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Dunhuang Art in the Second Half of the Tang Dynasty

The Second year of the Jianzhong Era (781) was a watershed of Chinese history and saw the beginning of Tibetan control over the Hexi region. From this time onwards up to the end of the Tang Dynasty comprised a period of 126 years. During this time, the Tibetans ruled Dunhuang for 67 years, corresponding to the conventional phase of Middle Tang, while the remaining 57 years saw Dunhuang under the rule of Zhang Yichao and his family, corresponding to the conventional phase of Late Tang. The political rule of the two different nationalities (Tibetan and Han respectively) produced differences in the historical characteristics of Mogao cave art. This essay discusses the art of the Mogao Caves with particular emphasis on the two periods mentioned above.

I. The Tibetan Period: Middle Tang

Corridor of Cave No. 16, Late Tang (Entrance of Cave No. 17)

Corridor of Cave No. 16, Late Tang (Entrance of Cave No. 17)

With the rebellions of An Lushan and Shi Siming in the fourteenth year of the Tianbao Era (755), the Tang government was compelled to move its crack troops from Hexi, Gansu and Shaanxi to the heartland to suppress the rebellions and recover the rebel occupied areas. Hexi became a power vacuum and the Tibetans seized the opportunity to make their entry into the region. Although the skeleton troops defending Shazhou put up a brave resistance for eleven years, they were finally outnumbered, and Hexi Corridor was fully occupied by the Tibetans in 766.

Under the Tibetan occupation, there were sharp contradictions between the ruling Tibetans and the subjugated Han Chinese. The Dunhuang Manuscripts refer to an armed rebellion led by a gang of seven leaders headed by Fan Guozhong who stormed into the city of Shazhou and killed the commissioner and other Tibetan officials.1 Oppression and revolt fostered unity among the people and eventually forced the Tibetan rulers to employ the services of Han and other nationalities in the upper strata as officials in their governing machines, details of which are documented in the chapter on "Tubo" (Tibet) of the old and new Tangshu (Annals of the Tang Dynasty) and other historical records.

Cave No. 158, Middle Tang

Cave No. 158, Middle Tang

Since the Tibetans were Buddhists it was natural that during their occupation of Hexi, monasteries mushroomed, monks and nuns were ordained in great numbers and Buddhism prospered greatly. There were about sixteen or seventeen monasteries, many of which adopted the names of temples of the "heartland": Kaiyuan (New Era); Qianyuan (Beginning); Longxing (Dragon Rising); Bao'en (Filial Benevolence); Jingtu (Pureland); Jinguangming (Suvar¸a-prabhˇsa); Xingshan (Upsurge of Virtue); Puguang (Viżva-prabhˇ). The temples were institutions similar to those in the "heartland" with a hierarchy of three leaders (san gang ), tenant households and estates which were exclusively under their control, free from government interference.


At that time, the monks and nuns of Shazhou numbered around a couple of thousand. In the fourth year of the Jianzhong Era (783), the Tibetans rehabilitated more than eight hundred monks, nuns, army officers and soldiers who had been captured by them from this region.2 The percentage of monks and nuns was high in a province of less than 30,000 population. During the second half of the Tang Dynasty there emerged a large number of eminent monks from Dunhuang, such as Tankuang (a monk from Chang'an who settled in Dunhuang), Moheyan (a preacher of Chan Buddhism), and Facheng, Hongbian and Wuzhen (all three of whom were honoured as eminent Tibetan monks). At the same time, the Tibetan rulers sent envoys to Chang'an to invite monks to preach Buddhism in Tibet. Records tell us that "Monks Liangxiu and Wensu were sent (from Chang'an to Dunhuang) in the first instance to be replaced later every year."3 The Tibetan rulers also acquired Buddhist scriptures from heartland China and had them translated into Tibetan. The eminent monk, Moheyan, was one who translated many Chinese scriptures into Tibetan and vice-versa for circulation. Contacts between Tibet and China which had been brisk from Early Tang further intensified.

Prior to the Tibetan occupation, there had been frequent fighting in the Hexi Corridor which led to a group of incomplete caves during the Kaiyuan and Tianbao eras.4 In some caves only a niche was carved or a ceiling painted. Such caves total eighteen in number. After the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang, life became relatively stable and the incomplete portions in these caves were gradually completed. Around forty-eight of the caves, carved out during the Tibetan period, are extant, with a total of sixty-six, if we add the ones mentioned above. In both number and scale this surpassed the caves of High Tang.

