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Dunhuang Art During the Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Dynasties...


Standing Bodhisattvas, Cave No. 290, Northern Wei

Standing Bodhisattvas, Cave No. 290, Northern Wei

The ultimate objective of image-making is to capture the sentiments, i.e., to give life and soul to the artistic images/dunhuang. The sentiment of the images/dunhuang is mainly expressed by the face. Lu Ji observed, "If the appearance is to be faithful, the change of colours is an indication."40 Therefore, in both the stucco and mural of Dunhuang, special attention is paid to the creation of the head. Most of the stucco heads of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are separately made before being fitted in the caves. This is why they are such good pieces of art. In the murals, particular attention is paid to the portrayal of the face. But it is the eyes which play the key role in expressing inner thoughts and feelings. Gu Kaizhi had felt quite strongly about this when he said, "It is easy for the hand to manipulate the harp but to make the eyes bid farewell to the geese is rather difficult." Liu Bing, a Dunhuang scholar of the same time, also observed that "Minute indications of sentiments appear in the face; it is the eyes that tell the inner feelings." Again, "eyes are the index of the heart and reflect what the heart feels."41 He thoroughly explored the relationship between the heart and the eyes, and developed Gu Kaizhi's idea of expression of sentiments.

From the very beginning, Dunhuang art started paying attention to the expression of inner feelings through the eyes and eyebrows. The Dunhuang artists accumulated rich experience from long period of practice and created a set of patterns to express happiness, anger, grief and joy. These patterns help the artists to create types of images/dunhuang and implant characters to these images/dunhuang. Thus we have the tenderness and solemnity of the Bodhisattvas, the power and heroic spirit of the Lokapˇlas, the devotion and respect of the donors, the freedom and vivacity of the flying figures and celestial musicians and so on. Even among the same category, the expressions of the figures are not stereotyped. Thus for example, the stucco Bodhisattva in Cave No. 260 is seen bending forward, with eyes cast down in deep meditation, while the Bodhisattva in Cave No. 290 is tender and enchanting with a lovely smile. In the murals the Bodhisattvas of Cave No. 285 are just the opposite--carefree, candid and sanguine, smiling broadly. Naturally, even the same category of figures can have different moods and sentiments.

Dunhuang cave art of the early period gradually created a brand new national style corresponding to the characteristics of the times because of the inheritance of the fine artistic tradition of the line drawing and characterization and the absorption of the beneficial factors of foreign art.

The early Dunhuang art went through four historical periods. Due to changes in politics, economics, ideology and aesthetic ideals during different periods, and due to the improvement of artistic skills, the artistic styles of these periods also show their peculiarities.

Cave No. 285, Western Wei

Cave No. 285, Western Wei

During the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms and the early years of Northern Wei, Mogao art is simple in content, crude in characterization, unsophisticated in colouring, forceful in line drawing, proportionate to the physiology of figures, with roundish and plump faces, and solemn, calm and indifferent moods. Bodhisattvas generally wear bejewelled crowns, with a half-naked upper body covered by a scarf and long dhoti below the waist, still retaining the tradition of the costumes and decorations of the Western Regions, India and Persia. With the addition of the three-dimensional technique in colouring creating the effect of light and shade and the ochre-red background producing a tonal warmth and earnestness, an utterly new art scenario, form and style have arrived in total contrast with the art of the Wei and Jin Dynasties. As this new art style was clearly influenced by the Buddhist art of the Western Regions, we may call it the Western style. The years of Northern Wei after Emperor Xiaowen's reforms during the Taihe Era (477-499), coming down to particularly Western Wei, new themes of traditional Chinese mythology infiltrated into the cave art, breaking through the conventional ochre background and its warm and tranquil tonal expressions to create a bright, clear and lucid mood bubbling with liveliness. We see especially the appearance of figures whose faces are sharp and skinny, with sanguine expressions of the eyes, and a broad smile, dress flying in the air, etc., creating a carefree and romantic style. Such a style originated from interior China and can be called the Chinese "heartland" style.

