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Style and Artistry of Dunhuang Art...


It is clear from the above tables that the Dunhuang murals were exposed to influences of foreign Buddhist art in different measure at various points in history. However, there was a process of continuous Sinicization absorbing the paintings into a system of Chinese Buddhist art and manifesting the national characteristics of this art. The artistic achievement of Dunhuang murals may be summarised below.



Cave No.57, Early Tang

Cave No.57, Early Tang

Characterization and Metamorphosis

Dunhuang murals have two categories of characters, one of the deities (Buddha, Bodhisattvas and others) and the other of the laity (donors and characters in Buddhist stories). Both the categories draw images/dunhuang from real life but each has a different nature. In characterization, the figures of the laity abound in liveliness and are more representative of their respective periods. The deities, however, show very few changes and exhibit more elements of imagination and exaggeration. The laity usually have Chinese attire of the Heartland, while the deities are mostly clad in dresses of foreign countries. The laity are mostly painted with the Heartland technique of colouring while the deities are portrayed in the Western three-dimensional technique. Different periods have variations in these combinations.


Closely related to characterization is the phenomenon of metamorphosis. Dunhuang paintings have inherited the traditional technique of adaptation. They skilfully recreated the forms of human figures, animals and plants. Owing to the changing aesthetic concepts in different periods, the method of adaptation and degree of metamorphosis also vary. During the early period there was a greater degree of freedom in changing the stereotypes with more imagination. The figures were characteristic of their respective roles. After Sui and Tang free modifications of the model figures were considerably reduced; the figures conveyed a greater sense of reality and faithful depiction.

In general there are two methods of adaptation. The first is by exaggeration, introducing logical changes into the model figures by way of elongation and broadening the relevant parts of them. As compared to their Western stereotypes, Bodhisattvas of the latter period of the Northern Wei and the whole duration of the Western Wei have much longer legs, fingers and necks, and show a clearer view of the forehead and a wider gap between the eyes and eyebrows, the corners of the mouth going upwards in the shape of a petal. After the treatment they have become romantic and carefree with "elegant bones and handsome faces". Vajra warriors are treated with a horizontal exaggeration of their figures, and have acquired fatter trunks and limbs, shortened necks, round heads and large bellies, with sharp pointed eyebrows and bulging eyes to highlight their robust physique and superhuman strength. Both the Bodhisattvas and the Vajra warriors are the end products of exaggeration.

The Tang style resorts to a different technique based on a proportionate figure with certain exaggerated parts and details. For example, the Bodhisattvas' eyebrows reach the temples; the corners of the mouth are sunken deep; three layers of fat are added below the chin. The hands and feet are tender like those of a chubby infant. We see before us the image of a beautiful lady of the Tang Dynasty with a plump body, arched eyebrows and full cheeks, as if about to walk out of the walls. The Vajra warriors of Tang have augmented muscles and bones to highlight their strength and vigour. Rhythmic spherical shaped muscles are seen on their faces and bellies quite in defiance of all laws of physiology. The idea is to suggest the latent strength of the warrior. This exaggeration has brought into relief their true character with a certain decorative quality attached to them.


Warrior, Cave No. 112, Middle Tan

Warrior, Cave No. 112, Middle Tang

Another kind of transformation depends on imagination, association and fantasy. This method existed in the ancient murals of China: Fuxi and Nuwa of the early murals had a human upper half and a snake form below the waist, clearly a totemic picture of the prehistorical period. The figures have a circle on their chest and a three-feet bird or a toad painted inside the circle which later became the images/dunhuang of Chinese Sun and Moon Gods respectively. These figures gradually lost their original mythological identity and became guardian angels to protect the departing souls of the dead and escorting them to heaven. Another example is the Thunder God who is a warrior with a beast's head, a human body, bird's claws with feathers on the arms, and outstretched arms beating the drum. This form tallies with the description of Thunder God by the Han scholar, Wang Chong, in his book Lun Heng (On Balance). In this form there is a combination of the characteristics of a ferocious animal, a man of quick reflexes and a fly master, the bird. As Wang Chong pointed out, this was a "fabricated form", one which is not found in the real world.


