the Northern Wei and Western Wei and Northern Zhou. They show a distinct departure from the figures of the early years of the Northern Wei which are under the influence of the styles of the Western Regions.

Xiwangmu (Wife of Indra), Cave No. 296, Northern Zhou

Xiwangmu (Wife of Indra), Cave No. 296, Northern Zhou


The introduction of traditional Chinese mythological themes has created in the Mogao murals a vivid portrayal of flying figures and floating clouds of paintings bursting with dynamism. These new themes also call for a new technology of the swift drawing of ochre-red outlines and light-black contour lines. The iron-hard lines finalizing the contours show elegance, vigour and freedom of expression. The ochre background was gradually replaced by white which stands in clear contrast to the intermingling of vermilion, violet, blue and green. A special feature is the introduction of the traditional Chinese colouring technique of the "heartland" in the murals. Two red patches are painted on the cheeks of the figures to demonstrate health and vitality, contributing also to a three-dimensional effect. This is a different approach producing an effect quite opposite to that of the three-dimensional method introduced from the Western Regions during the Northern Liang and Northern Wei. Both these techniques of colouring existed side by side for a fairly long period of sixty to seventy years.

During the Northern Zhou, Yu Yi, the Duke of Jianping, succeeded Yuan Rong as provincial Governor of Guazhou. The two did their utmost in popularizing Buddhism in Dunhuang; a reference to which may be found in "Li jun xiu Mogaoku fokan bei" (Inscription of Mr. Li's exploits in building Buddhist shrines at Mogao).

Although the political power of the Northern Zhou was brief, quite a number of caves were cut during this period while story paintings reached new heights. The stories have rich and complex plots, compact compositions and free and invigorating line drawings of muscular figures. The refreshing colours add to the concentrated flavour of life evident in the paintings.

The figures, costume and decoration betray the influence of the "heartland" style. In the representation of character, the style of "heartland" China blended well with earlier styles of Western Regions creating new images/dunhuang of "rounded and handsome faces", to be seen in the example of the figures of the laity and donors in the illustrations of stories. The most striking feature of the Northern Zhou is the sudden appearance of figures of Buddhist themes in Western style. The Bodhisattvas have plump faces and short and sturdy bodies either with a semi-nude upper torso or wearing a kaŔˇya, a dhoti around the loins and a broad shawl draped over the shoulders. Particularly deserving of notice is the colouring of the faces --- white nose, white eyes or white strips extending from the eyes to the eyebrows, white teeth and white chin. Thick white powder is also used to highlight the cheeks, the forehead and the flat belly, making the figure look fat. This was a new feature, not to be found in the early cave murals of Mogao, Tianti Hill and Binglingsi. The style may be traced back to the Kuca cave murals; in colour and characterization it is identical to the style found in Kizil caves. As the style of the early murals of Kuca appeared in the Dunhuang caves during the last years of the Northern Dynasties, scholars have for many years mistakenly believed these Northern Zhou caves to be ones from the Northern Wei.

There is a specific reason as to why the old forms made a reappearance. It was primarily due to the close ties between the Zhou Emperor Wu and the foreign nationalities in the western and northern neighbourhood of the country. After his marriage to the Turkish princess, Ashina, there was an inflow of music, dance and arts from the Western Regions into "heartland" China through the Hexi Corridor. A parallel stream of culture and artefacts, particularly exquisite silks, flowed from China to the Western Regions. Such brisk cultural and economic interchange coincided with Duke Jian Ping's vigorous patronage of the construction of caves in Dunhuang. Therefore, it is but natural that the style of early Kizil murals should once again spread to Dunhuang. However, this style proved as ephemeral as the political fate of the Northern Zhou which lasted only for a brief span of ten odd years.