Only two caves of the Tibetan period have clear inscriptions mentioning the date of excavation. The first is in Cave No. 365, earlier known as the "Hall of Seven Buddhas", built by the monk Hongbian. On the edge of the niche there is an inscription in Tibetan which says that the shrine of the cave was made in the Year of Rat according to the Tibetan calendar (832) and it was completed in the autumn of the Tiger year (844) when Khrigtsug-Ide-btsan was the ruler of Tibet. Cave No. 231 has the other inscription: "Dafan gu Dunhuangjun mogaoku yin chushi gongxiugongdeji" (Account of the merit of Saint Yin in Mogao Grottoes building in Dunhuang Province under the Great Tibetan rule),5 which says that in the fourth year of the Kaicheng Era (839) during the reign of Emperor Wenzong of Tang, the cave was built by one Yin Jiazheng. The dates of the other caves may be deduced from the portraits of the donors and the inscriptions.

The caves built during the Tibetan occupation are primarily of three kinds. The predominant kind is in the style of the palace hall with a partition; the room at the back is the main hall. The main chamber is square in shape and has an inverted dipper ceiling. The main wall on the west has a square niche according to the High Tang convention; some of these are double-storeyed.

The second type is the Nirvˇ¸a Cave, with a horizontal rectangular shape and a ceiling like an inverted dipper. The front of the main wall features the sleeping Buddha covering the entire length of the hall. The third is the tunnel type with the vaulted ceiling connected with a tunnel at the back, for the worshippers to file past the Buddha in circle. The last two types are fewer in comparison to the first.

The layout of the first category is stereotyped. Consider, for example, Cave No. 231, built by the Yin Family --- one of the many rich and powerful families who ruled Dunhuang for generations. Many male members of the Yin Family were officials of the Tibetan government. Hence the cave was gigantic with well-conceived designs. On the south, west and north walls of the front hall are drawn four big Devarˇjas. The connecting corridor has Sahasrabhuja Sahasranetra Avalokiteżvara drawn on its ceiling and donors drawn on both sides. In the centre of the inverted dipper ceiling of the main hall is the caisson in the shape of a magnificent canopy surrounded by flying figures on all sides. In the centre of all the four slopes below the ceiling is painted a preaching Buddha, densely surrounded by miniature Buddhas in their hundreds. Inside the square niche, deep into the west wall, is a horse-shoe shaped seat of Buddha along with fragments of seven destroyed statues. There are sculptures in relief below the Buddha seat. On the walls inside the niche behind the statues are ten paintings connected like a screen, comprising drawings from Buddhist stories such as Prince Sattva feeding himself to the tigress and the Kalyˇ¸kr˘ Jˇtaka. The inverted dipper shaped ceiling of the niche altar is ornamented with chessboard patterns, while on the four slopes are drawn forty auspicious symbols. On both sides of the wall outside the niche are painted illustrations of Maµjużr˘ and Samantabhadra. On the south wall are illustrations of Tianqingwen jing (Devatˇ SŁtra), Saddharma-Pu¸·ar˘ka SŁtra and Amitˇyur-dhyˇna SŁtra. On the north wall are drawn illustrations of Maitreya's Paradise, Avatamsaka-SŁtra, the Paradise of Bhai¦ajyaguru. On the east wall the south side of the entrance has the illustrations of the Sµutra for Filial Piety while the north side has the illustration of Vimalak˘rtinirdeża SŁtra. Below each sµutra illustration are four panels with detailed stories drawn from the respective sµutras. Above the entrance of the east wall are painted the portraits of Yin Bolun and his wife from Suo family, parents of Yin Jiazheng. The inscription inside the cave Yin chushi gong xiu gongde ji (Accounts of Duke Yin building the monument)6 faithfully detailed the structure and content of this cave.

The painted stucco statues of the Tibetan period follow the Tang convention, producing áˇkyamuni, the three Buddhas of the past, present and future and the Buddhas of the seven kalpas. There are also groups of statues with Buddha in the centre surrounded by his disciples, Bodhisattvas, Devarˇjas and Lokapˇlas on both sides as well as a huge Buddha statue in MahŒparinirvŒÄa.