The Flying Figures

Flying Figure, Cave No. 322, Early Tang

Flying Figure, Cave No. 322, Early Tang

The Gandharva is one of the eight categories of supernatural beings who protect Dharma. They are the celestial angels playing music and showering petals. They resemble neither the angels of the west who have long wings growing from their shoulders, nor the "Yuren" (winged angels) of China with feathers all over their bodies. The Dunhuang flying figures are a departure from the Indian Gandharvas who float with the support of coloured clouds. They are musicians and dancers flying with ease as if lifted by the scarf that unfurls in the azure sky. This is the crystallization of high imaginative powers.

Imagination and exaggeration are both means of transformation, used for creating ideal artistic forms. Exaggeration is indispensable for all kinds of art. As Wang Chong said, "Praise will not make anyone happy if his merits are not exaggerated; censuring someone will only please others if his demerits are exaggerated."2 However, we should also observe Liu Xie's rule which advocated, "praise without superlatives and criticize without vilification."3 Transformation therefore has to be rational; exaggeration can be based only on happenings of real life while imagination does not mean building castles in the air. Hearing and vision direct or indirect of the ancients and modern men graft on to the power of imagination and create those various extraordinary images/dunhuang that appear in the Dunhuang murals.


Cave No. 249, Western Wei

Cave No. 249, Western Wei

Line Drawing and Colour

Lines and colours constitute the alphabet of the artistic language of China's traditional paintings and possess a great capacity for outlining contours and expressing features. Succinct ink strokes bring forth a figure with a distinct character and complex inner feelings. The Dunhuang murals inherited this tradition in its entirety and developed it further to cope with the need for creating new forms. The draft lines of the murals are uninhibited, free and powerful. A few ochre-red lines on the wall serve to bring to life a wild ox. Strong black ink lines create a lively scene of pigs running in the field, vying with each other for food. In a painting named "God of Mount Song Sending a Pillar", the characters and buildings have not been drafted with charcoal sticks, but improvised freely with a few careless brush strokes. Such a spontaneous drawing creates a glimpse of a heavenly mood.

The finalizing lines of the Dunhuang murals are drawn fairly carefully, showing a lot of discipline. The early iron-hard lines which were fine, smooth and vigorous were used for elegant and carefree figures such as the celestial deities and flying figures of Western Wei. Line drawing and characterization combine flawlessly like pieces of jade in such creations. The orchid-leaf lines prevalent in Tang were produced by manoeuvring the tip of the brush to create rounded, smooth, in-depth strokes and externally soft and internally hard strokes perfectly cut out for the portrayal of healthy, well-developed and lively figures.

From the Five Dynasties onwards as Buddhist art declined, line drawing also lost its vigour, so also the precision in characterization and emotional touch of the brush. During Western Xia, the twisted-reed lines showed vigour, especially in the edges and corners. There is perhaps a connection between the nature of the line and the fact that the people of Western Xia made brush out of the Mongolian gazelle's hair. Line drawing showed some new developments during the Yuan Dynasty. A variety of lines were used to portray the figures: fine and mellowed iron-hard lines to draw the faces and limbs of Bodhisattvas; broad-top and thin end lines to highlight the muscles of warriors; twisted-reed lines for thick folds of the clothes, and gossamer lines for unruly beard and hair. Thus, different lines produced different portraits, thereby enhancing the authenticity of the figures.

Line drawings of the Dunhuang murals have broadly traversed a chronological course of evolution, of iron-hard lines, passing on to orchid-leaf lines and then on to twisted-reed lines. They are completely identical to the development of "heartland" line drawing, i.e., Gu Kaizhi's iron-hard line drawing followed by Wu Daozi's orchid-leaf line drawing further followed by Liang Kai's and Li Gonglin's twisted-reed line drawing. From this point of view, it can be said that the Dunhuang murals developed along with the development of paintings in heartland China.