Both these styles co-existed in the caves of the last years of Northern Wei, Western Wei and Northern Zhou. Cave No. 285 of the Western Wei is a typical example. On the west wall we see the conventional style of the Western Regions, unsophisticated and restrained, with movements that epitomise tranquillity.

On the north, south and east walls we see the unrestrained and romantic style of the Chinese "heartland", figures flying and vibrating with animation. On the ceiling there is a mixture of both the styles gradually integrating with each other.

During Northern Zhou, following the integration of nationalities in the north and cultural exchanges between north and south China, the two distinctive artistic styles co-existed and began to merge into each other. In characterization, the well-shaped and handsome facial features of the Chinese "heartland" style integrated with the Western style of rounded and plump faces to produce the new image of "short and colourful faces".

In colouring, the "heartland" style integrated with the Western style of juxtaposing light and shade to produce a new three-dimensional colouring. In highlighting the sentiments of the characters, the simple and unsophisticated combined with the carefree and romantic to produce a new image of warmth, tenderness and elegance, imbued with inner liveliness and vitality. The stuccoes and murals showed deeper social awareness and a vivacity which was the hallmark of the new art style of Northern Zhou.

The two different styles of the early Dunhuang art had their respective social foundations. The Western style was mainly a copy of Kuca cave art, yet not its exact copy. The historical background of Dunhuang and the ideological trend and aesthetic ideals of those times contributed to the style as well. After the disintegration of Western Jin, "heartland" China witnessed much turmoil and confusion. Liangzhou became the well-known "haven for war refugees". Thousands of families migrated from the "heartland" to Jiuqian and Dunhuang. Litterateurs and scholars also swarmed into Liangzhou "to find a pillar to lean upon" for the time being. Thus the feudal culture of the "heartland", particularly the Confucian ideology prevailed in Hexi region, extending even to Gaochang. Liangzhou was then the economic and cultural centre of the Hexi region, while the Confucian scholarship of Liangzhou came mainly from Dunhuang. Song Yao, Zhang Zhen, Kan Yin, Suo Chang and Liu Bing were all famed exponents of Confucianism from Dunhuang. Liu Bing, in particular, was proclaimed as the "profound scholar of Hexi". Another scholar, Li Hao, was known to have a "comprehensive mastery over canonical and historical texts" and "competence in literature". After he became the Duke of Liang, he built the Hall of Obedience, Hall of Virtue and Hall of Reception outside the southern gate of Dunhuang city: in all of these there were "murals eulogising sage-kings, loyal subjects, filial sons, martyrs and chaste women in historical times, using model examples for inspiration and admonition. All the civilian and military heroes were Chinese."42 The halls were constructed entirely after the architectural style of "Hall of Enlightenment" of Chinese imperial palaces. The large number of Confucian classics unearthed from Dunhuang and Turfan, the tomb paintings of the Wei and Jin Dynasties and the Sixteen Kingdoms prove that Confucian ideology had already taken root in the minds of the people of the area.

As the art of a foreign religion which penetrated into such a region, Dunhuang cave art could not but be influenced by the local ideology and culture, and adapt itself to the local conventions and customs in order to take root and grow. Therefore the Indian style of nude dancers and Bodhisattvas with "full breasts, slender waists and large hips" which had spread to as far as the Xinjiang area suddenly disappeared in transit to Dunhuang without a trace. In their place appeared the newly created uni-sex images/dunhuang of Bodhisattvas, flying figures and celestial musicians. This uni-sex image was in keeping with the aesthetic norms of Confucianism shedding the high degree of imagination of Buddhism; it was an important aspect of the sinicization of imported Buddhist art.


Buddha, Cave No. 259, Northern wei

Buddha, Cave No. 259, Northern wei

Even more important is the artistic characterization at Mogao of the Bodhisattvas with dignified and solemn appearance, standing attentively in a composed and tranquil mood. There is the statue of the meditating Buddha in Cave No. 259 sitting erect in deep meditation, the eyes with a rigid look, a gentle smile emerging straight from the heart to the corner of his mouth, expressing a tranquil meditating mind. Adding a layer of simple colouring and rounded contour lines, an unadulterated decorative beauty is created. The Bodhisattva inside the niche of Cave No. 272 has his head lowered in deep thought and has a sincere and tranquil look on his face. Harmonious, solemn and tranquil characterization of this kind embodies the commonality between Buddhism and Confucianism.


