TANG DYNASTY ART: PAINTING, CALLIGRAPHY AND BUDDHIST CAVE ART

TANG DYNASTY ART


Beauty playing go

Ideas and art flowed into China on the Silk Road along with commercial goods during the Tang period (A.D. 607-960). Art produced in China at this time reveals influences from Persia, India, Mongolia, Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. Tang sculptures combined the sensuality of Indian and Persian art and the strength of the Tang empire itself. Art critic Julie Salamon wrote in the New York Times, that artists in the Tang dynasty “absorbed influences from all over the world, synthesized them and a created a new multiethnic Chinese culture."

Tang funerary vessels often contained figures of merchants. warriors, grooms, musicians and dancers. There are some works that have Hellenistic influences that came via Bactria in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Some Buddhas of immense size were produced.

None of the tombs of the Tang emperors have been opened but some tombs of the royal family members have excavated, Most of them were thoroughly looted. The most important finds have been murals and paintings in lacquer. They contain delightful images of court life.

Proto-porcelain evolved during the Tang dynasty. It was made by mixing clay with quartz and the mineral feldspar to make a hard, smooth-surfaced vessel. Feldspar was mixed with small amounts of iron to produce an olive-green glaze.

Tang- and Five Dynasties-era paintings in collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei include: 1) "Emperor Ming-huang's Flight to Sichuan", Anonymous; 2) "Mansions in the Mountains of Paradise" by Tung Yuan (Five Dynasties); and 3) "Herd of Deer in an Autumnal Grove", Anonymous. Works of calligraphy from the same period in the museum include: 1) "Clearing After Snowfall" (Wang Hsi-chih, Chin Dynasty); and 2) "Autobiography" by Huai-su, (T'ang Dynasty).

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Tang Horses persiancarpetguide.com ; China Vista chinavista.com ; “The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry,” edited and translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); Website: www.chinese-poems.com.

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Books: 1) Benn, Charles, “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002; 2) Schafer, Edward H. “The Golden Peaches of Samarkan,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963; 3) Watt, James C. Y., et al. “China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004; 4) Cambridge History of China Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); 5) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Tang Dynasty Painting


Zhang Xuan, Palace Ladies Pounding Silk

During the Tang Dynasty both figure painting and landscape painting reached great heights of maturity and beauty. Forms were carefully drawn and rich colors applied in painting that were later called "gold and blue-green landscapes." This style was supplanted by the technique of applying washes of monochrome ink that captured images in abbreviated, suggestive forms.

During the late Tang dynasty bird, flower and animal painting were especially valued. There were two major schools of this style of painting: 1) rich and opulent and 2) "untrammeled mode of natural wilderness." Unfortunately, few works from the Tang period remain.

Lovely murals were discovered in the tomb of Princess Yongtain, the granddaughter of Empress Wu Zetian (624?-705) on the outskirts of Xian. One shows a lady-in-waiting holding a nyoi stick while another lady holds glassware. It is similar to tomb art found in Japan. A painting on silk cloth dated to the A.D. mid-8th century found in the tomb of a rich family in the Astana tombs near Urumqi in western China depicts a noblewoman with rouge cheeks deep in concentration as she plays go.

Famous Tang dynasty paintings include Zhou Fang's “Palace Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses,” a study of several beautiful, plump women having their hair done; Wei Xian's The Harmonious Family Life of an Eminent Recluse, a Five Dynasties portrait of a father teaching his son in a pavilion surrounded by jagged mountains; and Han Huang's Five Oxen, an amusing depiction of a five fat oxen.

Celebrated painters included Han Gan, Zhang Xuan, and Zhou Fang. The court painter Wu Daozi (active ca. 710–60) was famous for his naturalist style and vigorous brushwork. Wang Wei (701–759) was admired as a poet, painter and calligrapher. who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings."