Cave No. 158 is the biggest of the Tibetan period. The painted statue of a sleeping áˇkyamuni on the altar inside the cave is sixteen metres long. áˇkyamuni lies on his right side and looks as though he is in serene sleep. He has a plummy face and a well-proportioned body. The folds of his kaŔˇya flow down gently, revealing the curves of his figure. This is one of the best specimens of the large-sized painted Buddha statues. The deities and laity surrounding áˇkyamuni are painted on the wall, each absorbed in his own sorrowful mood. The illustration is faithful to the description in Chapter 2 of Dazhidulun (Prajµˇ-Pˇramitˇ-áˇstra)7 and in the relevant chapter of Mahˇparinirvˇ¸a SŁtra.8 It is a masterpiece of mural art.


Bodhisattva and Bhiksu, Cave No. 159, Middle Tang

Bodhisattva and Bhiksu, Cave No. 159, Middle Tang

The painted stucco statues of the Tibetan period have certain distinctive characteristics. The Bodhisattva images/dunhuang betray the style of High Tang with plump faces and arched eyebrows with beautiful eyes, jade-white complexion, slim and graceful figures, gradually losing the pliable figure characteristic of the Gupta style which could even twist into the shape of the letter "S". Their charm lies in the manifestations of their inner feelings revealing the beauty of natural harmony in their elegant and reserved postures. The colours of the statues show sobriety and brightness, departing from the earlier trend of extravagant and magnificent colours. A typical example is the group of Bodhisattvas in Cave No. 197 radiating purity and naivete. Yet another specimen is found in the couple of Bodhisattvas in Cave No. 159, reserved and solemn. All of them show further feminization in characterization.

Equally remarkable is the treatment of their costumes. Colourful and exquisite patterns of the decorative background match the light and soft dresses which further merge into curves of their figures as well as the jade-like smoothness of their skin. Their overall harmony enhances the distinctiveness of every individual statue.


Bodhisattva, Cave No. 197, Middle Tang

Bodhisattva, Cave No. 197, Middle Tang

The Devarˇjas have large faces and a fair complexion. They either wear helmets partially covering their faces or have their hair tied on top. They wear full-length armour from upper body to their boots and have Land Deities supporting their feet. Cave Nos. 154 and 459 are full of figures such as the ones described. The armour was imported from Khotan and differed from all the thirteen types of armour with shining fish-scale-shaped plates then in use in heartland China.

The warriors are also shown wearing another kind of attire known as the "tiger skin". In accordance with the Tibetan convention, all those who had distinguished themselves in battle were honoured with tiger skin. The Devarˇjas in Cave No. 205 are shown standing with a hand on the handle of the sword, wearing armour on which is draped a tiger skin to highlight their valour. In brief, the painted stucco statues of the Tibetan period demonstrate the typical characteristics of their times and nationality.


The murals of the Tibetan period are somewhat similar in content to those of the first half of the Tang Dynasty and may also be categorized by a five-fold division:

  1. Paintings of Buddhist images/dunhuang

  2. Illustrations of Sutras

  3. Auspicious symbols

  4. Decorative patterns

  5. Portraits of donors.

Illustrations of the sŁtras still predominate among these categories. Following is a more detailed account.

1. Paintings of the Buddhist images/dunhuang

During this period, we see a drastic reduction in the number of the Buddha images/dunhuang and a great increase in the images/dunhuang of Tantric deities. Besides BhaiŔajyaguru Buddha, Buddhas of the Four Directions, Avalokiteżvara, Mahˇsthˇma Buddha, KŔitigarbha, most of the images/dunhuang are of Amoghapˇża Avalokiteżvara, Cintˇma¸icakra Avalokiteżvara, Sahasrabhuja Sahasranetra Avalokiteżvara, Sahasrabhuja Sahasrapˇtra Maµjużr˘ and others painted according to the sŁtras, in a stereotypical manner. The Cintˇma¸icakra Avalokiteżvara wears a large bejewelled crown, each of the six arms holding a lotus, a talismanic wheel and a pearl, conforming entirely to the description of Amoghavajra's translation of Shewuai jing (Apratihata-Mahˇkaru¸ˇ-Mahˇdhˇra¸˘ SŁtra).9

Among the Tantric images/dunhuang, there appear two types of depictions of the Sun and Moon gods. One kind is the drawing in the upper section of top of both sides of the corridor: two big wheels facing each other with devas riding five horses or seated on a lotus. These are Sun and Moon gods from the West. The other type is the Nˇgarˇjas at the foot of Mount Sumeru holding small wheels in their palms; the wheels are painted with jade rabbits and golden birds. These two kinds of depiction show the synthesis of Chinese and Western styles in the Buddhist art themes of the Tang Dynasty.