Buddhism propagated 'Benevolence', hence Buddha is called the "Benevolent One" in the scriptures. Confucius propounded the "doctrine of Benevolence" and a virtuous person is known in Confucianism as a "benevolent man". Buddhism advocates "freedom from desire and happiness in tranquillity".43 The Confucian Lunyu (Analects) quotes the Master as saying that "The sagacious is animated, while the virtuous is tranquil." Hence "Benevolence" and "Tranquillity" are the common norms for self-cultivation. In his annotations to Renwu zhi (Book of Personalities), the Dunhuang scholar, Liu Bing, vigorously expounded the Confucian moral cultivation starting from spirit, bones and muscles to appearance and countenance, including even the manner of speech, so as to conform to certain norms. In short, a man must be "simple in nature, upright within and candid without, with a pure voice and pleasant looks, rightful conduct and correct countenance", with a final requirement of possessing "warm and tender looks".

The early art of Dunhuang was deeply influenced by such guidelines. The content and style of Dunhuang art has been, in varying degrees, stamped with the imprint of Confucian ideology. Hence the Western style acquired strong characteristics native to Dunhuang.

The Chinese "heartland" style originated from the style of painting created by Gu Kaizhi and Dai Kui during the Southern Dynasties and culminated in the "well-shaped and handsome face" of Lu Tanwei's style. It grew on the foundation of the lifestyle, state of mind and aesthetic ideals of the upper class of the Wei, Jin and Southern Dynasties. Rich households and litterateurs in South China enjoyed official power and had large incomes, large manors and innumerable serfs, and were able to lead an extravagant and frivolous life. They indulged in tonics and alcohol, in idle rhyming and the practice of immorality, and wearing loose robes and arrogated to themselves a style of aloofness. The Shishuo Xinyu (New Version of the World) and Jinshu (Annals of Jin) exalted such a lifestyle. An observation about Ruan Ji reads: "Arrogant and independent, impulsive and unrestrained." And about Ruan Zhan: "There is harmony in his spirit, mankind has no place in his mind. His demeanour is outstanding and indifferent, and his countenance leisurely and at ease." About Ji Kang we are told: "A seven feet tall physique", "a handsome and graceful bearing", "tranquil and free from desires", "aloof and outstanding." Then, about Lu Ji: "elegant in style and highbrow in his mood." About Dai Kui: "sage-like in his youth, tranquil and competent", as well as "pure and admirable as wind". These were indicators of the high society style, concentrating on a carefree aloofness, as if they were immortal fairies rather than mortals. The thin body was the symbol of beauty. Wang Gong was eulogized as "a willow in spring moonlight".44 The rage for a skinny body verged on absurdity. Thus, it is recorded in Jinshu that Wang Wan, son of Wang Rong, one of the seven renowned recluses, "had a beautiful name but was too fat". This was not to the liking of the father who fed bran to the son in order to thin him down. The result was contrary to the intended objective, feeding him bran made the son grow "even fatter".45 During the Liang Dynasty the upper class carried this trend further by insisting on "comfortable dress and loose belts", "large hat and high-heeled shoes", "scented clothes" and "a shaven and powdered face". 46 The men were weak and fragile and served as the background for the style of the "well-shaped and handsome face". Such a style prevailed all over China, uniting north and south during the last years of Northern Wei.


Cave No. 275, Northern Liang

Cave No. 275, Northern Liang

We have seen that each of the two afore-mentioned styles had its distinct social foundations and internalized influences from various directions. The Western style came into being after absorbing the influences of Buddhist art from the Western Regions. As far as murals are concerned, the early Dunhuang style has a close affinity with the murals of the Tuyugou grottoes of Gaochang among others. The contents are largely drawn from the murals of Kizil: for example, the illustration of King áibi who is wearing a jewel-studded crown, has a semi-naked body, and is sitting on an easy chair, protecting the dove with one hand even as a man cuts out his flesh with a knife. The story was originally painted in a rhombus-shaped composition at Kizil; later it became a series of single paintings in squares, with the addition of black ink inscriptions on the side. Clearly, this was because Gaochang was under a Chinese regime ever since the Han Dynasty and was consequently under the cultural influence of the Chinese "heartland".

