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DUNHUANG ART


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Dunhuang Art in the First Half of the Tang Dynasty

 

Interior of Cave No. 27, High Tang

Interior of Cave No. 27, High Tang

The History of Dunhuang during the Tang Dynasty can be divided into three periods:

  1. Direct control by the central government of the   Tang Dynasty (618-781);

  2. Tibetan occupation (781-848); and

  3. Zhang Yichao's rule (848-907).

From the point of view of Dunhuang art, the first period may be regarded as the early half, while the second and third periods may be termed the second half of the Tang Dynasty.

Cave No. 79, High Tang

Cave No. 79, High Tang

The Tang Dynasty marked the hightide of economic, political and cultural development in Chinese history. It is generally accepted that the decline of the Tang Dynasty started with the rebellions of An Lushan and Shi Siming which took place in 755. The dynasty was founded by Li Yuan, i.e., Emperor Gaozu (618 -627). The twenty-three-year rule of Li Shimin, Emperor Taizong, laid a solid foundation for the dynasty. The country attained the zenith of power during the reign of Empress Wu and Emperor Xuanzong I. The first half of the Tang period of Dunhuang art corresponded approximately to this golden period.

 

The central government of Tang attached great importance to the strategically important area of the Hexi Corridor which controlled a vital point on the Silk Road. Minister Chu Suiliang's observation that "Hexi is the heart of China",1 reflects the view of the ruling elite. No sooner had the Tang government stabilized in central China than it dispatched an expedition to the west, and annexed the areas controlled by Xue Ju (Lanzhou) and Li Gui (Liangzhou). In 624, the Centre quelled the rebellions of Zhang Hu and Li Tong at Shazhou and was in control of the entire Hexi area. In 640, General Hou Junji conquered Gaochang and brought the Western Region under the central rule, ensuring the free flow of traffic along the Silk Road. Following political and military consolidation, the central government adopted a series of forceful measures to promote agriculture and sericulture, to reclaim land for garrison troops and to fully utilize land and water resources, giving a fillip to agricultural production. As it was described: "Mulberry and hemp thriving in the valley, an opulent region in the sun."2 The area of the present-day Dunhuang was Shazhou in those times, controlling a vital passage of the Hexi Corridor; Tang poetry is replete with vivid descriptions of its flourishing condition. The development of art in the Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang was closely linked with the growing influence of Buddhism.

As the Tang Dynasty patronized both Buddhism and Taoism, conflicts between the two never ceased. Courtier Fu Yi's strong censure of Buddhism during the Wude Era of Early Tang made Emperor Gaozu issue an edict reducing the number of Buddhist and Taoist priests. Even Emperor Taizong had declared: "Reverence to Buddhism is not our intention."3 In reality, he wanted only to place Taoism above Buddhism in protocol, but not to abandon the latter; on the contrary, he always patronized Buddhism with "deep emotions" (qingshen huchi ).4

His attitude underwent an obvious change after Xuanzang's return from India with the holy scriptures. The suppressive measures meted out to Buddhism during the Wude and Zhenguan Eras did not, to any noticeable extent, obstruct its dissemination. In fact, under the vigorous patronage of Sui Emperor Wen and his son and successor Emperor Yang, Buddhism had already become a powerful social force. Sustained by the widespread belief it enjoyed among the masses, Buddhism had been developing slowly and steadily.

Religious strifes are closely linked with political struggles: the Buddhist-Taoist rift during the Northern Dynasties had its links with the struggle between Han and non-Han races, while during Early Tang its background was the struggle for power between the families of Wu and Li. The Tang rulers came from the Li family hence declaring themselves to be the descendants of Laozi. When Empress Wu wanted to replace the Li family and establish her own dynasty, she created fables, in a big way, of miracles and auspicious signs to influence public opinion. Buddhist monks, Huaiyi and Falang, fabricated the Mah¡megha S£tra to proclaim her as the reincarnation of Maitreya. Consequently, as soon as she was enthroned she issued an edict placing Buddhism above Taoism. She also ordered large scale constructions of Buddhist temples and the induction of a large number of Buddhist monks and nuns. Moreover, Buddhism certainly played a crucial role in harmonizing class contradictions and in consolidating feudal rule. As Li Jie observed, "Social customs were unhealthy and the people unhappy; without Buddhism they would be restive. Then the brave would like to fight, the wise would like to intrigue and the people in the street would rise in arms."5 It was against this background that Empress Wu's reign saw the upsurge of a powerful political force leading to the mushrooming of Buddhist temples and shrines; in general, Buddhism was in ascendance with various factions struggling for supremacy.

