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


On the whole, the art of the second half of the Tang Dynasty has shown characteristics which are different from the earlier period. The works of the first half of the Tang Dynasty are clearly superior to those of the second half, in their depiction of power and health, in vividness and vitality. However, the art of the second half was essentially a development of that of the first half; it is in certain aspects that the former has surpassed the latter. For example, the murals of Mid-Tibetan period, show mastery in using line drawing to express the sense of quality, as also superiority in the achievement of well-knit compositions. They depict characters with detailed and in-depth feelings and have attained an exquisite, elegant and graceful style. The large canvases figuring both deities and the laity reveal a distinct breakthrough in painting technique: forceful strokes in the making of elevated expressions and a light mood as typified in the illustration of MahíparinirvíŞa in Cave No. 158. On the whole, the Zhang Yichao Era provided a richer fare in the themes of the murals although the compositions are not equally rich in imagination and mood. The illustrations of sútras show an obvious danger of stereotyping. However, works such as the pictures of Zhang Yichao and his wife and of Lady Song travelling are of undoubted excellence.

The composition of sútra illustrations during the second half of the Tang Dynasty was basically an adoption of that of the first half of the dynasty. The Tibetan period introduced a new form of screen painting. The screen painting in the lower part of the wall was integrated with the sútra illustrations in the upper part to form a new composition which continued up to the Song Dynasty.

Line drawing too underwent continuous changes. The powerful orchid-leaf strokes were gradually replaced by refined, pliant and pretty lines. Initial sketching was done with light ink, followed by colouring; finally, the contours were outlined either with thick ink or ochre-red. The finalizing contour lines are fluent and natural, elegant and graceful. It is the artistic deftness and the sensitivity to characterization which presents to the viewers the handsome faces of the figures, their delicate skin and loose flying scarves, all rendered to make them enchanting and graceful.


Cave No. 9, Late Tang

Cave No. 9, Late Tang

More remarkable is the new development in colouring. Several incomplete caves from the Tianbao Era got completed by the beginning of Middle Tang. There was a wholesale use of ochre-red or different shades of red by mixing yellow and black. The tone is dull and monotonous. With the passage of time, however, colouring was gradually enriched. In Cave Nos. 112, 154, 158 and 159, we see magnificent colours, bright and elegant. During Late Tang, the background had a wash of yellowish brown or pale white; the colour tones acquired an added softness and warmth.


Celestial Musicians in Manjusri Sutra, Cave No. 159, Middle Tang (Tibetan Period)

Celestial Musicians in Manjusri Sutra, Cave No. 159, Middle Tang (Tibetan Period)

New characteristics are evident also in the depiction of the spiritual outlook of characters. For example, the celestial musicians in the illustration of MaÁju┐ró on the west wall of Cave No. 159, in groups of three, exhibit a rich variety of moods, as they show the musicians engaged in performing with bamboo-clappers, lute, pipe (sheng), and so on. Particularly the sheng player is shown in meticulous detail, intense in his concentration. One of his toes under the long skirt is raised up as if keeping time with the beat. Appreciating this silent painting is like viewing a piece of beautiful music, the rhythmic tones of which almost thrill the viewer.


The painting of ╦nanda begging for milk in the illustration from the Vimalakórti-nirde┐a sútra (Chapter on Buddha's disciples) in Cave No. 159 is also exceedingly lively. A young girl is shown in an outdoor scene milking a cow. The cow stands motionless responding to its mother's call, while an impatient calf is struggling to get at its mother's milk but is restrained by a young man at the foot of the wall. Through this scene of tension, the affection between the milch cow and her calf is brought out beautifully. In the painting of Zhang Yichao's wife, Lady Song travelling, the acrobat balances a long pole on his head. Although his face is not clearly drawn, he is concentrating on the kids performing daring acrobatic feats on top of the pole, and is trying to keep the pole steady. His tense mood has been vividly brought out.

