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DUNHUANG ART


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Dunhuang Art During the Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Dynasties

 

Interior of Cave No. 249, Western Wei

Interior of Cave No. 249, Western Wei

Dunhuang was one of the four provinces of the Hexi region created during the era of Han Emperor Wu (141-89 B.C.). An important and newly emerged centre in Hexi during the Han Dynasty, it included six counties and two gateways with a population of nearly forty thousand.

During its early stages, the Han Dynasty adopted a series of military measures such as the construction of fortifications, warning towers, garrisons and a wall of defence inside the territory of Dunhuang.1 During Eastern Han a colonel was posted in Dunhuang for the protection of the Western Regions. Later, General Suo Ban stationed his troops at Yi Wu. These were all measures to deal with the invasions and harassment by Hun chieftains. In the second year of the Yonghe Era (137), Governor Pei Chen of Dunhuang led three thousand soldiers to the west to attack the Huns; by killing their chieftain Hu Yan he ensured the safety of the Western Regions and Hexi.2 These incidents prove that Dunhuang was a strategic area which could be used to launch an offensive; at the same time during the Han and Jin as also in later times, it proved to be a place that could be easily defended.

 

Cave No. 249, Western Wei

Cave No. 249, Western Wei

In order to protect the border, the Han Dynasty also paid attention to the agricultural production of Dunhuang by constructing dams and reservoirs; initiating water conservation and irrigation projects; reclaiming virgin land, settling troops and civilians by allotting them plots. Colonel Cui Buyi who was in charge of fisheries taught farming to the common people. Colonel Zhao Guo who was in charge of granary introduced "daitianfa" (cultivation of fields in alternate strips in alternate years) in order to extend cultivated land by dry land farming. Together, these measures boosted agricultural production in Dunhuang. During the period of the Three Kingdoms, Governor Huangfu Long popularized ploughing and sowing. The Annals recorded the event as: "Saving labour by fifty percent and increasing harvest by fifty percent."3 Consequently there was a substantial rise in grain output.

 

While agricultural production developed, Hexi and Dunhuang also saw the appearance of "wu bi" (fortified manor with defence forces). Depictions of such "manors" and "fortifications" are seen in the tomb murals at Jiayu Gate dating back to Wei and Jin dynasties. These "manors" had high walls, with watch-towers above the gates. Inside the "manor" were livestock pens, while outside there were tents in which the guards lived.4 One such manor was the Zhaoyu Manor in Gaochang village in Xidang township of the Dunhuang county during the Western Liang.5 During Northern Wei, it was said that "villages and manors interlinked with each other and there were numerous monasteries, temples and stµupas."

The monasteries too resembled the manors since they maintained "Samghika households" (sengzhihu ) and "Buddha households" (fotuhu).* Both the manors and the monasteries had in their fold a large number of peasants who were cruelly exploited by their masters.

The development of feudal economy brought with it the prosperity of feudal culture. During the Han and Jin Dynasties there appeared several litterateurs in Dunhuang, like the famous calligrapher and writer, Zhang Zhi and Suo Jing. Particularly during the last years of the Western Jin, many litterateurs with "profound learning in canons and history" took refuge in Liangzhou resulting in the flowering of Chinese culture in the Hexi corridor (which included Gaochang). A large number of manuscripts and murals discovered from the tombs of Wei and Jin periods at Jiuquan, Dunhuang and Turfan are the cultural assets of the times which provided the basis for the development of Buddhist art.

After Dunhuang had become a province, exchanges between China and the Western countries grew rapidly. Zhang Qian's huge second embassy of three hundred-strong to the Western Regions had in its wake "the lining up of envoys on the roads". "A foreign embassy ranged from a hundred odd to several hundred persons." Chinese missions going abroad numbered between five to more than ten every year.

Those who went to neighbouring countries took about three years to return and those who went to far off countries came back only after eight to nine years.6 Owing to the frequent exchanges between China and the West, China's products, especially silk, flowed uninterruptedly towards the West. Western goods like hide and fur, asbestos and cloth also entered China. All east-west movements were routed through Dunhuang making it the hub of traffic between China and the West.