The Sui Dynasty ended the confrontation between the North and South China. The royal Sui patronised the construction of Buddhist shrines at Dunhuang. As a result, about 70 odd caves were cut out at Mogao within a short span of about 30 years. Illustrations of Hinayana Buddhist sŁtras from the west were gradually replaced by those of Mahˇyˇna Buddhism imported from "heartland" China. The Buddhist figures gradually took on the uniform style of the Sui Dynasty after initial bold experiments.


Chapter on the Universal Gate from Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, Cave No. 420, Sui Dynasty.

Chapter on the Universal Gate from Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, Cave No. 420, Sui Dynasty.

The disproportionately big-head-and-short-leg characteristics of the Northern Zhou were gradually eliminated by the end of Sui. Characterization became rich and varied: the Bodhisattvas show a range of faces --- square or narrow; some have wide foreheads and beautifully-shaped chins, while the Arhats have flat or round heads. In addition, there is a category of Chinese images/dunhuang distinct from their Indian counterparts. The postures of the Bodhisattvas also underwent a gradual transformation: instead of a stiff standing pose we have one leg bent in a relaxed manner while the other supports the weight of the body, thus giving a natural tilt to the posture. This graceful posture is a development from the earlier imaginative and exaggerated approach to a more realistic one.


Most Bodhisattvas of the Sui Dynasty have their right shoulder uncovered, they wear a monk's robe and a silk dhoti wrapped around the waist. The dhoti is woven with a phoenix and floral pattern of Persian origin. Thus a special kind of Bodhisattva characterizes the Sui Dynasty, clearly an effect of the Sui Dynasty's expanding activities along the Silk Road, following the Sui government's hosting of a trade fair with twenty-seven nations as participants at Zhangye, and their vigorous policy of promoting cultural exchanges between China and the West.

Meanwhile, line drawings too underwent a change. Amidst the fine iron-hard lines there emerged free and swiftly flowing orchid-leaf lines. Ochre-red lines were used not only for the initial sketch but also for finalizing the contours, adding colour to the figures. Colouring evolved from the simple application to a more resplendent effect as the western three-dimensional method blended with the Chinese colouring technique. The tonal effect of the faces appears rosy but with a highlighting of light and shade. Foreign techniques combined with indigenous skills provided the basis for a new style.

The unifying painting style of the Sui had two streams. The first had gradually evolved since the Northern Zhou, where the figures were painted in a succinct and precise manner. As they say,

"The brush moves once or twice with style

And there appears a figure meanwhile."

This style is distinguished by refined line drawings and simple and light colouring. The figures created are solemn and tranquil with a quality of elegant ease. This is the "shuti" (sparse style) described by Zhang Yanyuan as one with "simple strokes, a light mood and an elegant finish". From the Kaihuang Era (581-600) to the Daye Era (605-617) this style prevailed as a distinct feature of the Sui Dynasty murals.

The second stream provides the figures with an environment for activities. The paintings with spaces occupied by halls, pavilions, courtyards, mountains, flowing brooks, trees, animals and so on are all drawn with minute and realistic details. The colouring is magnificent with multi-layered applications leading to a thick and heavy tonal effect. Zhang Yanyuan called this "detailed, exquisite and extremely beautiful" dense style (miti ). This was exactly the same style as that of the famous contemporary painters, like Zhan Ziqian, Zheng Fashi and others of their school. However, both the sparse and the dense styles bore influences from heartland China. The two streams merged into one in the early years of the Tang Dynasty and formed the basis for the development of the Tang murals.


Bodhisattva, Cave No. 328, High Tang

Bodhisattva, Cave No. 328, High Tang

The unification of China under the Tang Dynasty brought with it an unprecedented development of Dunhuang mural art. With the changes in the history of the Hexi corridor, we can divide the murals executed during the three hundred years of the Tang Dynasty into those from the early half and others from the latter half of the dynasty. The early half comprises the initial period of the Tang Dynasty, up to the time when Tibet occupied Hexi. The subsequent period up to the downfall of the dynasty constitutes the latter half.


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