Besides the above-mentioned aesthetic features the Mogao art of the second half of the Tang Dynasty has certain refreshing features in content and theme. These may be briefly discussed below:


Dancer, Cave No. 112, Middle Tang

Dancer, Cave No. 112, Middle Tang

(1) The caves are modelled on Chinese palace construction showing a further sinicization.

The cave structure during the Tibetan period is a modified version of the style of the Tianbao Era. The niches show a transformation from the tent shape into a square shape with an inverted dipper ceiling. Inside the niche is a low Buddha seat in the shape of a horse-shoe, and a statue is placed over it. Behind the statue is a painted screen. The screen was a thing of daily use for the Chinese rulers and higher officials from the Han Dynasty onwards. Generally, a screen comprises six folds with human stories painted on it and is kept behind the seat of its owner. Obviously, the painted screen behind a Buddha statue is an imitation of Chinese lifestyle.


This niche style became a set pattern during the Tibetan period and continued till the end of the Tang Dynasty among the Mogao Grottoes. During the Zhang Yichao Era, in certain caitya caves, the inverted dipper-square niche was shifted onto the central column and became what was known as "chaxin neikhan" (inner shrine of the stúpa) so that gigantic illustrations of sútras could be painted on the main wall. In a few caves, a big Buddha altar was built in the centre of the cave; over the horse-shoe shaped Buddha seat on the altar is placed a giant painted statue. Behind the main deity was painted a "rear screen" extending upto the ceiling. On the lower portion of the four walls were painted sútra stories in the spaces of interconnected screens. Both the rear screens which were in imitation of "fan-faced" wall (shanmian qiang) and the interconnected screens were decorations commonly seen inside Chinese palaces. We find that the historical monuments from the Liao and Jin Dynasties (10th to 13th century) often have a "xumizuo" (Mount Sumeru-throne) and temples. Behind the throne is the "fan-faced wall" or a huge screen which is quite similar to the layout of the caves we have just described. It is thus clear that certain cave structures of the Zhang Yichao Era were modelled exactly on Chinese wooden architecture, particularly on the style of palace architecture. This was an important manifestation of further sinicization of the Tang Dynasty Buddhist art.


Cave No. 196, Late Tang

Cave No. 196, Late Tang

(2) The increase in the number of sútra illustrations in the Dunhuang Grottoes was a reflection of the mushrooming of Buddhist sects in heartland China.


It is recorded in the fragment of an official document belonging to the fourth year of the Kaiyuan Era (716): "The Tripitakas, a largesse of the emperor to Shazhou, earlier had many volumes lost which have not been traced till today. Shazhou requests the imperial court for the replacement of the lost volumes."27 Various sects that sprang up in the heartland had already spread to Dunhuang in the first half of the Tang Dynasty either through the imperial court giving away the scriptures as largesse or through Dunhuang's request for scriptures. Eminent monks from "heartland" China, such as Xuanzang and Wukong, went to the Western Regions via Hexi while Dharmak└ema and Gunabhadra (also known as "Moheyan") came to Shazhou from Chang'an to translate the scriptures. The eminent monks of the Yanxing Monastery of Chang'an were often invited to Dunhuang to lecture on the sútras.28 Around this time, Amoghavajra was preaching Tantrism in Hexi. In addition, painting samples for sútras produced in the "heartland" were brought to Dunhuang. As a result, there was a major impact of Buddhist thoughts and art on the Dunhuang caves. The concept of "Pureland" which was in vogue in Chang'an became an inspiration in the Dunhuang caves during the first half of the Tang Dynasty. By the time of Tibetan occupation, not only the "Pureland sect" , but also the "Vinaya sect", the "Esoteric (Tantric) sect", "Huayan (Avatamsaka) sect", the "Chan (Dhyína) sect", the "Weishi (Dharmalak└eŞa) sect" and even the ephemeral "Sanjie sect" had spread to Dunhuang. Consequently, during the second half of the Tang Dynasty, all caves, big or small, were enshrined with various sÁutra illustrations. Even the smallest caves in which a man can hardly enter have three or four such illustrations. As it is observed in the Tableau of Zhang Huaishen, "the variety of themes in the cave paintings is a reflection of the various schools of teaching of enlightenment", or, "an entire universe is housed in a single cave". The increased number of sútra illustrations and rich contents of Dunhuang art thus mirrored a broad range of social life and created scenarios full of the living rhythms of the time, providing us with visual research materials for the study of contemporary history of that period and state of affairs of various sects of Chinese Buddhism.

