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Dunhuang Art in the First Half of the Tang Dynasty...


The mural paintings of Early Tang at Mogao represent epoch-making changes in both content and form. In terms of content, they may be broadly divided into the following five categories:

1. Paintings of Buddha

Such paintings combine with the stucco statues to compose the main theme of Buddha preaching. In addition, there are also various depictions of the preaching Buddha who is as usual flanked by the disciples, Bodhisattvas, Lokapˇlas, Nˇgarˇjas, Asuras, Gandharvas and all the other devas and Vajra warriors. Cave Nos. 321 and 334 of Early Tang have preaching scenes of the eleven-headed, eight-armed Avalokiteżvara.

We see in the Tang murals an increasing number of Buddhas as well as Avalokiteżvaras and Mahˇsthˇmas being presented independent of the context of the sµutras. Avalokiteżvara and Mahˇsthˇma became more prominent as the Pure-Land ideology grew popular throughout the country. A verse from Bianwen says:

I chant Avalokiteżvara

And invoke Mahˇsthˇma

There opens the distant

Gate of Sukhˇvati.

I reach Sukhˇvati,

In a little while

Maitreya receives me

With a kind smile.12

Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara, Cave No. 321, Early Tang

Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara, Cave No. 321, Early Tang

Avalokiteżvara was the deity who was a beacon for the suffering masses of this world in their quest for heavenly bliss. Among the Bodhisattvas, we have also the newly emergent symmetrical portraits of Maµjuµr˘ and Samantabhadra, mostly drawn on both sides of the altar on all four walls. In Cave No. 331, Maµjuµr˘ is seen straddling a blue lion while Samantabhadra rides on a white elephant, with flying figures supporting the feet of the steed. Devas playing music descend from heaven. In Cave No. 172, Maµjuµr˘ and Samantabhadra are flying across the sky, riding on clouds over rivers and oceans. Such a composition foregrounds the celestial entourage of Maµjuµr˘ and Samantabhadra.


2. Illustrations of Sµutras

The beginning of these can be traced to the Sui Dynasty but they attained maturity only by the middle of the Zhenguan Era (637-638). The first half of the Tang Dynasty caves unfold giant illustrations of a single sŁtra on a full wall. Eight kinds of such illustrations from this period are still extant:

Sutra Number of Walls
Amitˇbha SŁtra 28
Saddharma-pu¸·ar˘ka SŁtra 20
Amitˇyus SŁtra 17
Maitreya SŁtra 17
Vimalak˘rti-nirdeµa SŁtra 11
BhaiŔajyaguru SŁtra 6
Mahˇparinirvˇ¸a SŁtra 5
Fight between Sˇriputra and RaudrˇkŔa 1


Of the various illustrations of the first half of the Tang Dynasty, the maximum number of the extant ones belongs to those of the Amitˇyus SŁtra, also known as the Sukhˇvat˘vyŁha. These paintings highlighting the heavenly bliss of Buddha's domain have gone through a long process of evolution. During the inception of the Tang Dynasty, there were only small-sized compositions with ratna pond and music and dance scene added to the scene of Buddha's preaching. By the Zhenguan Era the compositions of sŁtra illustrations have reached a degree of perfection.

Amitabha Sutra (detail), Cave No. 220, Early Tang

Amitabha Sutra (detail), Cave No. 220, Early Tang

On the southern wall of Cave No. 220 (cut in 642) we have the biggest and the best preserved illustration of Amitˇbha SŁtra. The painting shows a ratna-pond of blue rippling waves full of blossoming lotuses. Aupapˇdaka Kumˇras are being born out of the lotuses. Amitˇbha sits in padmˇsana on the lotus seat at the centre of the pond flanked by Avalokiteżvara and Mahˇsthˇma and surrounded on all sides by various Bodhisattvas. In front of the pond is a stage with carved railings while the background is filled in by towering mansions. Musicians line up on both sides of the stage; a couple of dancers with bejewelled headdresses, garlands and sarees, dance in the centre of the stage waving their flowing scarves. Peacocks, parrots, cranes, kalavi´kas, jivamjivas are all around them, fluttering their wings and dancing to the music. The upper section of the painting shows an azure sky with coloured clouds and musical instruments flying about, playing themselves. The crowded composition makes up for a complete illustration of Sukhˇvat˘ where "there is no suffering but only happiness".13 This is a typical model of the illustration of the Amitˇbha SŁtra.