 

Cave No. 45, High Tang

Cave No. 45, High Tang

The Dunhuang area, as the gateway to the Western Regions, had from early times been a holy shrine of Buddhism. During the reign of Empress Wu, Buddhist temples came up in great numbers. From the inscriptions of the Mogao Grottoes we have found the names of the monasteries of Longxing, Dayun, Puguang and Jinguangming, among others. The sixteen major monasteries of Late Tang were mostly constructed in the first half of the Tang Dynasty.6 Many eminent monks came to Dunhuang from Chang'an to preach Buddhism. One of them, Tankuang, had stayed at Dunhuang for 19 years and had during this time written many works expounding Mah¡y¡na Buddhism.7 Dunhuang cave art in the first half of the Tang Dynasty developed into peak form against this historical background.

I

A maximum number of caves were cut in this first half of the Tang Dynasty of which 127 are still extant. These caves, like the monasteries in the heartland of China, are the embodiment of the Mah¡y¡na ideology, contributing to the golden age of Buddhism and Buddhist art.

Many of the caves have inscriptions giving us dates of the construction of the caves and of the statues:

2nd year of Shangyuan Era (675) Cave No. 386;
2nd year of Chuigong Era (686) Cave No. 335;
2nd year of Yanzai Era (695) Cave No. 96;
3rd year of Wansui Era (697) Cave No. 123;
1st year of Shenli Era (698) Cave No. 332;
9th year of Kaiyuan Era (721) Cave No. 130;
14th year of Kaiyuan Era (726) Cave No. 41;
7th year of Tianbao Era (748) Cave No. 180;
8th year of Tianbao Era (749) Cave No. 185;
11th year of Dali Era (776) Cave No. 148.

We may deduce that the 148th cave was built around the 6th year of Dali Era (771). The dates of some of the other caves can be deduced as follows:

22nd year of Zhenguan Era (648) Cave No. 431;
Zaichu Era (approx. 698) Cave No. 323;
Shenlong Era (705-706) Cave No. 217.

These dates facilitate further studies on the continuity and change in Dunhuang cave art and architecture.

Almost all the Tang Dynasty caves have a front and a back hall. The front hall is rectangular, usually with outer wooden structures which do not exist today. Historical records describe these structures in phrases such as, "from top to bottom like hanging clouds, with flying pavilions from north to south connected by coloured clouds",8 and "all the caves are connected by corridors suspended in mid air",9 which give us some idea of the magnificent appearance of the exterior. At the foot of the Mingsha Hill, "the Mogao caves peep at the distant hills, embrace a river in front, the water mirrors the mansions, and birds chirp all through the shady paths."10 The scenery at Mogao must have seemed like a celestial abode to the travellers journeying through the boundless Gobi desert.

Interior of Cave No. 329, Early Tang

Interior of Cave No. 329, Early Tang

The back hall (main hall) of the caves is usually square in shape. The decorated ceiling is like an inverted dipper. The spacious interior is meant to accommodate devotees who come to view the paintings and attend functions. This layout was the most common among the caves of the first half of Tang. Only a few caves, like Cave Nos. 39 and 332, retain the central pillar and the triangular shaped ceiling. Most of the hall-style caves have only a single altar; only a few caves, such as Nos. 46, 225 and 386, have three altars. Amongst the single-altar caves, the only caves inheriting the double-storeyed altar style of the Sui Dynasty are Cave Nos. 57 and 322 which are adjacent to the Sui caves. All the single-altar caves have the statues on the western (main) wall. Very few caves, like Cave No. 205, have a pedestal with a stucco statue in the centre of the hall. From the architectural style of these caves we detect an element characteristic of the caves of the later period.