Dunhuang murals not only inherited the traditional Chinese line drawing but developed it further. Besides the draft lines and final lines, were added lines specifically highlighting emotions as also decorative lines. Lines were composed not only of ochre-red and black ink, but also of white powder and vermilion. In this way, the Dunhuang cave murals became richer, heavier and more mystical than those we see from the tomb murals.

Colour is the most "audible" and popular medium of artistic language. The enchanting power of colour is expressed in Yao Zui's observation, "bright colours are the delight of viewer". The architecture, stucco and mural paintings of each Dunhuang cave form a harmonious blend of colours. The use of colour in each painting was dictated by the overall plan of the entire cave. After the initial draft, the distribution of colours was done according to the rules of proportion, symmetry, repetition, echo and unity in diversity. As a result of the ingenious craftsmanship of ancient painters, figures of different periods demonstrate the beauty of various colouring styles: the earnest, pure, thick and bright hues of the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Wei, the refreshing bright beauty of the Western Wei and the Northern Zhou, resplendence and magnificence of Sui and Tang, the warm and gay colours of the Five Dynasties and early Song, the cold tones of Western Xia, and the simple, light and leisurely pigments of Yuan. The overall effect is kaleidoscopic and magnificent.

The Dunhuang murals have inherited the patterns of traditional colouring which is said to reflect the exact colours of the objects without any quest for sophisticated colour combinations. It emphasizes the decorative beauty of the hues without any quest for the authentic feelings of the pigments. In complex colouring, there is meticulous design for contrast, off-setting and over-painting to make colours interact with light. Even more remarkable is the technique of "colour change" by breaking away from the convention of specific colouring according to specific category, creating several coloured images/dunhuang which observe the natural colour phenomena by the intended violations, such as red warriors, blue Vajrapanis, green horses, white Bodhisattvas, as well as the Tantric deities with faces of red and green for light and shade effect. Such colour changes were not only dictated by religious requirements but also by aesthetic demands.

Multiple colouring is an important method used in Dunhuang murals to reveal the three-dimensional effect. It has assimilated the three-dimensional method kĄaya-vriddhi of the Western school, blending it with the traditional colouring method of China, enriching the mural technique effect in specific mood and style.


Cave No. 285, Western Wei

Cave No. 285, Western Wei

In mural paintings, a crucial issue is the relationship between colouring and line drawing. Lines are the framework of the image while colours give it flesh and blood. Both complement each other and find a satisfactory solution in Mogao murals which can be summed up thus: "A few lines drawn in thick black ink, strokes coming to life with colour, brush travelling with emotions, colours stored inside colours." It is such a solution which creates an integral and harmonious canvas with rich contents.


Mount Wutai (detail), Cave No. 61, Five Dynasties

Mount Wutai (detail), Cave No. 61, Five Dynasties

Decorative Composition

A traditional feature of Chinese painting composition is its decorative quality. Dunhuang murals have developed this fine tradition. A general feature of the decorative composition of Dunhuang murals is its fullness, i.e., the entire caves fully covered with paintings. A canvas is laden with rich themes and complicated compositions, and rarely leaving any surface unpainted. In this fullness there is no confusion and everything is neatly in order. Every cave has its overall composition. An illustration of the main theme is painted on the main wall of the cave for prominent viewing, while the rest of the space is used up according to the rules of balance, symmetry and tidiness and unity in variety, creating a three-dimensional artistic superstructure with rhythmic charm and decorative beauty.


The mode of expression varies from painting to painting: in a range comprising single-theme painting, group painting, comic-strip painting, gigantic illustration of sµutra and screen painting. Each of these categories has its own different composition and technique of deployment as well as structural layout and pattern.

The decorative beauty of Dunhuang murals also changed according to the times. Paintings of the early period were typically those which were described as "Human forms larger than mountains, and water which does not have boats"; only the figures of deities are highlighted, all other objects have been treated as "implements" of the painting, as it were. This is a flat decorative beauty showing insensitivity to spaces. The Tang Dynasty created huge illustrations of s£tras with rich contents and complex compositions. Proportions between figures of deities and laity and their surroundings become progressively more rational. Figures are not evenly distributed on the canvas, blending concentration with sparseness and contrasting the main and secondary. Buildings and pavilions occupy the skyline in distinct layers: the spacious sky is above and green water tanks below. Decorative beauty is situated in space, while new vistas are opened up in the painting composition.