2. Illustrations of Sutras

During the initial period of Tibetan occupation, the main task of the artists was to complete the unfinished drawings in the caves of High Tang according to the High Tang convention of a single sŁtra occupying an entire wall. During the middle of the Tibetan period, we see new themes of the sµutra being introduced; a single wall is made to accommodate three or four illustrations. The Zhang family cave (Cave No. 159) has illustrations of nine sŁtras while the Yin family cave (Cave No. 231) has twelve. The popular themes of the sŁtra illustrations during this period are as follows:

Name of Sutra

No. of Paintings

Amitˇyur-dhyˇna SŁtra 26
Paradise of Maitreya 20
Paradise of BhaiŔajyaguru 20
The Western Paradise of Amitˇbha 17
Vimalak˘rti-nirdeża SŁtra 7
Saddharma-pu¸·ar˘ka SŁtra 7
Mahˇparinirvˇ¸a SŁtra 3
Devatˇ SŁtra 9
Vajracchedikˇ SŁtra 7
Bao'en jing 6
Suvar¸aprabhˇsa SŁtra 4
Avatamsaka SŁtra 5
LaĆkˇvatˇra SŁtra 1
ViżeŔa Cintˇbrahmaparip¤cchˇ 1


Cave No. 159, Middle Tang

Cave No. 159, Middle Tang

The last seven themes were new additions. The variety of sŁtra illustrations reflects the mushrooming of new sects following the revolt of the Tiantai sects. These sects satisfied the requirements of the devotees with their varying ideologies and also enriched the contents of cave art. Just as it is described in "The Tablet of Zhang Huaishen": "The four walls are painted with a rich fare of illustrations of sixteen sŁtras, showing that all roads lead to enlightenment. There are varied images/dunhuang of the reincarnations of the trinity --- Kˇżyapa, áˇkyamuni and Maitreya. A cave is the capsule of Buddhahood in all ten directions of the universe. A single room is enough space for the three lokas."


Although Bao'en jing is listed as the work of Latter Han, it is of anonymous authorship. A careful examination reveals it to be a combination drawn from various sŁtras. The main aim of the sŁtra is to propagate loyalty to the state and filial piety characteristic of Confucian teaching. It is a typical "fake sŁtra", one fabricated by the Chinese.10 Among the new sŁtra illustrations, Bao'en jingbian (Ilustrations from the Bao'en jing) was the richest in content. Besides the centrally placed scene of Xu pin (Introductory Chapter) depicting Buddha preaching and the Brahmin carrying his mother on his shoulders and begging for food, all the other illustrations have the four main stories of E'you pin (Bad Companion), Xiaoyang pin (Supporting Parents), Lunyi pin (Upadeża), and Qinjin pin (Near and Dear Ones). The story of "Bad Companions" narrates the story of Kalyˇ¸akˇr˘ entering the sea, and that of "Supporting Parents" details the story of Prince Sujˇta. Both appear independently in the caves of the first half of Tang in Dunhuang. The story of "Upadeża" describes a girl among the deer who was fostered by a celestial being and was married to the king. She gave birth to a lotus which was regarded as inauspicious by the king who had the flower thrown away by the side of a tank. One day, the king was pleasantly surprised to discover 500 lotuses by the side of the tank and under the leaves of the lotus, there were 500 boys. The king asked 500 ladies of his court to bring up a boy each. In course of time, the 500 boys grew up into courageous and mighty warriors who brought security to the country. Ultimately, however, all the 500 princes renounced the world and became Pratyeka-Buddhas. The story emphasizes that life is as illusory as one's shadow in the water. The palaces and costumes in the paintings are in Chinese style.

The story of "Near and Dear" shows a golden skinned lion who was dear to a monk, listening to the preaching of dharma. An ambitious hunter trapped and killed the lion and presented the king with its skin. Disapproving of this act, the king not only did not reward the hunter, but sentenced him to death; he then cremated the lion's skin and built a stŁpa to remember it. This story propagates the idea of forsaking evil and embracing virtue (as exemplified by the king) and enduring extreme suffering to save the world from wickedness (as exemplified by the lion who was Buddha's incarnation). The story also censures hypocrisy.

