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Style and Artistry of Dunhuang Art...


The first half of Tang marked the rising power and prosperity of the ruling Li family. Dunhuang murals of the period also demonstrated vitality and liveliness. The figures were proportionate, radiating health and maturity. Some of the Bodhisattvas have square foreheads and broad cheeks while others have elongated, curved and well-developed figures. Their hair is tied up high in a knot and they wear bejewelled headdresses. They have "faces of jade skin" and "long eyebrows extending to the temples". All the figures have a well-fed look and are plump and lustrous. Some Bodhisattvas are tall, slim and graceful while some others have soft and sinuous bodies which are wave-like, curving almost like the letter "S". During the Kaiyuan and Tianbao eras (713-755) there appeared yet another kind with "well-developed and delicate figures" and "arched eyebrows and plummy cheeks" resembling the legendary Lady Yang --- the enchanting concubine of Emperor Xuanzong I. This model is most prominent among the paintings of the donors. The Bodhisattvas of the Tang Dynasty underwent further feminisation: despite the tadpole-shaped mustaches above their lips, they are no longer robust men in "heroic" postures. Such mustached feminine figures are typical of the Tang Bodhisattvas. The disciples of Buddha have also changed from figures of Indian monks to those of Chinese ones. Their facial features, postures, costumes and expressions reveal a mature and expressive portrayal of differences in their age, experience and character.

Continuous innovations may be seen in the composition of the paintings, marking a departure from the earlier scenario of "human figures bigger than mountains" or "water carrying no boat". The introduction of the bird's-eye view perspective had opened up a new possibility of creating giant illustrations of the Buddhist sŁtras on a gigantic scale.

By this time the orchid-leaf line has already been invented. Lines such as the draft lines, final lines and lines used for highlighting the mood of the figures show power and vividness with suitable variations to depict different figures. Care is given to the relationship between the main and secondary lines, sparse and dense lines and thick and thin lines, expressing a rise and fall in the rhythm of line drawing. To this is added a new technique of resplendent and dazzling colouring which gives the painting a three-dimensional effect and the Bodhisattvas, Devarajas, and Buddha disciples all stand out as plummy and real figures.

Greater skill and refinement in aesthetic language, i.e., in the line and the colouring, in the characterization of the Buddhist figures, break away from earlier stereotypes and serve to demonstrate most effectively the "magical power" of the stories. The continuous attempt to unearth the inner moods and feelings of the figures has turned into detailed focus on various postures of walking, resting, sitting, sleeping, actions and speech, and on the facial features, eye expressions, on mutual relations between people, relations between the figures and their environment and relations between partial plot and main figures and so on. By means of such close attention to interrelationships, the features and expressions of the figures are revealed. This has produced a large number of figures with high artistic value and established the realistic style with Chinese characteristics.

The murals of the latter half of the Tang Dynasty declined in quality after the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang in 755. The occupation also marked the end of the hitherto flourishing Kaiyuan Era and the deterioration of the Tang political situation. Although the period of Tibetan occupation saw the birth of several outstanding works of art which could compete with those of High Tang, the general trend was downhill. In the characterization of the images/dunhuang of the period we see a mastery of the "technique of highlighting the bones", manifesting the organic harmony between bone and flesh. Most of the deities have a face which is a happy medium between the skinny and the overly plump. The Bodhisattvas are no longer shown in twisted figures. They now stand with straight legs and with waist slightly twisted. The total effect is natural and harmonious. There is a set pattern in the composition of the illustrations of the sŁtras. The use of lines shows great improvement. The orchid-leaf lines used in drawing out the contours are thick and forceful, or alternatively thin and pliant, with judicious variations to highlight the objects of depiction. Ochre-red lines used to finalize the contours are also characteristic of this period.

Colouring during the Tibetan occupation is not as rich as that of the earlier period. There are basically two kinds of colour schemes to be found representing different moods. In one scheme, blue and green are the primary colours used on a white background. The effect is one of freshness of tone and elegance. In the other scheme, the background is ochre-red and the primary colours are vermilion and brown, creating an earnest and warm mood. The most exquisite specimens in characterization confirm the descriptions "qiongqing xiewu" (sketching objects with utmost emotions) and "dong bi yi zhen" (drawing according to reality). The figures therefore show "Jin huai kuangda" (broadmindedness) and "Shensi feiyang" (the mind in a flyaway mood), all of which are typical of the style of the period of Tibetan occupation.