The earliest illustration of the Amitˇyur-dhyˇna SŁtra is seen in Cave No. 431 (cut in early Tang) comprising themes of "Weisheng yuan" (Ajˇtażatru ), "Shiliuguan" (âo·aża Vipażyanˇ) and "Jiupin wang sheng" (Nine Categories of Rebirth in Heaven) without an integrated or unified composition. Starting from High Tang, the three-in-one pattern began to crystallize into a set feature of the caves. In the centre is Sukhˇvat˘ and on both sides are vertical scrolls of paintings based on stories of Ajˇtażatru and âo·aża Vipażyanˇ respectively. The story of Ajˇtażatru is from the Amitˇyus SŁtra. In the SŁtra it is said that King Bimbisˇra had remained without a heir upto his old age. He was so anxious to have a son that when he came to know that an ascetic would be born as his son, he grew impatient and killed the ascetic. When the ascetic was reborn as a white rabbit, the king nailed it to death. Subsequently, his queen gave birth to a son. The soothsayer had predicted that since his son had contracted enmity before his birth, he would kill his own father one day. On reaching manhood, the prince killed the king and imprisoned the queen. The Ajˇtażatru painting depicts from top to bottom the various scenes culminating in the queen's deliverance by Buddha.


Cave No. 431, Early Tang

Cave No. 431, Early Tang

The illustration of  âo·aża Vipażyanˇ depicts the same story showing the queen witnessing various sufferings till she realized the true nature of this mundane world. Then, under the guidance of Buddha, she adopted the methods of silent meditation of the Sun and Water and other ways of cultivation to finally achieve mok¦a and entered the Buddha's realm of Sukhˇvat˘. The âo·aża Vipażyanˇ  painting shows sixteen scenes, moving from top to bottom, depicting the transformation of the queen. The Amitˇyus SŁtra was popular during the Kaiyuan and Tianbao Eras. These paintings are preserved in good condition in Cave Nos. 172 and 320.


Cave No. 148, High Tang

Cave No. 148, High Tang


Cave No. 103, High Tang

Cave No. 103, High Tang


The Maitreya SŁtra is of two kinds: one found in the Sui murals are based on Mile shangsheng jing (Sµutra depicting the reincarnation of Maitreya in the TuŔita Heaven). The painting has a simple composition: Maitreya is shown sitting cross-legged in his palace wearing a bejewelled crown. In the mansions on either side are devakanyˇs dancing or playing music. Most of the Maitreya SŁtra illustrations of the Tang Dynasty draw mainly from Mile xiasheng chengfo jing (Maitreyavyˇ-karana). In the painting, Maitreya is shown in padmˇsana, with a bejewelled canopy above him. He is also surrounded on either side by a number of deities. Quite a number of Maitreya paintings, like those in Cave Nos. 148 and 445, combine both the episodes with the upper part showing Maitreya's reincarnation in Tushita heaven and the lower section showing Maitreya becoming the Buddha in future years. Below the Maitreya Buddha is a Brahmin pulling down the Ratnadhvaja (a banner adorned with seven kinds of gems). This is intended to reveal the impermanence of human life and to propagate that nirvˇ¸a is the ultimate happiness. On both sides of the picture are drawn King Xiangque and his princes, maids, courtiers all being ordained into Buddhahood. There are also depictions of miracles in Maitreya's Sukhˇvat˘, such as mountains perfuming the air, nectar gushing out from the earth, timely showers leading to seven crops in one season, garments for the needy growing from the trees. It is a world free from theft--doors stay open at night; RˇkŔasas have turned into sweepers and Nˇgarˇjas spray water to help them. Longevity extends to 84,000 years and women get married at the age of 500. It is worth noticing that the picture is interwoven with scenes from real life of the period. Thus, in the painting depicting seven crops, we see the entire process of agricultural production which includes ploughing of the field, sowing the seed, harvesting, and storing the grain. Yet another kind of real life scene is found in the many vivid depictions of marriage. All these paintings are a rich source of reference materials for historians.


Cave No. 103, High Tang

Cave No. 103, High Tang

Illustrations of Saddharma-pu¸·ar˘ka SŁtra: This sŁtra has a total of 28 chapters of which only a few have been illustrated. The "Jianbaota" chapter (StŁpa sandarsan parivartana ) was painted during the Northern Dynasties. By the Sui Dynasty large canvases of the "opening" chapter on Samantamukha (Universal Power of Avalokiteżvara) began to appear. The Saddharma-pu¸·ar˘ka SŁtra became a comprehensive composition during Early Tang. Like the illustrations of other sŁtras, this too has the figure of Buddha and the "opening" chapter as the centre of the composition. Various scenes depicting stories from various chapters surround it on all sides which vary from painting to painting. The chapters on "Huacheng" ( City of Illusion), on the Universal Power of Avalokiteżvara, on the Law Master (dharma guru) and on Avadˇna occupy a prominent position in the illustrations. The prevailing faith in Avalokiteżvara during the first half of Tang developed the chapter on the "Universal Power of Avalokiteżvara" an independent Avalokiteżvara SŁtra with the Bodhisattva reincarnating in thirty-three forms.