Illustration of the Suvar¸aprabhˇsa SŁtra was also one of the new themes introduced during the Tibetan period. It is similar in composition and presentation to those of the Amitˇyur-dhyˇna SŁtra. In the centre is painted the preaching scene in Buddha's realm. There are stories on both sides, arranged vertically. The Suvar¸aprabhˇsa SŁtra has a total of nineteen chapters. The main story is that of self-sacrifice similar to the Sattva Jˇtaka of the early period. Another story is about an elder's son by the riverside, saving the fish. During the end of Western Zhou and beginning of Sui the same stories had appeared independently on the ceilings of the caves. Now both were presented in a vertical arrangement on either side of the painting.

Avatamsaka SŁtra was the main scripture of the Huayan Sect which rose to prominence during the Tang Dynasty. Illustrations of this SŁtra started appearing at Mogao during the Tibetan period. The SŁtra details nine assemblies in seven different places. The nine assemblies are neatly arranged in three lines on the painting and are all depicted as preaching scenes. The lowermost section shows a sea, representing the so-called "solemn sea of the world adorned by lotus". There is a big lotus at the centre of the sea which is surrounded by clouds on all four sides. There are also various kinds of wheels, houses, mountain peaks, musical instruments and tools painted in the background. These are probably Mount Sumeru and the rivers, rotating and spinning objects, pavilion, etc. described in the chapter of "Huazhang shijie" (The Flower Treasury World) in the sŁtra. Illustrations of Avatamsaka SŁtra like those of Tianqingwen jing and LaĆkˇvatˇra SŁtra deal with abstract philosophical and theological concepts while concrete story plots and vivid scenarios are found wanting. On the whole, they are poor specimens of artistic creativity with monotonous presentations.

Illustrations of the Vimalak˘rtinirdeża SŁtra show some development during this period. Besides the additions of themes from the chapters of "Disciples" and "Upˇya" on the screen paintings, the most prominent feature is the group of princes from various countries at the court of Vimalak˘rti. It has virtually become a painting of Tibetan ruler paying homage to Buddha. The Tibetan ruler is shown wearing a high red felt hat and a robe covering the left arm, high leather boots with a belt around the waist. He is carrying a long sword, while his attendant holds an umbrella with a curved handle. He is escorted by maid-servants in the

front with incense sticks in hand and by armed guards who stand behind him. There is no mistaking the dignity of a monarch in his bearing which relegates the princes of various countries to the background. On the opposite wall is painted an identical crowd of royal personages surrounding Maµjużr˘. After Zhang Yichao recovered Hexi in the second year of the Dazhong Era (848), there was no longer any painting of the Tibetan ruler. The religious art of this period is a true mirror of the socio-political changes of the times.

Devaraja, Nagaraja and Garudarajas, Cave No. 158, Middle Tang

Devaraja, Nagaraja and Garudarajas, Cave No. 158, Middle Tang

Devata Sutra(detail), Cave No. 158, Middle Tang

Devata Sutra(detail), Cave No. 158, Middle Tang


The layout of cave murals of this period follows a certain format. The upper part of walls is allotted to big sŁtra illustrations, while the lower portion of most of the caves enshrines screen paintings, closely packed like the teeth of a comb. The screen paintings mostly deal with detailed stories from different chapters of the relevant sŁtras illustrated on the upper walls; but there are also independent Jˇtaka tales and stories about Buddha's life occasionally providing a change. It is worth noticing that below the illustrations of Maµjużr˘ and Samantabhadra there appear small-sized screen paintings of Mount Wutai which show five interconnected towering peaks, presenting a wholesome and lush green landscape, as on the lower portion of western wall in Cave No. 159. Most probably, this painting appeared after the Tibetan ruler had requested for a Map of Mount Wutai in the fourth year of the Changqing Era (824).11


Cave No. 158, Middle Tang

Cave No. 158, Middle Tang

In Cave No. 158 as mentioned earlier, the combination of murals as a background for painted stucco statues in the illustration of Mahˇparinirvˇ¸a marks the highest perfection in such an arrangement. Not only is it a gigantic composition, but it is also an example of exquisite depiction. On the western wall behind the sleeping Buddha we have Devas, Nˇgas and others of the eight categories of supernatural beings as well as scholars among the mourners. On the south wall are painted the ten major Buddha disciples who are there to mourn. Each of the figures is distinctive in character, posture and mood, revealing the uniqueness of their inner mental universe. At the same time, despite the variety and richness of representation, the theme is finally a unified one. The intolerable grief of the mourners contrasts with the tranquil and serene sleeping Buddha. The contrast is also the best way of demonstrating the idealistic stage of attaining nirvˇ¸a, considered to be the highest achievement among the Buddhists. The central idea of the entire cave appears to be: Nirvˇ¸a is Heavenly Bliss.