During the period of the Three Kingdoms, the Dunhuang Governor Cang Ci handled with competence China's foreign affairs with the western states. Any trader coming from the West would be "entertained" with hospitality. For those who specially came to Dunhuang to trade, the government "fixed fair prices and swapped with them the goods from warehouse". After the deal, escorts conducted them safely to the gateway of China. In case they wanted to visit Chang'an and Luoyang, "passes" were issued to them. Cang Ci's courteous treatment of traders of various nationalities from the Western Regions as well as other foreign traders, made him a household name in international circles.7

As Eastern Jin ended and Northern Wei unified North China, the "Silk Road" grew even more prosperous: "From Congling (Pamirs) it extended as far as the Roman empire, foreign merchants from innumerable states and cities came to the gateway."8 "The Biography of Pei Ju" in Sui Shu (Annals of the Sui Dynasty) informed that "from the Western Sea (Europe) there are three routes leading to Dunhuang....All routes meet at Dunhuang which is the gateway." In short, since the Han and Jin times Dunhuang was an important station handling economic and cultural exchanges between China and the West.

With the increased traffic between China and the West, Buddhism and Buddhist art also entered Xinjiang along the Silk Road and eventually moved further east along the southern and northern routes. The southern route ran through Khotan and Loulan to Dunhuang, and the northern route through Kuca and Gaochang to Dunhuang. From Dunhuang Buddhist art and religion spread further afield to Liangzhou and into the "heartland" of China.

As a foreign religion, Buddhism was "forcefully resisted" when it entered China. It provoked a series of conflicts like the "contention between Confucianism and Buddhism", between the "Chinese and alien", between "Buddhism and Taoism", between "black and white", and between the "destructibility and indestructibility of the soul". But Buddhism itself offered a superstructure that lent itself suitable for the feudal economy, together with professional efforts in producing annotations, commentaries and expositions, and it was made out that "Confucius was Buddha and Buddha was Confucius", "Confucius cured social illness, while Buddhism expounded the rationality of his teachings. The two together made up the head and tail and were one and the same."9 The exponents of Buddhism said that the Buddhist scriptures "embraced the virtue of the Five Confucian canons and expounded to a great depth", and they "embrace the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi and expound their ideas of void in noble words and with substantial truth, creating a sense of solemn inspiration among men. The teachings are brilliant as Buddhist doctrine is so profound that the gods themselves were moved; it is bright like sunshine, pure and fresh like the wind."10 Here was an attempt to synthesize Buddhism, Confucianism and metaphysics to meet the needs of the times.

We are told that during the era of the Western and Eastern Jin "the rivers are filled with corpses and the plains are bleached by white skeletons."11 In a society deeply scarred by wars and disasters the sinicized Buddhist ideology spread like an epidemic.

The minority nationals of the north founded several small dynasties; all of which patronized Buddhism. Each minority nationality had its own set of gods as their spiritual mainstay. Emperor Shi Hu of Late Zhou, Emperor Fu Jian of Early Qin, Emperor Lu Guang of Late Liang, Emperor Juqu Mengsun of Northern Liang, and all the emperors of Northern Wei vied with one another to recruit monks to translate Buddhist scriptures and disseminate the Dharma. Monk Fotudeng (Buddhacinga) of Kuca became famous for the magic tricks he performed to deceive the people even as the common people "vied with one another to construct temples and become monks"; thus Fotudeng got into the good books of Emperor Shi Hu. When he went to court, he was always carried in an ornamental chair by the courtiers to the neighbourhood of the throne while the Emperor rose to greet him. At that moment the master of ceremony would call out "The Mah¡ Ach¡rya!" then "all those in their seats would stand up to show the high regard he enjoyed."12 Buddhacinga was elevated to a position rivalling that of the King.

 

Dhyana-guha, Cave No. 285, Western Wei

Dhyana-guha, Cave No. 285, Western Wei

Kum¡raj¢va's case is even more telling of the authority bestowed on monks. In order to get hold of the renowned monk, Fu Jian of Early Qin even sent General Lu Guang with an expeditionary force of 70,000 soldiers to distant Kuca. Before Lu Guang's departure, Emperor Fu Jian told Lu Guang at the farewell banquet that his aim was not to seize territory, but to have Kum¡raj¢va brought to him: "Send me Kum¡raj¢va, as soon as you conquer Kuca."13 Although Fu Jian was not really uninterested in territorial expansion, "like the proverbial folly of proclaiming to have no silver in the place where silver is actually buried", the statement proved that he was extremely desirous of having a renowned monk in his court. In his efforts to obtain the renowned Kashmiri monk DharmakÀema, Emperor Dao Wu of the Northern Wei Dynasty had sent envoys several times to Liangzhou to fetch him and had even threatened Juqu Mengsun.