Examples of Tang Painting

“Ode on Pied Wagtails” by Tang Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) is a handscroll, ink on paper (24.5 x 184.9 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the autumn of 721, about a thousand pied wagtails perched at the palace. Emperor Xuanzong (Minghuang) noticed pied wagtails give out a short and shrill cry when in flight and often wag their tails in a rhythmic manner when walking about. Calling and waving to each other, they seemed to be especially close, which is why he likened them to a group of brothers demonstrating fraternal affection. The emperor ordered an official to compose a record, which he personally wrote to form this handscroll. It is the only surviving example of Xuanzong's calligraphy. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]


Jing Hao, Mount Kuanglu

“The brushwork in this handscroll is steady and the use of ink rich, having a force of vigor and magnanimity in every stroke. The brushwork also clearly reveals pauses and transitions in the strokes. The character forms are similar to those of Wang Xizhi's (303-361) characters assembled into "Preface to the Sacred Teaching" composed in the Tang dynasty, but the strokes are even more robust. It demonstrates the influence of Xuanzong’s promotion of Wang Xizhi's calligraphy at that time and reflects the trend towards plump aesthetics in the High Tang under his reign.” \=/

“Traveling Through Mountains in Spring” by Li Zhaodao (fl. ca. 713-741) is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk ( 95.5 x 55.3 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The landscape paintings of Li Zhaodao, the son of the painter and general Li Sixun, followed in the family tradition and equaled those of his father, earning him the nickname "Little General Li." The compositions of his paintings are tight-knit and skillful. When painting rocks, he first drew outlines with fine brushwork and then added umber, malachite green, and azurite blue. Sometimes he would even add highlights in gold to give his works a bright, luminous feeling. \=/

“Using fine yet strong lines, this archaic work is actually a later "blue-and-green" landscape painting in the manner of Li Zhaodao. Furthermore, despite the title, this work actually portrays the escape of the Tang emperor Xuanzong (685-762), also known as Minghuang, to Sichuan during the An Lushan Rebellion. To the right figures and horses descend from the peaks to the valley, while the man before a small bridge is probably the emperor. Clouds coil, peaks rise, and mountain paths wind, emphasizing precarious plank paths using the composition of "Emperor Minghuang’s Flight to Sichuan” as a model.” \=/

“A Palace Concert” by an anonymous Tang dynasty artist is hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk (48.7 x 69.5 centimeters). According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “This painting depicts ten ladies of the women's quarters from the inner palace. They are seated around the sides of a large rectangular table served with tea as someone is also drinking wine. The four figures at the top are playing a Tartar double-reed pipe, pipa, guqin zither, and reed pipe, bringing festivity to the figures enjoying their banquet. To the left is a female attendant holding a clapper that she uses to keep rhythm. \=/

“Although the painting has no signature of the artist, the plump features of the figures along with the painting method for the hair and clothing all accord with the aesthetic of Tang dynasty ladies. Considering the short height of the painting, it is surmised to have originally once been part of a decorative screen at the court during the middle to late Tang dynasty, later being remounted into the hanging scroll seen here.” \=/

Emperor Minghuang Playing Go by Zhou Wenju (ca. 907-975) is a Five Dynasties period (Southern Tang), Handscroll, ink and colors on silk (32.8 x 134.5 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ The subject here is attributed to the Tang emperor Minghuang’s (Xuanzong, 685-762) fondness of playing "weiqi" (go). He sits on a dragon chair by a go board. A man in red goes to discuss a matter, his back adorned with a jester, suggesting that he is a court actor. The coloring here is elegant, the drapery lines delicate, and the figures’ expressions all fine. The Qing emperor Qianlong's (1711-1799) poetic inscription criticizes Minghuang for his infatuation with the concubine Yang Guifei, attributing his eventual neglect of state affairs for the calamities that befell the Tang dynasty. Scholarly research also suggests this handscroll may depict Minghuang playing go with a Japanese monk. The old attribution is to the Five Dynasties figure painter Zhou Wenju, but the style is closer to that of the Yuan dynasty artist Ren Renfa (1254-1327).

