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Dunhuang Art in the Last Phase


Interior of Cave No. 55, Song Dynasty

Interior of Cave No. 55, Song Dynasty

The Last Phase of the art of Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang comprised the Five Dynasties, the Song, Western Xia and Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, spanning four hundred odd years. The period witnessed three regimes of different nationalities leading to great changes in social ideology and religious convictions. As each era left its distinctive imprint on the content and form of the cave art, we shall divide our discussion into two parts: the regime of the Cao family, and that of the minority nationalities, the Dangxiang and Mongol.

I. The Cao Family Phase

In 907, in the wake of the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, Zhang Chengfeng's regime, known as the Western-Han Jinshan state also collapsed. Cao Yijin, an officer from Shazhou, replaced the Zhang family as the ruler of Dunhuang. In 924, Cao Yijin formally took over as commander of the "Guiyi" (Uprising) Army. This marked the beginning of a five-generation rule of the Cao family in the Hexi region. Although the area under its control went on shrinking and was finally limited to the two provinces of Guazhou and Shazhou besides the six garrison towns of Ziting, Xuanquan, Yonggui, Xincheng, Shicheng and Changle which were under its jurisdiction, the regime did control a vital strategic communication link for years, placing the Hexi region at a junction of intercourse between China and the West.

Cave No. 327, Western Xia

Cave No. 327, Western Xia

The Cao family always maintained cordial relations with "heartland" China, kept its calendar according to Chinese reigning eras and preserved the socio-political system and culture of "heartland". At the same time, the Cao family also entered into an alliance with the Uighur regime of Ganzhou in the western neighbourhood of Dunhuang. The bilateral relations were first on a "paternalistic" basis--those between the "son" (Cao regime) and "father" (Uighur regime), but subsequently developed into those between brothers. The Cao family also uninterruptedly exchanged envoys with Khotan in the West.

Cao Yijin married the princess of Uighur, and enlisted the Khotan King, Li Shengtian, as his son-in-law. This matrimonial alliance of a political nature was conducive to peace and stability. Besides this, the regime of Cao family also had frequent contacts with Liao (Khitan) and Jin (Nurchen) in the northeast and the Uighur regime of Xizhou in the west, living with them in harmonious co-existence. The wine bills of the Cao government office and the state-owned wine shops1 give us a glimpse into the busy traffic between Dunhuang and Khotan, Xizhou, Ganzhou and Uighur. This is also a reflection of the thriving conditions along the Silk Road. The Dunhuang Bianwen literature as well as contemporary songs show no lack of eulogising of Cao Yijin.2 Even if we give due allowance for flattery and exaggeration, there is no doubt about the stability and prosperity of Hexi region under the Cao family.

Cao Yijin regarded Buddhism as a "sacred power" and considered it necessary to depend on "devotion for Buddhist reasoning and admiration for the Compassionate One" for ensuring stability and law and order.3 Therefore he "invoked the blessings of Lord Buddha for the court, and set up shrines in the mansions." He invited eminent monks to "open the holy books and chant the noble teachings."4 Under his patronage Buddhism flourished greatly. After the death of Cao Yijin, his sons Yuande, Yuanshen and Yuanzhong carried forward their father's cause, "expanding and promoting Buddhism, paying homage to the holy rocks, giving away money before each of the innumerable deity images/dunhuang so that golden lamps are lit inside the innumerable altars."5 Buddhist temples mushroomed within the jurisdiction of Shazhou. Names which figure in the accounts of the donors and other documents are: the monasteries of Shengguang (Holy Light), Longxing (Dragon Rising), Puguang (Universal Light), Bao'en (Repaying Indebtedness), Yong'an (Eternal Peace), Xiande (Manifestation of Virtues), Sanjie (Triloka), Qianyuan (Grand Beginning), Jinguangming (Suvar¸a-prabh¡sa), Anguo (Peaceful State), Lingxiu (Built by the Spirits), Jintu (Sukh¡vat¢), Kaiyuan (Beginning of Era), Xiangguo (Pillar of State), Lingtu (Sacred Map), Dayun (Mah¡megha), Dachang (Mah¡y¡na), Liantai (Lotus-throne), Fengtang (Imperial Tang), Gaomiao baokan (Jewel-shrine of Sumeru), Gaomiao Guiyan (Solemnity of Sumeru), etcetera. The number mentioned here surpasses the 17 temples narrated in Chongxiu beidaxian ji (An account of the renovation of the northern giant Buddha).6 According to the accounts of a document in Khotan script, when the Governor of Khotan was in Shazhou on an official mission, he visited 121 temples to donate money.7 If this was the case, although a considerable number of these belonged to the category of small shrines, the number of temples at Dunhuang under the Cao family was greater than during the Tang Dynasty.