 

He had said, "If you do not send DharmakÀema I will wage war against you." Juqu Mengsun was firm about his "house guru" and was ready to "die along with him if the emperor decided to press his demand."14 These were rulers who did not hesitate to wage wars and even risk their own lives for the possession of a monk. They installed Buddhism as a state religion and monks as "Imperial gurus". Their aim was but to propagate the idealistic ideology of "indestructibility of the soul", "karma", "saÆs¡ra", "devapura and naraka" and to win over the people. Liu Yilong and Emperor Wen of Song among the Southern Dynasties had let the cat out of the bag when he said, "If throughout the length and breadth of my domain people believe in Buddhism, I shall have no worries but can relax and enjoy a peaceful reign."15 It was much for the same reason that the rulers of the north patronized Buddhism. They constructed st£pas and temples, excavated caves and sculpted idols, starting a vogue for such activities. It was against such a political background that the Dunhuang grottoes came into existence.

According to an inscription of 698, the Mogao grottoes were first created in 366; this would trace the earliest Mogao cave to Northern Liang during the last phase of the Sixteen Kingdoms period. From Northern Liang through Northern Wei, Western Wei and Northern Zhou of the Northern Dynasties, in more than one hundred and sixty years, a total of thirty-nine of the existing caves are accounted for.

The contents of the caves can be divided into three categories: architecture, stucco sculptures and mural paintings. The three combine to form an organic entity of utility and art.

There are three types of architecture: the first is the meditation rooms for monks called "chanku" (dhy¡na-guh¡) as seen in Cave Nos. 268, 285 and 487, each of which has two small meditation rooms on either side of the main hall.

The second is the st£pa shrine with a rectangular space and a gabled ceiling in the front. Both ends of the crossbeam are supported by wooden brackets in complete imitation of the wooden structures of "heartland" China. At the rear is the central column as in Cave Nos. 254, 257 and 251. This is the predominant style in the early caves allowing the devotees to go round the st£pa when paying their homage.

The third type is the main hall with an inverted dipper ceiling. The main wall is fitted with an altar with idols inside it where the devotees pay homage and send their offerings: examples of this type may be found in Cave Nos. 272, 249 and 296. This was the place where the devotees may pay homage and send their offerings.

Stucco statues occupy the central part of the caves. The statues of the early period were rather simple, comprising mainly Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; such as statues of Maitreya, á¡kyamuni and Prabh£taratna sitting side by side, preaching statues, meditating statues, contemplative statues, as well as those on the central column depicting the life story of á¡kyamuni, M¡ra Vijaya, the attainment of Enlightenment, and what are generally known as the "four avasth¡s and eight avasth¡s". The Buddha statues of Northern Wei generally had attendant Bodhisattvas just as the feudal Emperor had ministers on his left and right. During Northern Zhou two disciples were added to this format of one Buddha and two Bodhisattvas, making it a group of five statues.

 

Maitreya Bodhisattva, Cave No. 254, Northern Wei

Maitreya Bodhisattva, Cave No. 254, Northern Wei

Most of the early caves had statues of Maitreya (either as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva) as the main figure, probably in view of Maitreya's role in answering queries during meditation exercises. Generally, the statue of Maitreya is enshrined in the central column and in the niche altar in the upper portion of the northern and southern walls, suggesting that Maitreya has taken residence in "Tushita heaven" high above the others. Cave No. 275 (of Sixteen Kingdoms) can be conceived as a "Maitreya cave". The main statue and the one in the niche are both of Maitreya who sits on the lotus seat in padm¡sana. The main statue on a twin-lion seat has a headgear which indicates that it is the incarnation of Buddha, the hair falling on the shoulders, the chest and arms exposed, a garland around his neck, a dhoti girding his loins. His left hand (the only one extant) is held in the cint¡ma¸i mudr¡. The statue has a tranquil expression and a robust physique. The statue of Maitreya in Cave No. 254 is covered by a kaÀ¡ya which clings to his body so closely that it appears as if he has just emerged from the water. The prominent folds of the kaÀ¡ya follow the shape of the body; the depiction is both ornamental and realistic.