The Dunhuang murals have skilfully solved the problem of perspective by the employment of the "bird's-eye view" perspective, used by the Chinese in ancient times. The artists have employed this traditional perspective to compose a large number of gigantic canvases creating the impression of boundless space.

Let us examine a 20-square-metre illustration of Sukh”vat¢, which shows a platform in the front surrounded by railings and a palace with many pavilions in the centre, and corridors and criss-cross passages to link the buildings and pavilions behind. On top is the boundless blue sky, and below is an ocean of green waves. Devas and Devis play and rest. Celestial music enchants, and song and dance in high spirit with petals being showered from Heaven. The viewers are standing before a celestial abode in the midst of boundless sky and sea.

Another example is the map of Mount Wutai of a total area of 50 square metres which depicts the several hundred miles of a surrounding area of the holy shrine with hills, rivers, cities, lakes, monasteries, pagodas with roads criss-cross and brisk traffic of travellers. The five peaks stand prominently surrounded by a network of hills and waters, leaving out no corner of the space without painting. The map transposes the ground scenario of several hundred miles to a wall, and reveals the minute details of the holy shrine to the viewer's glance.

In such a wide-angle scenario it is next to impossible to have the perspective. The traditional bird's-eye view helps to depict objects and environment and creates the impression of thousand miles being condensed into a distance of stone's throw. There is grandeur and there is profound decorative beauty as well. The illustrations of s£tras create a magnificent scene at a distance but with visible minor details on closer examination. It is no exaggeration to say that the illustrations are for both distant and close viewing. This is the unique achievement of the national style of Dunhuang murals in pictorial composition.


Bodhisattva, Cave No. 263, Northern Wei

Bodhisattva, Cave No. 263, Northern Wei

Cave No. 112, Middle Tang

Cave No. 112, Middle Tang

Delineating the Mood through Art Forms

Delineating the mood of the figures painted is the highest goal in the tradition of Chinese painting. As early as in the Warring States period, Han Feizi pointed out that an image must have spirit. From where does the spirit appear? Ji Kang observed, "Any striking change in the heart obviously speaks out in the appearance."4 Lu Ji further clarified, "Appearance faithfully reflects one's inner emotion, thus any change of emotion is written on the face."5 The face is truly the index of inner emotions. Hence Gu Kaizhi paid great attention to the "living spirit" of the figures which he drew. Dunhuang murals pay equal attention to the faithful depiction of the external form of the figures as well as to the in-depth carving of their facial expression. In the painting of the "Sibi Jataka", king Sibi exhibits his unaffected countenance which shows his high endurance of pain. In the illustration of "Sattva feeding himself to the hungry tigress", the parents are depicted as being seized by profound sorrow when they hold the corpse of Sattva and weep, while Sattva's elder brothers are dumbfounded when they discover Sattva's mortal remains, revealing a dramatic excitement of the characters. The grey-haired fairy Vasu with a bird in his hand has a bitter expression after being wrongly accused as a criminal. And Buddha in the scene of preaching, wearing a long dhoti and loose sleeved garment, is seated solemnly, a slight smile lurking in the corner of his mouth, quite aloof from the unworthy scrambles of this mundane world. All such expressions are conveyed through the facial expressions. Yet, it is the eyes which are the most sensitive mirror of inner feelings. Over 2000 years ago, Liu An, the prince of Huainan, observed in the chapter on "spirit" in the book Huainanzi (Philosopher of Huainan), "Ears and eyes are the windows of one's soul."