The Jˇtaka story paintings at Kuca were transformed into the Han painting style of "the left showing the paintings and the right narrating the story". The áibi Jˇtaka story in Cave No. 275 of Dunhuang is an exact copy of áibi Jˇtaka in the second cave of Tuyugou. Similar is the case of "Sattva feeding himself to the tigress". The Kizil painting shows a foreign prince lying on the ground being greedily devoured by a hungry tigress. In the early Dunhuang caves more details were added; the main character, however, is still a copy of that of the Kuca mural. At Kizil, on the two sides of the domed ceiling are painted the Sun and Moon gods of the West, riding chariots drawn by four horses. We have the same imagery in Cave No. 285 at Dunhuang of the Western Wei vintage, almost identical to the Kuca murals. It can be seen that the Sun and Moon gods, popular in Greece, Rome, Persia and India, have migrated to Dunhuang through Buddhist art, and merged later with China's native Sun and Moon gods and co-exist with Fuxi and Nuwa in the same cave, albeit they were totally different in artistic imagination and aesthetic style.

The Dunhuang methods of characterization or of expressing sentiments are quite akin to the Buddhist art of the Western Regions. The Kizil portraits of Bodhisattvas have round and plump faces, straight nose and small eyes; these appear right in the centre of the face. Their bodies are quite dwarfish, fat and hefty while their expressions tranquil and indifferent. Among them are naked and semi-naked figures of Bodhisattvas, celestial musicians and flying figures of Indian style with full breasts, slender waists and heavy buttocks. Although we do not see such figures at Dunhuang, the early figures of the Sixteen Kingdoms and the early years of the Northern Wei have maintained the principal features of characterization and sentiments of the Buddhist art of the Western Regions.

The Dunhuang murals, specially the painting of characters, have learnt from India the skill of highlighting light and shade, i.e., painting layer after layer of red and using the white powder to highlight the bridge of the nose, eyes and the bridge. This was known as "aotufa" (three-dimensional method) in the history of painting. Various nationalities of the Western Regions internalized this method and created innovative methods of one-side colouring and two-sides colouring, creating their own distinctive styles. The Dunhuang murals have taken over such colouring methods and standardized them; they prevailed for more than 160 years in grottoes of Hexi region.

The costumes of the Bodhisattvas and Devakanyas and the kings, princes as well as of the rich people in the stories, are generally as follows: jewel-studded crowns on the head, a semi-naked upper body with capes and scarves, long dhotis and bare feet. Mixing up costumes and decorations of Indian and Persian styles is a regular phenomenon in all the caves of the Western Regions, and among the Dunhuang grottoes before the reformation of the Taihe era of the Northern Wei. The Queen in "The Deer King Jˇtaka", the daughters of Mara in "Mˇra Vijaya", the young girl in "áramana observing the Sila by committing suicide", the family members in "áibi Jˇtaka" and so on, all have a jewel-studded crown on their heads, a broad scarf on their shoulders and they wear half-sleeved shirts and long skirts. This sort of costumes, particularly Lady Sumati's dress, are to be found everywhere in the Kizil murals (the Kuca murals are almost identical). However, this Western costume (also known as Kuca costume) is not seen east of Dunhuang.

In short, although the Dunhuang style has acquired a local colouring, the influence from the Western Regions is multi-faceted. There is a fascinating synthesis of the Buddhist art styles of various nationalities of the Western regions, of Central Asia, West Asia and South Asia.