The Cao family constructed very many large caves and had murals painted on a kilometre-long open-air rock space. The Caos also repaired the caves and corridors of the caves and renovated many caves of the preceding dynasties. In 966 it renovated the northern giant Buddha. The work was personally supervised by the "Western King" and the Duchess of Liang, Madam Zhai of Xunyang. Madam Zhai herself cooked for over 300 workers engaged in the restoration project. In 949, on the 23rd of the sixth month, Commissioner Zhang Yinrun wrote a poem for the mural in the front room of Cave No. 108 which says:

Yesterday I visited the oasis,

Flowers bloomed in the tanks of the valley.

On one side, I witnessed brisk activity

To restore the Buddhist caves to their ancient glory.

This was the holy abode I am told

Of the glorious deities of old.

Auspicious flowers, trees and plants

Used to be exuberant, splendid and grand,

And celestial birds once frequented the place.8

The prosperity of the Mogao grottoes during the regime of Cao family has been sufficiently documented.

Besides the monks and nuns, skilled specialists were required to cut the caves, create the images/dunhuang and paint the murals for the construction of caves and temples. The Cao family emulated the practice of heartland China and established an Academy of Art for this purpose. Among the inscriptions for the donors in both the Mogao and Yulin grottoes we see accounts such as: "Artisans of the Shazhou and the Commissioner of the Art Academy"9; "Officer of the Military Command in charge of the painting materials"10; "Painted by the artisans of the first department of the Military Command"11; "Painters under the Military Command"12; "Painters and army officer in the main division of Military Command"13; "Painter"14; "Image-making artisan"15; "Calligraphers of First (left) and Second (right) departments of the Military Command"16; "Officer in-charge of engraving"17, as well as "Officer in charge of cave-cutting" and "Officer in-charge of cutting under the Military Command"18. The above inscriptions show that those employed in the Art Academy were masons, image-making artisans, painters and the commissioner who was in charge of the Art Academy. The wine bills of the Cao household accounted for the numbers of wine jars "paid to cave masons" and those "paid to the painters". The supply vouchers of the department in charge of feasting of the government of the Cao family reveal the details of hospitality accorded to the workers: the painters and masons had "fine" quality of viands, while other personnel were issued "inferior" supplies.19

Among the Dunhuang Manuscripts there is "Jiedu yaya Dong Baode diu gongde ji" (Account of Colonel Dong Baode of the Military Command constructing Buddhist shrines)20 which gives a vivid life sketch of Dong Baode who was a master artist:

"After Yuezun and Faliang started constructing caves at Dunhuang there has been a vogue of cave-making by the rulers and subjects, by the holy order and the laity....images/dunhuang such as that of Vimalak¢rti --- noble with golden looks are housed in thousands of shrines. Like the celestial stars they shine in thousands of caves....In the day devotees frequent them on pilgrimage amidst the clouds of incense, and at night under lamp light on. As if this is the abode of Avalokite¿vara who demonstrates universal powers. It is as if everywhere we meet the reincarnation of the Mah¡sattvas. In this valley flanked by mountain peaks, the magnificence of holy shrines beggars description. Within and without the caves, the wonderland of Buddhahood puzzles comprehension. There was Colonel Dong Baode who had noble aspirations and a gentle temperament, an example of an honest gentleman of compassion and proper conduct. He mastered the intricacies of colours, powder and ink. His paintings were comparable to the mastery of Zhang Sengyao and Cao Zhongda. Objects came to life in his sketches, and his paintings of Buddha images/dunhuang surpassed his predecessors' and it would be surely difficult for the future generations to match him. He was also conversant with Buddhist scriptures, and accomplished in Confucian norms and propriety. He was recommended to the King of the Cao family who had for generations ensured peaceful life and prosperity for both the holy order and the laity. The royalty was never tired of philanthropy and auspicious religiosity....Dong Baode served the noble cause while being generously rewarded. His family became affluent with provisions to spare. He consulted his colleagues (seniors and juniors) about repaying his indebtedness to the royal family while redeeming his devotion to the Enlightened One. They all agreed to dedicate themselves to the construction of the holy shrines....Dong Baode took the lead to build a temple at his former residence at the eastern entrance of the western lane of the northern street in Dunhuang city. He painted the four walls inside the temple and fitted bells in the four corners of the eaves. It was like a refreshing version of the palace of Maitreya, and an imitation of the magnificent st£pas built by King A¿oka...."

In this account, the painter comes out in flying colours.

Cave art during the Five Dynasties and the Northern Song Dynasty had certain unique features along with an integrated style owing to the overall planning and collective labour of a group of skilful artists and artisans.

The Cao family regime has left behind fifty-five caves; the inscriptions preserved in over ten of these caves, as in the table below, give us the exact date of their construction.

S. No. Era Cave No. Particulars
1 Tongguang (923-925) (Late Tang) 98 by Cao Yijin in honour of his son-in-law, Li Shengtian, the King of Khotan
2 Tianfu (936-940) (Late Jin) 100 by the Uighur Princess Madam Li of Longxi
3 5th year of Tianfu to the 2nd year of Kaiyun (940-945) (Late Jin) 256 by Cao Yuanshen
4 2nd year of Kaiyun to 7th year of Kaibao Era (945-974) (Northern Song) 25 by Cao Yuanzhong
5 12th year of Tianfu (Late Jin) to 4th year of Xiande Era (947-957) 61 by Cao Yuanzhong21
6 3rd year of Guangshun (953) (Late Zhou) 53 & 469 by Cao Yuanzhong
7 4th year of Xiande (957) (Late Zhou) 5 by Du Yanhong
8 3rd year of Jianlong (962) (Northern Song) 55 by Cao Yuanzhong
9 7th year of Kaibao (Northern Song) to 5th year of Taipingxingguo (974-980) (Northern Song) 454 by Cao Yangong
10 5th year of Taipingxingguo (980) (Northern Song) 449 by collective funds
11 9th year of Taipingxingguo Hall of Devar¡ja (Northern Song)   by Cao Yanlu


In addition to these inscriptions, there are others which give an account of three different constructions of caves: Cave No. 427 constructed in the eighth year of the Qiande's Era (970); Cave No. 444 in the ninth year of the Kaibao Era (976); and Cave No. 431 in the fifth year of the Taipingxingguo Era (980).

The fairly large number of inscriptions preserved in the caves of the last phase as well as the considerable data available from the manuscripts of the period makes it relatively easy for us to date the caves in this period.

The typical structure of caves of this time consists of a central altar which had emerged during the Late Tang. The horizontal surface assumes a rectangular shape, while the altar shaped like a horse-shoe is slightly to the rear of the centre. The way to the platform is in front of the altar. Behind the altar is the rear screen. The ceiling which is decorated as a caisson is in the shape of an inverted dipper. All the four corners of the ceiling have a shallow concave surface on which is painted a Devar¡ja. Cave No. 100 has a rather unique construction with four Devar¡jas painted on the four corners of the ceiling; but there is no central altar and rear screen, only a big niche in the west wall.

The dimensions of the central altar are fairly large as in Cave Nos. 55, 61, 98, 108, 146, 256, among others. They are a continuation of Cave Nos. 16, 94, 196, 138 of Late Tang, with similar themes and layout.