Illustrations of the Saddharma-pu¸·ar˘ka SŁtra are the richest in contents among those of all Mahˇyˇna SŁtras: they include pictures from real life such as houses, travellers and robbers, sea voyages, wars, punishments, medical treatment and religious activities. The Saddharma-pu¸·ar˘ka illustrations appear frequently in the caves of the first half of Tang; some caves, such as Cave No. 23, are virtually "Saddharma-pu¸·ar˘ka Caves".

Illustrations of the Vimalak˘rti-nirdeża SŁtra: The earliest illustration of the SŁtra in China is found from the records of Eastern Jin. Among the paintings extant, the earliest was painted during the first year of the Jianxian Era of Western Qin (420) in the Binglingsi Grottoes. It appeared at Mogao during the Sui Dynasty as a minor decoration on both sides of the main altar in most of the cases. It was only during the Zhenguan Era of the Tang Dynasty that it occupied entire walls. Illustrations of the Vimalak˘rti SŁtra during the first half of Tang were mostly drawn on both sides of the doorway of the eastern wall. The largest painting extant is around 20 square metres around the theme of Maµjużr˘ enquiring about the health of Vimalak˘rti. The scene is symmetrically composed depicting entourages of Maµjużr˘ and Vimalak˘rti. Here Vimalak˘rti is shown seated, wearing a fur coat, his hair tied by a black ribbon. There is no air of sickness about him; he has in fact the appearance of an energetic elder. This reflects the different aesthetic concepts between the people of Tang and their Eastern Jin predecessors. There is a grand scene depicting Maµjużr˘ sitting on the lion-throne, and the people surround him and Vimalak˘rti --- kings, courtiers, elders, upˇsakas, brahmins and princes and officers of various countries --- who have come to enquire about Vimalak˘rti's health. The paintings also depict various miracles, such as the 32,000 lion-thrones descending from Heaven, Nirmˇ¸a Bodhisattva bestowing fragrant food, devakanyˇs showering petals, etc., much beyond the range of Maµjużr˘'s enquiry about Vimalak˘rti's health. Such illustrations as a whole eulogise Vimalak˘rti who is a upˇsaka who has married, and has children and maids and slaves, manor and fields, but also a great preacher of Mahˇyˇna ideology.

Illustrations of BhaiŔajyaguru SŁtra: They are based on two texts: SaptatathˇgatapŁrvapra¸idhˇnaviżeŔa translated by Yijing and BhaiŔajyaguru-vaidurvaprabha-apŁrvapranidhˇna translated by Xuanzang. The first text which highlights seven Buddhas produced the illustration on the northern wall of Cave No. 220. The painting comprises the seven BhaiŔajyaguru Buddhas against the background of the Eastern BhaiŔajyaguru Pureland. In the lower section of the painting, there is a building of light at the centre and trees of lights on both sides. The trees are in a wheel-like formation, shown layer after layer. On both sides are grand scenes of music and dance with bands of musicians lined up on either side. Amongst the instruments are the typical Chinese zheng (a 21 or 25-string plucked instrument similar to the zither) and fang xiang (consisting of 16 hanging iron plates which produce different notes after being struck by a small bronze hammer) as well as flutes, drums, waist-drums and bronze cymbals imported from the West, in addition to the lute and harp imported from other countries. The two dancing pairs shown jumping and swirling on a circular carpet with their scarves give us a glimpse of the famous "Hu xuan Dance" of the Tang Dynasty. In the upper part of the painting, there is a scene of "celestial petals showering and divine music constantly ringing".14 Illustrations of BhaiŔajyaguru SŁtra based on the second text appeared after the Tianbao era. Such paintings resemble those depicting the Sukhˇvat˘ SŁtra. They highlight Sukhˇvat˘, with vivid exaggeration. The main painting is flanked on both sides by the vertical scrolls showing the Twelve Vows of the Master of Healing and Nine Kinds of Untimely Deaths. Both types of BhaiŔajyaguru illustrations propagate the doctrine that only if people follow Buddha with their mind and heart would they be free from the sufferings of the world and fulfil their cherished dreams.

Cave No. 148, High Tang

Cave No. 148, High Tang

Illustrations of the Nirvˇ¸a SŁtra: Created in the first half of Tang, these illustrations are mainly based on Daban niepan jing houfen (The latter portion of Mahˇparinirvˇ¸a SŁtra), Da zhidu lun (áˇstra on the Prajµˇ-pˇramitˇ SŁtra ) and Pusa zhutai jing (Garbha SŁtra), etc. Their contents include scenes of Buddha attaining nirvˇ¸a under the "sˇla tree", Kˇżyapa touching Buddha's foot which came out of the coffin for him (Kˇżyapa) to mourn, Sˇriputra's burning himself before the cremation of Buddha, Mˇyˇdev¶ descending from heaven, manifestations of Buddha preaching the Dharma, the Golden Coffin of Buddha being taken out of the city amidst banners, Buddha's body igniting itself when laid on the holy pyre, kings waging wars scrambling for Buddha's relics, and equal distribution of the relics by Dro¸a, etc. The paintings in Caves No. 322 (cut in 698) and No. 178 (cut in 766-779) are grand depictions. The eight kings claiming Buddha's relics is painted on the upper portion of the north wall in Cave No. 322 depicting the cavalries of Western Regions fighting over mountains and rivers --- a vivid reminder of the ancient battle scene.