During the period of Zhang Yichao the Chinese political recovery failed to bring back prosperity of art in Dunhuang. Characterization of the deities is a copy of the earlier Tibetan style, except that the faces are flatter and plumper. In general, there is precision in figure painting, but the figures lack vividness. The compositions are large in scale and somewhat disorderly, often lapsing into stereotypes. The line drawings excel in laborious neatness but are otherwise quite prosaic. However, the donors who appear in miniature scenes of daily life with "magnificent characters clad in silk" are vividly painted, betraying the influence of the school of Zhang Xuan and Zhen Fang in the representation of the gentry and their ladies in the style of the latter Tang murals.

During the period of the Five Dynasties and the beginning of the Song Dynasty, the Cao family which ruled over Guazhou and Shazhou had their own art academy similar to those in heartland China. The Academy took the lead in unifying the different painting styles. And this unified style was virtually a copy of the Late Tang in content, characterization, composition, linedrawing and colouring. Uniformity was achieved at the cost of individuality. Be it Buddha, Bodhisattva or the laity, the figures all fell into stereotyped patterns. Although the bold and free orchid-leaf lines were used, they lacked refinement. In colouring, however, a certain uniqueness is achieved. Facial features and costumes were coloured at one time, creating a magnificence and warmth characteristic of the style of the Art Academy. Meanwhile the treatment of the figures vis-a-vis their environment and the treatment of painted objects vis-a-vis the space of the canvas gradually achieved a degree of realism. Although the style of the painting is not disciplined, it has a casual elegance.

The Western Xia ruled over Dunhuang for nearly 200 years. The Mogao murals produced during this period are poor in variety but not in their style which is the combination of three streams. The first stream has inherited the tradition of the Northern Song, with stereotyped characterization. The eye sockets are coloured with two ochre-red lines and the faces have a bitter smile. The compositions fall into fixed patterns. The magnificence of the illustration of "Sukhˇvat˘" has totally disappeared. Lacklustre colouring, mostly with a green background, and the blend of colours create an impression of monotony and coldness. The green background is the outstanding feature of the murals of the Western Xia.

The second stream is characterized by strong and corpulent body, a long and plump face, straight nose, small mouth, and almost vertical eyes and eyebrows which resemble those which we see from Basilik in the West, during the Uighur Gaochang period. In line drawing we find the use of twisted-reed lines, forceful and angular, inherited from the school of Liang Kai, Li Gonglin and others from heartland China. This shows that the Western Xia continued to be under the influence from both East and West like the earlier periods.

Yet another stream is formed by further development of the above style, with dense and forceful linedrawing, simple and light colouring, preserving the traces of Wu Daozi's style of a light touch of colour amidst heavy black ink strokes. What is wanting is vividness. The style bears resemblance to that of wood carving in Western Xia with its rich, decorative quality.

Various styles of Tantrism were prevalent in China of the Yuan dynasty. One kind was Tibetan Tantric art characterized by well-proportioned figures with square faces, broad foreheads, well-shaped chins, long eyebrows, large eyes and graceful postures. Faces are painted in blue or green or a combination of red and green for light and shade effects. The paintings give an impression of sharp contrasts, of terror and gloom. This form of Tantric art was directly influenced by India and Nepal.

Another kind is derived from the tantric religious paintings of the Tang Dynasty. Most of the figures resemble government officials and nobility of heartland China. Celestial ladies and devarˇjas don the imperial attires and ceremonial dresses of China. The line drawing is rich in variety, using elegant and forceful iron-hard lines for the facial and body contours of Bodhisattvas, twisted-reed lines for the thick and heavy folds in the draperies while employing distinct strokes such as broad-top and thin-end lines for depicting the warriors' strong muscles, and light-weighted gossamer line for fluffy beard and hair. Thus we see various lines in full play in their various functions in characterization and in expressing different qualities. Their realistic appearance has helped bring out their deep inner feelings as well. This kind of pure and elegant style makes up outstanding work of art during the period of general decline in Dunhuang murals.