3. Auspicious Symbols

These constitute an entirely new theme which appeared during the second half of the Tang Dynasty at Mogao. The four slopes of the inverted dipper roof of the main altar of the caves were usually spaces allotted for BhaiŔajyaguru's Paradise. In the fourth year of the Kaicheng Era (839), when Yin Jiazheng built Cave Nos. 231 and 237, such slopes were painted with auspicious symbols, totalling thirty-seven paintings. The arrangement of the auspicious symbols follows an overall plan. Most of them are imported from Buddhist legends of India, Nepal and Gandhˇra. The Early Tang ambassador Wang Xuance's Xiguo xingzhuan (Account of Travels to Western Kingdoms) alluded to "innumerable auspicious symbols in the western kingdoms" (Reference: Fayuan zhulin or Jewel Forests in Dharma Garden). Xuanzang has many references to them in his Datang xiyuji (Account of the Western Regions written in the Great Tang Dynasty). Many of the auspicious symbols are from Khotan, Zhangye and Jiuquan. Symbols from foreign countries, such as Buddha in Sˇrnˇth, with the deity seated in parya¸ka-bandha with a kaŔˇya over his shoulders. Below his seat is a wheel adorned by lotuses, each of which has Buddha's footprint inside the flower. Buddha's feet are drawn on the wheel. The inscription in ink describes it as "the auspicious image at Sˇrnˇth in Vˇrˇ¸as˘ of Central India". Another auspicious Buddha image from India is a white Buddha sitting in parya¸ka-bandha with the inscription describing him as the "white silver Maitreya of India". There is also the Central Indian auspicious figure with a seated Bodhisattva and a double halo. In front of the throne are the busts of two Bodhisattvas, each one carrying the same inscription: "The illuminating auspicious figures of Magadha in Central India". The auspicious image of Maitreya is a Bodhisattva with five arms, the two raised arms holding the sun and moon and the middle two carrying rulers. The inscription declares it to be "Bodhisattva Maitreya who has accompanied áˇkyamuni to the City of Contamination (Yincheng)". Yet another is the image of a standing Buddha raising his right hand with the sun wheel above it. There is a three-feet bird inside the wheel. His left hand hangs down and below it is the moon. Inside the moon is a cinnamon tree and a jade rabbit. The inscription says, "Image pointing to the sun and moon". Another auspicious symbol of King Ażoka building stŁpas shows a big hand shielding the sun with many small stŁpas below it. There is no accompanying inscription. But a similar picture of the period of the Five Dynasties has an inscription saying, "King Ażoka has built 84,000 stµupas".12 There are other auspicious signs like the Nepalese auspicious figures (according to the legend of water and fire tanks) and the pair of auspicious figures from Gandhˇra.13 Just below the latter are two poor men who wear high red felt hats and long robes covering the left shoulder, characteristic of Tibetan costumes.

Auspicious symbols imported from Khotan include the carved sandalwood figures in the city of Bh˘ma; the figure of áˇkyamuni from the Haiyan Temple of Khotan and auspicious symbol from Kancheng of Khotan. In addition, we have Sˇriputra and Vaiżrava¸a Devarˇja also from Khotan, one holding a metal staff while the other wields a spear as if about to plunge it into the sea.14 The sea shows a lotus in full bloom on which is seated Buddha. The upper portion of the painting shows a city and a small stµupa is seen on one side, illustrating the two disciples carrying out Buddha's order to turn the sea into land in order to build a country and construct stŁpas and temples there.

Auspicious symbols which originated from Hexi comprise the Buddha statue from Zhangye, áˇkyamuni statue from Jiuquan and a sacred image from Fanhe county. The latter figure is used to depict the magical feat of the eminent monk Liu Sahe of Northern Wei.

The Buddhist auspicious figures originally came from outside China. They conform to China's tradition of love for auspicious sign to a certain extent, so that the propaganda of Buddha's magical power could universally prevail in China. Meanwhile, many indigenous Buddhist auspicious figures were also developed in China demonstrating the continuous sinicization of Buddhism in various aspects.