(3) Expression of the orthodox Confucian thinking of loyalty and filial piety in the themes of Buddhist art during the second half of the Tang Dynasty.

During the Tibetan occupation, illustrations from Bao'en jing began to appear among the Mogao Grottoes. This was followed by the appearance of illustrations of Bao fumu enzhong jing and of the story of the conversion of the heretic Raudrík└a. Their emergence had a certain historical background.

After the Kaiyuan and Tianbao Eras the Tang empire began to show signs of disintegration. In order to support the ruling feudal patriarchal system, the Tang rulers showed special enthusiasm in promoting the Confucian teachings of loyalty and filial piety and in further merging it with the Buddhist ideology. After Indian Buddhism spread to China, already a fertile ground for Confucian ideology, it was inevitable that the Buddhist realm be influenced by the Chinese norms of loyalty to the monarch and piety to one's parents.

After the Tibetan conquest of Hexi, conflicts between the different nationalities became acute. The subjugated Han and other nationalities launched a struggle against the Tibetan aristocracy by pledging loyalty to the Tang monarchs. It was under such specific political situation that an upsurge of loyalty to the monarch and filial piety unfolded in the Hexi region, specially in Shazhou. The upsurge directly influenced the construction of caves at Dunhuang and was one of the historical reasons for the appearance of illustrations of Bao'en jing and Bao fumu enzhong jing .

After the recovery of Hexi by Zhang Yichao, the illustration of the story of Raudrík└a made successive appearances, mirroring the feudal orthodox thinking. In the long history of China's feudal society, only the heartland Han Chinese regime was recognised as orthodox while the minority nationalities of the border regions were often branded as "manyirongdi" (barbarians). This automatically agreed with the orthodox section of Buddhism, which regarded all the 96 religious schools of the same period as heretics who should be made to surrender. Both these orthodoxies merged in the specific historical environment of Hexi. The murals of the Mogao Grottoes not only indirectly expressed the celebration of victory over the Tibetan domination through the illustration of Raudrík└a but also placed their hopes on the perpetuation of this victory. But even after the Zhang family recovered Hexi, Dunhuang remained as an oasis surrounded by hostile non-Han nationalities,29 and the Han regime could not be perpetuated. The illustration of Raudrík└a along with the story written in bian-wen literature became an extremely effective means of propaganda for resistance against the invasion of minority nationalities and for consolidation of the Han regime. The illustration of Raudrík└a appeared with great frequency during the two successive regimes of Zhang and Cao families, but disappeared entirely during Western Xia period. Parallel to this was the fact that in the Tibetan period the ruler of Tibet was shown as the leader of all other nationalities among Buddha's devotees. However, this leadership position was immediately relegated to a secondary status no sooner than Zhang Yichao's recovery of Hexi. Thus, the rise and fall of the themes of the sútra illustrations is not a matter of accident but is intimately related to the vicissitudes of political fortunes and social realities of various periods. Although the art of Mogao Grottoes during the second half of the Tang Dynasty was not as magnificent and resplendent as that of the earlier period, nevertheless it provides many new topics for deep research because of its increasingly closer links with the socio-political reality of historical times

Translated by Sonu Agnihotri

[From Dunhuang shiku yishu lunji, pp. 196-223]

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