The murals of Dunhuang are painted to propound Buddhist doctrines and tenets. Art is used as a medium to interact with people. Buddhist art has developed through the appreciation and criticism of the viewers, competitions among the painters and the rivalry among various schools. Staging painting competitions among Buddhist temples was in vogue from Sui and from Tang onwards. During Late Tang there was a contest between two exponents of mural art Chen Gao and Peng Jian at Jingtu Monastery in Chengdu, the rules of the contest being, "each paints one wall screened by a curtain without showing his work to the other; on completion their merits are judged." On the day of completion, the curtains were removed before the public who witnessed "a match in the vigour of brushes; the viewers fail to name the winner."1 During the Five Dynasties, three mural painters, Zhang Tu, Ba Yi and Arhan Li, staged a similar painting competition. Zhang Tu with his skilled technique, "wielding his brush and living up to his fame", created life-like figures and defeated Ba Yi. Later, Ba Yi improved his skill by hard practice and created Buddhist guardian angels with "magnificent colours" and "subtle expressions" to defeat Arhan Li who hanged himself after the humiliating defeat. It is quite clear therefore that the competition was fierce and that excellence in art was the main criterion. Without art people would not be attracted and inspired, the purpose of propagating Buddhism would not be achieved. Popularity of Buddhism for posterity would not become possible.

That Dunhuang murals are still dazzling people's eyes and arousing popular feelings today mainly because of their many-faceted artistic achievements and aesthetic quality displaying a national characteristic.

Let us now discuss the various aspects of Dunhuang murals and their artistic achievements. We begin with the characteristics of facial depictions, costumes and colouring of deities and the laity and their evolution at different periods.

Dynasty Type Face Costume Colouring
Northern Liang Bodhisattvas Western Western Western three-dimensional
  Characters in Buddhist stories Western Western Western three-dimensional
  Category A: Western Northern foreign Western three-dimensional
  Category B: Heartland Heartland Plain
Northern Wei Bodhisattvas Heartland Western Western
  Characters in Buddhist stories Heartland Western Western
  Donors Heartland Heartland Heartland plain
Western Wei Bodhisattvas      
  Category A: Heartland Western Western
  Category B: South Chinese Heartland Heartland (Red face)
  Characters in Buddhist stories South Chinese Heartland Heartland
  Donors South Chinese Heartland & Foreign Heartland
Northern Zhou Bodhisattvas      
  Category A: Heartland Western & Heartland Western Heartland
  Category B: New Western Western Western (White)
  Characters in Buddhist stories Heartland Heartland & Mixed Chinese and Foreign Combination of Chinese and Western
  Category A: Heartland Heartland Combination of Chinese and Foreign
  Category B: Northern Foreign Northern B Combination of Chinese and Western
Sui Bodhisattvas Heartland Sinicized Western Combination of Chinese, Western & Heartland
  Characters in Buddhist stories Heartland Heartland & Foreign Heartland
  Donors Heartland Heartland & Foreign Heartland
First Half of Tang Bodhisattvas Heartland Sinicized Western Combination of Chinese & Western
  Characters in Buddhist stories      
  Category A: Heartland Heartland Heartland
  Category B: Western Western Heartland
  Donors Heartland Heartland & Foreign Heartland
Latter Half of Tang Bodhisattvas Heartland Sinicized Western Heartland plain & Chinese and Western
  Characters in Buddhist stories      
  Category A: Heartland Heartland Heartland
  Category B: Tibetan Tibetan Heartland
  Category C: Western Western & Mixed Chinese and Foreign Heartland
  Category A: Heartland Heartland & Foreign Heartland plain & Heartland colouring
  Category B: Tibetan Tibetan Heartland colouring
Five Dynasties and Early Song Bodhisattvas Heartland Sinicized Western & Heartland Heartland plain & Heartland colouring and Combination of Chinese and Western
  Characters in Buddhist stories      
  Category A: Heartland Heartland Heartland
  Category B: Western    
  Category A: Heartland Heartland & Mixed Han and Muslim Heartland
  Category B: Uighur Uighur Heartland
Western Xia Bodhisattvas      
  Category A: Heartland Sinicized Western Combination of Chinese and Western
  Category B: Gaochang (Qoco) Western Heartland plain & Combination of Chinese and Western
  Category A: Heartland Heartland Heartland colouring
  Category B: Tangut Western Xia Heartland
Yuan Dynasty Bodhisattvas      
  Category A: Heartland Heartland & Sinicized Western Heartland
  Category B: Tibetan Indian Combination of Chinese and Western
  Category A: Heartland Heartland Heartland plain
  Category B; Mongolian Mongolian Heartland


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