4. Decorative Patterns

As illustrations of sŁtras increased greatly during the Tibetan period, the overall layout of a cave assumed importance. A frame design with decorative borders was gradually introduced. Every illustration of the sŁtra is framed with decorative floral borders orderly arranged, giving an overall aesthetic effect of balance, uniformity, integrity and harmony.

The centre of the cave decoration continued to be caisson. Next would be the back halo and the chessboard design on the ceiling of the altar. After the emergence of screen-paintings inside the altar, the halo behind the head and back of the statues gradually disappeared.

The decorative patterns differ slightly from the earlier ones. They are primarily designs of lotus, pomegranate, camellia, flower clusters, whirling lines, rhombus, square, cloud, hanging horn, circular chain with pearls, swan, phoenix with flower in the beak, parrot, peacock, pigeon, kalavi´ka and the seated lion. The silk weave and printed designs on the dresses are rich and magnificent, and exquisitely coloured, adding a new splendour to the decorative art of the second half of the Tang Dynasty.

The caissons of the second half of Tang Dynasty show a well-executed structural pattern. Decorative borders even exceed ten layers. On the square ceiling we find spinning curling lotus petal in which is a seated lion probably representing the idea of "the lion emerging from the udumbara flower". There are parrots, peacocks and pigeons circling, singing and dancing on all the four corners. Green patterns appear encircling the decorative border giving it a three-dimensional effect, eliminating the flatness of the canopy. This feature ushered in the new caisson art of the later period.


Decorative Pattern, Cave No. 361, Middle Tang

Decorative Pattern, Cave No. 361, Middle Tang

The most prominent border design of this period is that of pomegranate combining with vine, which may extend to several tens of feet, and sometimes even encircle the entire cave. It runs up and down with a wave-like irregularity. To the transformation of the pomegranate tree into a vine was added another refreshing technique of partially exposing the pomegranate seeds outside the skin. The leaves curl along the curve of the vine resembling a whirlpool. They also create the feeling of the unpredictable meteorological phenomenon. But the colours are light and harmonious, warm and fragrant, romantic like a lyric poem.


5. Portraits of Donors

During the initial period of Tibetan occupation, portraits of donors were extremely few in number in the murals. They gradually increased during the middle phase as large-sized portraits of eminent monks also began to appear. For example, on the side of the door in Cave No. 158 we see four monks who are nearly two metres high. The inscription reads: "The reverend monks, masters of three disciplines, and worthy successors of the Patriarch". The enlargement of monk figures wasprobably due to the participation in governance by Tibetan monks, which meant a consequent enhancement of their status. The portraits of donors of the second half of Tang surpassed those of the High Tang. Often the donor is placed on the eastern wall facing the main deity of the central altar, saluting Buddha from distance to show the outstanding status of the donor.

Donors, Cave No. 231, Middle Tang

Donors, Cave No. 231, Middle Tang

Corridor of Cave No 220, Middle Tang

Corridor of Cave No 220, Middle Tang

Cave No. 231 was built in 839 by Yin Jiazheng who was a powerful aristocrat at Dunhuang. A group of donors are represented on the door: the female figure has her hair tied in a bun; she is wearing a dress with

woven pattern and a long skirt with an embroidered silk cape. The inscription reads: "My late beloved mother, the grand-daughter of Mr. Suo, the Dunhuang clerk, paid homage to Buddha along with me." This was the mother of Yin Jiazheng. The male figure is seen wearing a turban, a robe with a belt and boots. The inscription says: "My late father, Governor of Changsong in the province of Dan in the Tang Dynasty" who was Yin Jiazheng's father, Yin Polun.

Cave No. 359 is one dating from the second half of Tang. Here, portraits of the donors encircle the cave. The male figures appear on the north wall. They have high red headgear and are wearing traditional Tibetan long robes and leather boots. It is not known whether they are Tibetans or just Hans in Tibetan attire. On the south wall, the female figure in an embroidered silk cape is completely in Han attire. Cave No. 225 has male figures in Tibetan attire with the inscription "Wangshanu" (Slaves of the King). The figures are vividly drawn; the lines have a rare flow and possess a lot of vitality. In the corridors of Cave No. 220 are two recently discovered portraits of donors who are in Tibetan attire. This corresponds to the account of the Hexi area in the contemporary "Zhang Huaishen bianwen" (Bianwen literature on Zhang Huaishen) which says, "Shazhou is the only province where the fashions are identical with interior China."15 It is an authentic reflection of the social life of the period.

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