Most of the murals and painted stucco images/dunhuang have a well-conceived overall design which signals a refreshing break with the conventional layout. As a rule, inside the main altar of the western wall there is a main stucco Buddha statue with painted figures of Bodhisattvas, the ten chief Buddha disciples, supernatural beings and Devas. On either side of the altar-front are drawn Bodhisattvas or mini-sized depictions of the Vimalak¢rti-nirde¿a S£tra or Maµju¿r¢ and Samantabhadra, or Buddha's life stories such as "The Elephant entering the Womb" or "Prince Siddhartha leaving his palace". On both the northern and southern walls are drawn large-sized paintings illustrating the Amit¡bha S£tra, the Maitreya S£tra, the Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka S£tra and the BhaiÀajyaguru S£tra.

Kasyapa, Cave No. 220, Early Tang

Kasyapa, Cave No. 220, Early Tang

The eastern wall has a symmetrical set of paintings on either side of the entrance, the most frequent theme being the Vimalak¢rti-nirde¿a S£tra. On the upper side of the doorway, there are the paintings of Buddha preaching Dharma, with two or three Buddhas sitting side by side, all drawn in a refined and dignified manner. The centre of the inverted-dipper ceiling is designed as a magnificent canopy. On the four slopes are paintings of miniature Buddhas; alternatively, the scene of preaching is paved with lotus patterned tiles. The entire cave conjures up a vision of the "Pureland paradise" (Sukh¡vat¢ ). This was similar in character to the "Pureland halls" and "Bodhisattva pavilions" of the monasteries in the capital cities of Chang'an and Luoyang. The rich content of the murals, painted stucco, and the overall artistic achievements of the period merit a more detailed discussion.

 

II

The painted stucco of the first half of Tang developed into a new phase after thirty years of sincere work on the part of the Sui artists. Firstly, almost all the statues were carved and moulded all round, carving in relief is rarely seen. The craftsmanship exhibits an advancement to a higher level than earlier times when image making had relied on shallow carving, relief carving and occasionally moulding all round. Secondly, there was considerable improvement in skills, particularly in realistic depiction; statue-making entered a higher stage in highlighting the inner feelings of the deities.

Interior of Cave No. 331, Early Tang

Interior of Cave No. 331, Early Tang

 

Ananda, Cave No. 328, High Tang

Ananda, Cave No. 328, High Tang

An important feature of the Tang stucco is the creation of statues in groups. The themes centre around Buddha's preaching and Buddha's mah¡parinirv¡¸a. The scene of preaching has Buddha at the centre flanked on both sides in even numbers by his disciples, Bodhisattvas, Lokap¡las, Vajra warriors and kneeling attendants, their proximity to Buddha determined by the order of hierarchy. A single group of statues may number a minimum of seven, and can be as many as more than ten figures. Another novel feature was the painting in the background, just behind the statues: for example, behind Ënanda and K¡¿yapa are drawn eight eminent monks to make up the total of the ten chief disciples of Buddha. In addition to the disciples, Bodhisattvas, devas and other figures are also drawn to make up a large entourage of Buddha and to create an impression of expanded space inside the altar which is the focal centre of the cave. In some of the altars, stucco statues and mural paintings combine to depict a s£tra. The main altar of Cave No. 180 has a complete depiction of Maitreya S£tra.

 

The main Buddha is usually shown seated in the padm¡sana pose, wearing a Chinese style square-collared gown instead of the earlier Indian kaÀ¡ya in the Cao Zhongda painting style in which Buddha's clothes appeared to be clinging to a wet body. This was a change of the originally stylish, elegant and sophisticated Buddha into a somewhat flamboyant and solemn figure. Among the disciples, a dignified and seasoned K¡¿yapa contrasts vividly with a young, sensitive and intelligent Ënanda. Each of the ten odd early Tang statues of disciples has his own charisma, displaying the superb skill of the sculptor. Amongst them the disciples in Cave Nos. 45 and 328 are masterpieces.

The statues of Bodhisattvas can be divided into two categories. One category starting from early Tang and inheriting the Sui style presents tall, well-shaped, graceful figures, covered with necklaces, long dhotis upto the feet, a solemn and tranquil expression on their faces. The small-sized Bodhisattvas in Cave No. 41 (cut in 726) are typical of this style. In the other category, the Bodhisattvas have plummy faces, with long eyebrows reaching their temples, jade-like skin and slender figures twisted in the shape of an "S", looking very much like tender and charming noble ladies. Statues of this category are all works of High Tang and the figures of the two Bodhisattvas, Avalokite¿vara and Mah¡sth¡mapr¡pta in Cave No. 45 are the most outstanding representations of this category.