Illustrations of Dafangbian Fo bao'enjing (The Mahopˇya Buddha SŁtra for Redemption from Indebtedness): They appear on the ceiling of the corridor in Cave No. 148 (cut in 766-779). In the centre we have the opening chapter of the SŁtra, and the chapter on "Xiaoyang" (Supporting Parents) and "E'you" (Bad Companions) are arranged on the northern and southern slopes respectively. In addition, there are also paintings from the chapters of "Lunyi" (Discourse) and "Qinjin" (Intimacy) among others. In the opening chapter we have Ënanda begging for alms with a bowl in his hand, and his meeting with a begging Brahmin carrying his old mother on his shoulders. This becomes the focal point of the entire painting. The chapter on "Supporting Parents" illustrates the story of Sużˇnti Jˇtaka, and that on "Bad Companions" illustrates the story of Prince Kalyˇ¸akˇr˘ going to the sea. We can find these stories in Xianyu jing (Sµutra for the Wise and Foolish), the Mahˇparinirvˇ¸a SŁtra and the Liuduji jing (Mahˇyˇnasamyoga-satapˇramitˇ SŁtra). They also appear as independent story depictions in the Northern Zhou caves. The author of Dafangbian Fo bao'enjing is anonymous: it appears to be a fake sŁtra, fabricated by Chinese monks.

Illustrations of RaudrˇkŔafighting the deity: This theme just began to appear in the first half of Tang. Inside the altar of Cave No. 335, on the northern side, is drawn the Sˇriputra and on the southern, the heretic RaudrˇkŔa. This arrangement becomes a set pattern, although the large-canvas composition was yet to appear. Xianyu jing is source of the story of the fight between the Buddha's disciple, Sˇriputra, and the heretic RaudrˇkŔa.


3. Paintings of Buddhist Historical Events and Disciplines

During Empress Wu's vigorous campaign to propagate Buddhism some paintings on Buddhist historical events appeared in Cave No. 323 at Mogao. There are historical personalities and events in these paintings. There are also tales fabricated by Buddhist devotees as historical happenings. Every scene has a number of inscriptions explaining the picture.

Such historical paintings are seen on the upper portion of both the northern and southern walls in Cave No. 323. The paintings are divided into eight parts which include áˇkyamuni drying the clothes and Ażoka paying homage to the stŁpa. In addition, there are scenes of historical developments in China; for example, the story of Emperor Han Wu visiting the Ganquan Palace to pay homage to the metal statues and sending Zhang Qian as envoy to the west to find out the identity of the deity. Zhang Qian's embassy to the Western Regions was a famous historical event with no connection to Buddhism. The Buddhists interpolated this historical event into the Buddhist development with an intention to strengthen their position in their struggle against the Taoists.

During the period of Three Kingdoms, the well-known monk, Kang Senghui, came to the eastern coast of China by the sea route to disseminate Buddhism. The painting shows the monk and others crossing the vast sea in a small boat and arriving at Nanjing. The King of Wu, Sun Quan, is shown receiving the holy relics and ordering the construction of Buddhist shrines. There is also a scene of Prince Sun Hao, paying respects to Kang Senghui and so on. During Western Jin, a stone statue of Buddha is shown to enter the Yangtze river from the sea floating on water. There is also the depiction of Yang Du who obtained a metal statue of Buddha during Eastern Jin.

There are also depictions of legendary stories about Fotudeng (Buddhacinga) during Later Zhou: his extinguishing the fire at Youzhou, washing his bowels by the lake, making predictions of good and bad omens after hearing the sound of the bells and so on.

There are three scenes about Reverend Tanyan of the Sui Dynasty praying for rains. Sui Emperor Wen's going out of the city to receive Tanyan, Tanyan's recital of sŁtras in the palace, and his praying for rains on a platform are being depicted.

The above-mentioned stories from Western Han till Sui Dynasty have narrated anecdotes of Chinese emperors' pro-Buddhist deeds which are interwoven with legends propagating the Buddhist magical power. The obvious motivation of this is to secure the support of the central regime and consolidate the Buddhist political status. There are quite a number of vivid and brilliant depictions.

On both sides of the east wall of Cave No. 323 are painted Buddhist commandments almost explicating the commandments one by one.

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