Coming to the Chinese "heartland" style, we can see that right from the beginning Dunhuang Buddhist art has imbibed the influences from the east. In the biography of the famous monk Dharmarak¦a of "Dunhuang Bodhisattva" fame (Western Jin) it is said, "the paintings and images/dunhuang of the monasteries are after the styles of the capital."47

It seems that there had always been Buddhist portraits from the "heartland" even before the caves came into existence in Dunhuang. But we have not yet discovered any of the ruins of the Buddhist monasteries of the Jin Dynasty in order to verify this statement. Of the two monks who were attributed to be the founders of the Mogao grottoes, Yue Zun and Fa Liang, one of them travelled from the west to this place and the other from the east. Both of them were embodiments of Buddhist monastic disciplines and examples of meditative tranquillity. Obviously this kind of meditative cultivation had already been tinged with Taoist colouring, an influence from the "heartland". But the caves hewn by Yue Zun have not been discovered up to the present time. During the last years of the Sixteen Kingdoms, Liangzhou was the centre of Buddhist activities in Hexi. Juqu Mangsun created many grottoes which are now seen at the foot of Tianti hill. They must have been a gigantic task originally, but have unfortunately suffered heavy damages due to frequent collapse from the top. Of the few caves which are extant, the earliest is a caitya type with a vajra throne. Four layers of murals are found, the innermost of which was executed during Northern Liang. The painting style is similar to that of Cave No. 275 at Dunhuang and the Northern Liang stone pagodas. We know that when Northern Wei conquered Northern Liang and Juqu Mujian fled to the west, Buddhist pagodas were to be seen all over Jiuquan, Dunhuang and Gaochang. There are inscriptions for dates such as "the first year of Chengsuan Era" (428), "the third year of Yanhe Era" (434), "the second year of Taiyuan Era" (436), "the second year of Chengyang Era"' (438) and so on. The cave art of Northern Liang could possibly influence not only Dunhuang but also Gaochang art. But the cave art of Northern Liang did not make a breakthrough in the Western style and did not alter the Dunhuang style. It was only after the Taihe Era that the Buddhist art of the "heartland" began to have its impact on Dunhuang.

The Wei Emperor, Xiaowen, moved his capital to Luoyang and carried out a policy of sinicization, making Confucian propriety the norm, employing Confucian scholars from south China to establish a system of etiquette and ceremony. He abolished many tribal practices of his ancestors, forbade the donning of Xianbei costumes and ordered Chinese costumes as the imperial uniform. He also forbade the use of the Xianbei language and made Chinese the official language.48 Emperor Xiaowen energetically assimilated the culture of south China and gradually made Luoyang a prosperous centre of Confucian ceremony and etiquette and talents.49 The Northern Wei Dynasty moved from strength to strength in this process.

Yuanhong, or Wei Emperor Xiaowen, proved to be an outstanding patron of Buddhism. He observed, "Our ruling ancestors have worked hard to reign but to establish an internal norm was an uphill task. There was the decision of the imperial court's exaltation of moral nobility and spirituality. Yet, enough has not been done in expounding enlightenment and accumulating merits for future life." 50 The Emperor often summoned eminent monks to the palace to discuss official business. He also ordered that monks got their provisions (from the donors) to preach the scriptures and disseminate dharma. Due to the encouragement of the rulers, Buddhism developed quickly in the north. Buddhist monasteries mushroomed in Luoyang to number as many as 1,367. There were more than 30,000 Buddhist shrines on Northern Wei soil and more than 2,00,000 monks and nuns.51 Eminent monks from the south thronged to Wei territories and three thousand odd "árama¸as of numerous kingdoms" arrived with scriptures to this "Sukhˇvat˘" of dharma. Contacts with the western countries extended as far as Europe.52 Luoyang became the Buddhist centre of China and earned the reputation of "Kingdom of Buddha". From this time onwards, Buddhist art of the "heartland" constantly expanded to the Hexi corridor and further a field to the Western Regions.

The development of Buddhism in "heartland" China was linked with the influence of the south. Not only did the tendency of the south to emphasize Buddhist philosophy spread to the north, but the Northern Wei rulers who had had a liking for Confucian classics and the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi frequently organised joint discussions between Buddhist monk scholars and their metaphysical Taoist counterparts, promoting a synthesis between Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Meanwhile, the merging of Buddhism with the belief in fairies in the south also had a continued influence on the north and travelled further along the "Silk Road" as well.