This is an ancient Chinese echo to the modern western artists' description, "The eye is the window of the soul." This fine Chinese tradition has been fully developed in the murals of Dunhuang. We see here in Cave No. 263 of Northern Wei a group of Bodhisattvas in pliable, graceful dancing posture emitting rays from their eyes, which are like lamps shining upon the viewers. In Cave No. 285 of Western Wei we see the Four Devar”jas standing erect, trident in hand, eyes livid with rage. We see the meditating Bodhisattva in the illustration of the Sukh”vat¢ with his right hand cupping his chin. The evenly drawn eye sockets half expose the eyeballs, as if he is looking straight ahead. He also appears not to be looking at anything as though immersed in painful deep thought. We see the aged Buddha disciple in the illustration of Mah”parinirv”øa, his triangular-shaped eyes slightly revealing the pupils, in an extremely sorrowful state, conveying a feeling of having no desire to live. All such examples from Dunhuang murals amply uphold the observation of the Song Dynasty painter, Zhao Xigao, "Eyes hold the key to the figures of the deity and laity and for all other living creatures. They come to life with their vivid eyes." This rule has been universally adhered to by the creators of Dunhuang mural paintings.

A mood may be delineated by means of the facial expressions or those of the eyes, and it is closely linked to the integral structure of the figures. Huang Quan, an artist of the Five Dynasties, did not dare to modify the painting of Zhong Kui by Wu Daozi, but had the courage to paint another version of the same theme, the reason being Wu's painting of Zhong Kui was an integral piece, interweaving the expression with the form of the figure. Even a slight modification of the finger would have led to a totally different expression of mood. The Dunhuang murals exhibit great discipline in the composition of the integral structures of the figures. The Bodhisattva of Cave No. 285 of Western Wei with his thin face and long drooping hair, wearing a high, bejewelled crown, a loose robe and broad belt, high-heeled shoes covered by clothes, a scarf fluttering over his shoulders encircled by flying petals brings alive the image of a Chinese courtier of the Southern Dynasties. The Bodhisattva in Cave No. 57 of the Early Tang has a plump, gentle and cheerful face, with one hand picking up his shawl and the other extending forward plucking flowers as if he is dancing and offering flowers. He seems to be in high spirits and in a relaxed mood. If without this dancing pose with raised arm the painting would become monotonous and the figure would be deprived of its vivid mood. The innumerable postures of the figures have expressed their varied domains.

There is yet another kind of technique used in the Dunhuang murals to delineate the mood of the characters, i.e., depicting their spiritual state through their interaction with each other. In Cave No. 205 of the Early Tang, a couple of dancers with lotus-like faces, high coiffure and transparent garments dance in quick steps. Their hands are raised. Their scarves fly as they look into each other's eyes with feeling. The artist has created a picture of gentle emotions and of a tender mood. In Cave No. 254 of the Northern Wei we see two Vajra warriors against the background of of rising peaks and flowing streams, their bare upper bodies covered by scarves. The two are locked in combat, taking positions of offence and defence as if determined to crush each other.

Yet another area of achievement is in the depiction of the emotions transmitting between one deity and another. In Cave No. 217 of the Early Tang we see Buddha's disciples, their eyes fixed on the altar. On entering the cave viewers get a mystic sense from the eyes of the deities. This probably is what Gu Kaizhi meant by "transmitting feelings by looking at each other's eyes".

Delineating a mood does not only involve expressing the moods and styles of individual figures, but also paying attention to the total mindset conveyed by the gigantic canvas of the illustration of a sµutra. The illustration of Sukh”vat¢ discussed a little earlier is an attempt to produce for the viewers a fascinating world without anxiety and anguish, a world of Heavenly bliss with various deities, scenarios and auspicious and magical happenings.