Song Era Paintings on Tang Themes

“Leaving Behind the Helmet: by Li Gonglin (1049-1106) from the Song dynasty is handscroll, ink on paper (32.3 x 223.8 centimeters). According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ In 765, the Tang dynasty was invaded by a large army headed by the Uighurs. Guo Ziyi (697-781) was ordered by the Tang court to defend Jingyang but was hopelessly outnumbered. When the advancing army of Uighurs heard of Guo's renown, their chieftain requested a meeting with him. Guo thereupon took off his helmet and armor to lead a few dozen cavalry and meet the chieftain. The Uighur chieftain was so impressed by Guo's loyalty to the Tang and his bravery that he also discarded his weapons, dismounted, and bowed in respect. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“This story is illustrated using the "baimiao" (ink outline) method of painting. In it, Guo Ziyi is shown leaning over and holding out his hand as a mutual sign of respect at the meeting, reflecting the composure and magnanimity of this famous general at the time. The lines in the drapery patterns here flow with ease, having much of the pure and untrammeled quality of literati painting. Although this work bears a signature of Li Gonglin, judging from the style, it appears to be a later addition.”\=/


A Palace Concert


“Beauties on an Outing” by Li Gonglin (1049-1106) is handscroll, ink and colors on silk (33.4 x 112.6 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ This work is based on the poem "Beauties on an Outing” by the famous Tang poet Du Fu (712-770), who described therein the opulent beauty of noble ladies from the states of Qin, Han, and Guo. The figures of the ladies here are plump and their faces done with white makeup. The horses are muscular as the ladies proceed on horseback in a leisurely and carefree manner. In fact, all the figures and horses, as well as the clothing, hairstyles, and coloring method, are in the Tang dynasty style. \=/

A late Northern Song copy of a Tang rendition on this subject by the Painting Academy ("Copy of Zhang Xuan's 'Spring Outing of Lady Guo'") is very similar in composition to this painting. Though this work bears no seal or signature of the artist, later connoisseurs attributed it to the hand of Li Gonglin (perhaps because he specialized in figures and horses). However, judging from the style here, it was completed probably sometime after the Southern Song period (1127-1279). “ \=/

“My Friend” by Mi Fu (151-1108) is an album leaf rubbing, ink on paper (29.7x35.4 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Mi Fu (style name Yuanzhang), a native of Xiangfan in Hubei, once served as an official in various localities when younger, and the court of Emperor Huizong employed him as an Erudite of Painting and Calligraphy. He was also gifted at poetry, painting, and calligraphy. With a keen eye, Mi Fu amassed a large art collection and became known along with Cai Xiang, Su Shi, and Huang Tingjian as one of the Four Masters of Northern Song Calligraphy. \=/

“This work comes from the fourteenth album of Modelbooks in the Three Rarities Hall. The original work was done between 1097 and 1098, when Mi Fu was serving in Lianshui Prefecture, representing the peak of his career. In this letter, Mi Fu gives a recommendation for cursive script to a friend, saying that he should select from the virtues of Wei and Jin calligraphers and pursue an archaic manner. The brushwork throughout this work is sharp and fluent. Though unbridled, it is not unregulated. Marvelous brushwork emerges from the dots and strokes as the characters appear upright and leaning in an agreeable composition of line spacing. Creating a maximum effect of change, it overflows with the vigor of straightforward freedom. The “tang” character chosen for the Tang Prize comes from Mi Fu’s calligraphy.” \=/

Tang Calligraphy

According to art-virtue.com: “Chinese calligraphy reached the highest peaks both in the Jin and Tang Dynasties. When people talk about the Tang Dynasty as the golden age of Chinese culture, they praise calligraphy as one of the Tang's crowning achievements. In the Tang Dynasty the government set up academies for studying calligraphy. Calligraphy was used to evaluate a person and was considered as a way in selecting talents. There were six subjects in the National Academy and calligraphy was one of them. The whole society, from the emperors to ordinary people, treated calligraphy passionately.” In the early Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong “loved Wang Hsi-Chih's calligraphy and spent money to buy his works from the populace. Because of his favor, most calligraphers at that time studied Wang Hsi-Chih's styles. [Source: art-virtue.com ]