The Lokap¡la statues on both the northern and southern sides of the main altar in the caves of early Tang can be identified as Lokap¡la Vaidurya, Guardian of the South; and Lokap¡la Vai¿rava¸a, Guardian of the North. They bear the look of Westerners, like the Lokap¡las in Cave No. 322 of Early Tang who have high noses, large eyes and "A"- shaped moustaches. They are encased in armour from head to foot. There are also Lokap¡las in the typical Chinese style as the Lokap¡las in Cave No. 46 of the High Tang, wearing a shining armour, with hair tied in a bun over the head, fists clasped and eyes glowering, presenting a picture of heroism. The devils being trampled under the foot of the Lokap¡las are sturdy, rudely carved figures, appearing in various shapes and skilfully created postures.

Thus the group of painted stucco statues, although each possessing a distinct identity and different posture and mood, nevertheless complement each other and form a composite whole. The group statues underline the high achievement of Tang sculptural and moulding art. However, Cave No. 332 (cut in 698) presents a different scenario. Inside the cave "stands a Pagoda with Mah¡parinirv¡¸a behind it" and "golden deities at the sides".11 A "pagoda" is the central column in the caitya style. The front portion of the column presents three standing statues of the preaching Buddha reflecting the trinity. At the back is the Buddha statue in Mah¡parinirv¡¸a which is the earliest of the painted stucco of Buddha in nirv¡¸a among all extant Dunhuang statues.

The small-sized nirv¡¸a  scenes have already briefly revealed the stories of "M¡y¡dev¢ descending from heaven" and "S¡riputra attaining nirv¡¸a preceding Buddha". The large-sized nirv¡¸a  scenes, such as the one in Li Taibin Cave, i.e., Cave No. 148 (cut around 771) have integrated cave architecture, mural paintings and painted stuccos to form a grand depiction of the nirv¡¸a  S£tra. It is a pity that the huge 16-metre statue of the sleeping Buddha and the statues of his disciples were all remoulded and redecorated in the Qing Dynasty. Thus their original appearances are lost to us.

 

Devaraja, Cave No. 322, Early Tang

Devaraja, Cave No. 322, Early Tang

Another prominent characteristic of Mogao stucco of the early Tang is the emergence of giant Buddha statues. The unprecedented socio-economic development and political strength of the early Tang made such statues a trend among artists in their quest for grandeur and magnificence. The gigantic statues emerged in Dunhuang as a product of the times. According to the records in Jiu Tangshu (Old Tang Annals), Empress Wu issued an order in 689 to construct "Mah¡megha Monasteries" all over the empire. In 694 she also ordered Xue Huaiyi to build gigantic statues made of jute.

The inscription in Cave No. 156 at Mogao clearly states, "In the second year of Yanzai Era (695) Chan Master Lingying and Up¡saka Yin Zu jointly built the northern giant Buddha of 140 chi."* This tallies with the edict of Empress Wu mentioned earlier. The above inscription also says, "In the middle of the Kaiyuan Era (726-27) monks Chuyan and Ma Sizhong built the Southern giant Buddha of 120 chi."

 

Maitreya Buddha, Cave No. 130, Middle Tang

Maitreya Buddha, Cave No. 130, Middle Tang

We now have two gigantic Maitreya statues in padm¡sana in Cave Nos. 96 and 130 at Mogao which have a height of 33 and 26 metres respectively; undoubtedly they are the northern and southern statues mentioned in the inscription. The northern giant Buddha has been repaired and restored again and again by Zhang Huaishen of Late Tang, by Cao Yuanzhong and his wife of Early Song and by a rich man of the Qing dynasty. Consequently, the gestures, the clothing and the colours have all been changed; only the rotund head still retains its original appearance from early Tang. As regards the southern statue, it is largely in its original form, excepting for the right hand which was added by people later. It has a strong and well-proportioned body. The arched eyebrows, plump cheeks and solemn and tranquil expression fulfil the High Tang style. The square hammer-shaped cave in which the statue is sheltered, has a large base narrowing upwards--a befitting surrounding for the statue, lending it both stability and an imposing appearance. If the Southern giant Buddha is compared with the 73-metre gigantic Buddha statue on Mount Le in Jiading county, Sichuan, also constructed in the Kaiyuan Era, the former is the more exquisitely executed masterpiece of the two.

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