Cave No. 272, Northern Liang

Cave No. 272, Northern Liang

Assimilation of Foreign Art

Both Buddhism and Buddhist art came to China from India, Afghanistan and other places. Initially the Chinese began by copying the foreign examples. Records show that Cao Buxing, an artist of the period of the Three Kingdoms, was one of the earliest painters to copy Buddha's portraits from India. This was followed by modifications as alluded to in the history of Chinese painting, "Tuning the musical instrument; transforming the foreign into Chinese."6 Simple copying became a thing of the past as Dunhuang art entered a stage of "creating faithfully according to the scriptures". Not only the conventional postures of the Buddha images/dunhuang, i.e., Buddha in motion, in rest, seated or standing, but also the ideological content, forms of expression, characterization, facial features, costumes and moods were all subject to gradual transformation to keep empathy with the cultural tradition, social life, customs and habits and aesthetic temperament of various nationalities of China. Therefore, from a very early stage the Dunhuang murals focussed on Chinese style and artistic characteristics, forming a distinctive system of Chinese Buddhist art. The ancient painters have made outstanding contributions in this regard. Their bold vision and prudence in selectively drawing on the experience of foreign art while inheriting and developing Chinese art tradition is highly commendable.


How Dunhuang murals draw upon foreign art for reference may be elaborated from a discussion of the following two mottoes they followed: 1) learn from physiology or anatomy, and 2) adopt the colouring techniques of the Western Regions. If we compare the tomb murals from the Sixteen Kingdoms with the Dunhuang murals of the same period, we find that the figures on the tomb murals are simple, wearing loose robes. Little attention is paid to their anatomy --- these are more or less symbolic and decorative figures. On the other hand, many figures of Dunhuang murals are half naked, or with naked bodies. The depiction of bodies is well-proportioned showing accurate measurements. Rendered in meticulous detail they appear life-like. How is one to explain this great difference among the works of Chinese painters of the same period? The basic reason is that Chinese painting and Western paintings centring around Graeco-Roman art belonged to two altogether different systems. Chinese art excelled in broad characterization while Western art excelled in realistic depiction.

Chinese painting is based on Confucian ethical teachings, advocating morality and propriety. Hence, the figures are covered in large robes which completely hide their bodies. Only the dressed shape appears, not the exact physiological structure. The emphasis is not on the three-dimensional effect but rather on the "suggestive impression of physical shape". The tomb murals of Wei and Jin and of the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms belonged to this system of symbolic or even decorative representation.

Dunhuang murals were directly influenced by the content, forms and depiction techniques of the Kuca murals which in turn were directly influenced by India and Afghanistan. The early Buddhist art of India and Afghanistan had assimilated the essentials of Western art form. India is a nation rich in songs and dances. Thus the figures in the murals, particularly Bodhisattvas, are well-proportioned with charming and graceful poses, rich in representation of the aesthetics of the body. This approach was accepted by Dunhuang painters and made up for the deficiencies in the Chinese paintings of Han and Jin. With introduction of the realistic proportions of the human body into the suggestive representation of figures began a new Chinese style of painting.

The second principle concerned the colouring technique of the Western Regions. In the beginning, Chinese paintings had no colour. During the Warring States period, painters began to add a red patch on the cheeks of the figures. It was only during the Han dynasty that the cheeks were painted red to highlight the radiance of the face, producing a somewhat three-dimensional effect. The figures in the Buddhist murals of the Western Regions have colours all over their body; the shaded portions are in dark colours and the bright portions in light colours. The bridge of the nose is highlighted with white powder. This three-dimensional technique which came from India underwent a change after spreading to the Western Regions, with more highlight on the bright side. After reaching Dunhuang, the technique was further improved and merged with the traditional Chinese colouring technique. Gradually, a new method evolved which not only highlighted the lustre on the faces of the figures but also gave it a certain depth. By the Tang Dynasty the method had reached a point of perfection. It was exactly like what people had observed about Wu Daozi's murals, "the figures are eight-dimensional, vivid and lively", and "Daozi's painted figures are like moulded ones". Duan Chengshi praised Wu Daozi's painting in the following couplet:

"Wind and clouds as if moving towards me,

The wall, it seems is freezing the deities."

Such a scene is found everywhere at Dunhuang. The new colouring technique helped to develop continuously and perfect the realistic style of the murals.

Translated by Bagyalakshmi and Sonu Agnihotri

[From Dunhuang Yanjiu (Research on Dunhuang), No. 2, 1982, pp.1-16]

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