 

Sakyamuni Buddha, Cave No. 268, Northern Liang

Sakyamuni Buddha, Cave No. 268, Northern Liang

The meditating posture was the main theme of the statues during the early times, as may be seen in all the caves of this period. This was due to the prevalence of meditation as an exercise of mental cultivation in north China. "Meditation" is the exercise practised regularly under the guidance of a dhy¡na master to achieve a tranquil mind. The Buddha image inside the arched altar sitting in padm¡sana, with one hand on top of the other in the meditation mudra and the kaÀ¡ya-clad figures of monks with closed eyes and in deep thought that we witness at Mogao, are visible reminders of "excavating a cave for meditation".

 

Donor Bodhisattvas, Cave No. 248, Northern Wei

Donor Bodhisattvas, Cave No. 248, Northern Wei

Taoist monk ascending to heaven, Cave No. 297, Northern Zhou

Taoist monk ascending to heaven, Cave No. 297, Northern Zhou

The meditating Buddha image in Cave No. 263 which we have discovered after dismantling the sealed wall of the Western Xia period is a well-preserved figure, the colours still retaining their original freshness. It is a typical statue of the early period which has its original appearance.

The thinking Bodhisattvas of the early period at Mogao take their positions in high celestial places with one foot resting on the other, while sitting, cheek cupped in the right palm and their eyes looking downwards as if immersed in deep and painful thought.

 

The Bodhisattva statues of Cave No. 248 are among the few original creations of Mogao which have not been tampered with by later patrons. The heads of the statues, all have the same pattern possibly because they were made from moulds. However, they show minor differences after colouring. The common features of the statues are their handsome looks and tranquil expression. Their white faces look smooth and jade-like against their headdresses and painted haloes which are in dark colours.

Ënanda and K¡¿yapa first made their appearance in Northern Zhou. All the Ënanda statues are Chinese in appearance with round faces and youthful and intelligent looks. Most of the K¡¿yapa statues bear a foreign look with a high nose, dark eyes and broad cheeks. Some show loose muscles and haggard looks, while others have a bitter smile, certainly a realistic portrayal of K¡¿yapa who was a seasoned man used to hardships.

 

In the Northern Wei period, on either side of the niche's lintel, there appeared the decorations of pterodactyl and phoenix, the former as a demonstration of power and the latter of swiftness.

There is a unique statue of a winged angel with a dragon which adorns the niche in Cave No. 297. The winged angel has two horns on his head, feather on his arms and bird's claws. One foot straddles the dragon's back suggesting that the angel is riding the dragon. This statue is derived from the Taoist concept of fairies and shows the extent of Taoist influence on Buddhist sculpture.

 

Buddha and Bodhisattvas, Cave No. 432, Western Wei

Buddha and Bodhisattvas, Cave No. 432, Western Wei

In the altar itself, various techniques have been employed to represent hierarchy among the celestials. The main figure, whether that of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, is usually a rounded figure in stucco. The Bodhisattvas and disciples accompanying him have rounded heads; their bodies are partially merged into the wall by a technique of high relief. Flying figures and attending Bodhisattvas of a subordinate status are present in large numbers in small moulded figures. The flying figures of Cave No. 432 are fine specimens of this technique of the Northern Dynasties. They have thin and handsome faces, their top knots fall to one side; in their loose robes and skirts, they appear to be dancing with their sleeves, as if flying with the wind. All the different techniques merge to form a harmonious and well-proportioned composition not only highlighting the principal figure but also achieving an overall integrity.

 

Preaching Scene, Cave No. 263, Northern Wei

Preaching Scene, Cave No. 263, Northern Wei

The Mogao murals show greater richness of colour than the stucco statues and form the main component of Dunhuang art. In general, the murals of the early caves were executed according to an integral plan of chessboard designs on the ceiling and free patterns in-between the rafters. The central portion of the four walls has Buddha figures and illustrations of the main theme stories, while the lower part is painted with groups of small sized worshippers. The upper parts of the four walls have panels of celestial musicians and the lowest section has paintings of Vajra warriors. The rest of the walls is densely covered with a "Thousand Buddhas", i.e., miniature Buddhas, all of which go to create a solemn and sacred "Realm of Buddha".

 

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