Most of the caves excavated by the Cao family were at the lower level. After the Zhengde Era (1506-1521) of the Ming Dynasty when Dunhuang was occupied by Turfan, the statues, with few exceptions, were seriously damaged. Cave Nos. 55 and 261 are the only ones representing this period. Cave No. 55 of Song Dynasty has seven statues with Buddha sitting in padm¡sana in the centre of the upper part of the altar. Avalokite¿vara and Mah¡sth¡ma are seated in lalit¡sana. They have plump faces and natural postures. Devar¡jas with fierce looks trample the evil demon under their feet. Although lacking the artistry and sophistication of the Tang images/dunhuang, these images/dunhuang have by and large retained the Tang style.

The murals painted by the Art Academy of the Cao government have basically inherited the Late Tang plans with several additional features. There are mainly six kinds of mural paintings:

1. Illustrations of Sµutras

These are similar to the Late Tang illustrations which formed the major component of all paintings. Some of the important themes are listed below:


Lokapala, Cave No. 55, Song Dynasty

Lokapala, Cave No. 55, Song Dynasty

Theme of Illustration No. of Paintings
Paradise of BhaiÀajyaguru 29
Vimalak¢rti 24
Paradise of Maitreya 19
Avatamsaka S£tra 14
Devat¡ S£tra 12
Amit¡yur-dhy¡na S£tra 10
Bao'en jing 10
Fight between S¡riputra and Raudr¡kÀa 10
Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka S£tra 9
Western Paradise of Amit¡bha 9
Vi¿eÀacint¡brahma-parip¡cch¡ S£tra 7
La´k¡vat¡ra S£tra 4
Suvar¸aprabh¡sa S£tra 3
Ghanavy£ha S£tra 2
Bao fumu enzhong jing 2
Sarvadurgatipari¿odhana-ushn¢- savijayadh¡ra¸¢ 2
Mah¡parinirv¡¸a S£tra 1
M¡ravijaya S£tra 1
Avalokite¿vara S£tra 1

Of the nineteen themes listed in the table above, illustrations of the Sarvadurgatipari¿odhana-ushn¢- savijayadh¡ra¸¢ had already appeared in earlier dynasties, but now many new details are added.

After the completion of a mural by the "painter in charge" (zhihuashou), inscriptions were added by a "calligrapher in charge" (zhishushou). In the illustration of the Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka in Cave No. 61, the introductory chapter, depicting the grand spectacle of  á¡kyamuni preaching attended by a crowd of over eighty celestial beings, is placed in the centre as usual. Around it we find seventy scenes of various episodes with sixty-eight inscriptions which include almost the entire contents of twenty-eight chapters of the S£tra. The inscription of "piyu" (illustrations) chapter is written in verse:

Memory brings back my first lesson for Enlightenment,

My heart, caught fire of desires, is about to be destroyed;

The Illusory City of H¢nay¡na ill fits my choice,

The Mah¡y¡na chariot is to deliver me from mental torment.

The verse is composed in the "bianwen" style which combines narration and song. Besides this, the illustration of Vimalak¢rti has fifty-nine inscriptions. The illustrations of Bao'en jing and the Avatamsaka S£tra have also more than forty inscriptions each. The increase in content is one of the distinctive features of the sµutra paintings of this period.

Yet another feature is that most of the specific contents have been based on the "bianwen"* texts.

Illustrations of the story of the heretic Raudr¡kÀa are the biggest in scale among the s£tra paintings of the Art Academy of the Cao regime. These illustrations are rich in details and well-knit in composition. The one on the west wall of Cave No. 146 has as many as seventy-six entries of the inscriptions, and the rich details exhibited have exceeded the content of the text of the relevant Chapter ofXianyu jing (S£tra for the Wise and Foolish) which is the Chinese source of the story.

Sometimes the text of the relevant bianwen is adopted for the inscriptions of the illustrations, as if the rich and colourful illustrations could only be matched with the literary texts which have undergone a similar process of expansion and colouring, i.e. the bianwen. However, because of various reasons, in particular the limitations of the artists in the Art Academy in both aesthetic cultivation and creative ability, the S£tra illustrations during this period tended to become stereotypical.


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