After the Taihe Era, we find that the figures have become handsome and thin, with loose robes and broad belts; a carefree, and romantic expression replaces the features of plummy faces, stout bodies and warm and tranquil moods of the early years of Northern Wei in the sculptures of Yungsang and Longmen grottoes. The "well-shaped handsome face" characteristic of the Chinese "heartland" style reigned. Smiling Buddha images/dunhuang and carefree and romantic Bodhisattvas were no longer the images/dunhuang of the deities; they were substituted by the portrayal of litterateurs of Chinese "heartland" and the beauties of south China.

Around the second year of the Yanchang Era (513), the faces of Bodhisattvas in Binglingsi grottoes became long and slender but slightly squarish, with clear eyebrows, long noses and lips turning upward to the point of distortion, the style of "well-shaped and handsome faces". Among the Tianti hill grottoes in the last years of Northern Wei there also appeared slim flying figures with broad foreheads and narrow cheeks, handsome and carefree, matching the figures on the bricks of the Deng county tombs in Henan, both in figural style and in colouring.

Around the third year of the Xiaochang Era (525), figures of the "well-shaped and handsome" style appeared in the caves of Dunhuang in large numbers among the stucco images/dunhuang of Bodhisattvas, flying figures, kings, princes, ladies, courtiers, armed attendants, donors and so on, contrasting sharply with the earlier figures of the Western style: the robust versus the thin, the tranquil versus the dynamic, the naked versus the dressed, three-dimensional versus the highly decorative. The style of "well-shaped and handsome faces" belonged to the Southern Dynasties. In recent years in places like Nanjing, Danyang of Jiangsu province and in Fujian province some tombs dating from the Eastern Jin and the Southern Dynasties have been excavated, yielding a large number of bricks which have figures engraved on them. They are composed around themes such as "The seven sages of the bamboo groves", "Mounted band", "Soldier attendant", "Winged angel playing with the dragon", "Winged angel playing with the tiger", "Ascending heaven with wings to become immortal", "Offerings to bhiksu", "Winged angel flying in heaven" and so on, which betray the style of the schools of Gu Kaizhi and Lu Tanwei. After the Taihe Era, this style of the Southern Dynasties spread to the north evoking a universal echo in the northern art. "The story of the obedient son" and the "Mounted band" in the tomb paintings of Deng county in Henan province reflect the art style of the Southern Dynasties in the tomb paintings of Chinese "heartland", and are typical examples of the style of "well-shaped and handsome faces" of the time.

The appearance of the Chinese "heartland" style among the Dunhuang caves cannot be separated from the exploits of the King of Dongyang and Duke of Jianping in propagating Buddha dharma. In the third year of the Xiaochang Era, Yuan Rong, the King of Dunhuang, assumed his duty as Dunhuang governor and landed at Dunhuang from Luoyang. Before 572 when Emperor of Northern Zhou was enthroned, Yu Yi, Duke of Jianping, arrived from "heartland" China to take up the governorship of Dunhuang. Many large caves were hewn during their reigns. In the inscription left by a Mr. Li during the reign of the Tang Empress Wu, it is stated, "Again we have a large cave excavated by the Duke of Jianping and King of Dongyang respectively. After that, common people in the province poured their resources and continued with the fashion, turning the entire place into serene rock-cut homes for the deities and a pureland for mystic spirits.53 The "heartland" style brought in by the King of Dongyang and Duke of Jianping marked a significant change in the cave art of Dunhuang.

Firstly, non-Buddhist national mythological themes began cropping up among the Buddhist caves. These themes came to the caves from the stone tombs during the process of fusion between Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, further enriching the content of cave art.

Secondly, the sinicization of the Dunhuang cave art received a further boost so that we see among the images/dunhuang of Buddha and Bodhisattvas and in the illustrations of Buddhist stories the appearance of Chinese costumes, images/dunhuang of the litterateurs of south China and styles highlighting carefree and romantic moods --- all of which infuse dynamism to a tranquil environment and breaking through the boundaries of Buddhist art of the Western style is successful in creating a system of Chinese Buddhist art.

Translated by Bagyalakshmi

[From Dunhuang shiku yishu lunji (Essays on the Dunhuang Art) pp. 1-41.]

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