From the Wei and Jin to the South and North Dynasties, the popular scripts included Kai (regular script) Hsin (walking), and Tsao (running, semi-cursive) Styles. All calligraphy styles were widely seen in the Tang Dynasty. Calligraphers specializing in Tsao Shu included Zhang Shui, Huai Su, and Sun Guo-Ting. (Zhang Shui had instructed monk Huai Su. People often peered their achievements and referred them as “Mad Zhang & Crazy Monk” for their unrestrained personalities and calligraphy styles.) As for Kai Shu, many calligraphers in the Tang Dynasty reached another peak after Wei Bei and set standards for generations to follow.”

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “During the Tang period, the predominant script was the regular or standard script, with a stylistic emphasis on brush methods or structure. The regular script was believed to have reached its maturity during the early Tang, representing a culmination of previous regional developments. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]


Calligraphy of a Bai Juyi poem


“Tang calligraphy has been noted for its solidity and strength, which were also believed to demonstrate the author's irreproachable moral character. Although the majority of calligraphers during the Tang period made their most distinctive contributions to the development of a mature standard or regular script, the cursive script type would in time be the most favored for its ability to express the individual calligrapher's aesthetic preferences and inner character.” /=\

Tang calligraphy is discussed here in terms of four main directions of its development: 1) the court and the styles it favored, 2) the adoption of other styles by literati, 3) the continuing importance of copying religious texts, and 4) the development of individualist styles. In later writings on Chinese calligraphy, each historical period would be associated with a particular script type and the attitudes attributed to it. For example, the Six Dynasties period is associated with the cursive and running scripts, with a primary emphasis on "resonance" and harmony, likely because of the close relationship between calligraphy and lyric expression in poetry during this era. /=\

History of Calligraphy in China

Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Chinese ideographs evolved from “their earliest appearance on bronzes, stones, and bones about 1300 B.C. (known today as "seal" script, after its use on the red seals of ownership); their gradual regularization, culminating with the bureaucratic proliferation of documents by government clerks during the second century A.D. ("clerical" script); their artful simplification into abbreviated forms ("running" and "cursive" scripts); and the fusion of these form-types into "standard" script, in which the individually articulated brushstrokes that make up each character are integrated into a dynamically balanced whole...The practice of calligraphy became high art with the innovations of Wang Xizhi in the fourth century. [Source: Maxwell Hearn, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

After the Northern and Southern dynasties (386-589), standard and running scripts were the most common forms of calligraphy, widely used in practical, everyday affairs. During the Tang dynasty (618-906), standard script prevailed and the methods and rules were firmly established so that Tang dynasty standard script became the model for later generations.

During the Tang dynasty, calligraphers experimented with free, liberated forms of cursive script. In the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), calligraphers experimented with running script and developed a multitude of styles in which they expressed their ideas and feelings in their writing. In the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911), calligraphers returned to the past for inspiration.

Pioneering calligraphers in the Han dynasty created styles that became models for later calligraphers.Wang Hsi-chih (Wang Xizhi AD 321-379), the Sage of Calligraphy, is often regarded as master of the flowing semi-cursive script. His original manuscripts were greatly coveted by a the 7th century Tang Emperor Taizong who tried to obtain them by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. Taizong so admired Wang's work he took the calligrapher's famous “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” with him to his grave. Wang's son Wang Hsien-chih (Wang Xianzhi, 344-386) was also a great calligrapher.

Tang Calligraphy Aesthetics


Li Po calligraphy

Tang era calligraphy is known for both its powerful court styles and experimental new styles. Although the Tang period is closely associated with the standard script as a result of its being adopted by the court, other types continued to be in use.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Between the time of Wang Xizhi and the beginning of the Tang dynasty, calligraphy had come to be seen as a vehicle for expressing one's social status and learning. There was also a very close relationship between poetry and calligraphy as practiced by the educated elite from this time forward. More and more people who practiced calligraphy sought to develop facility with a variety of styles and script types. One of the means by which they did so was copying familiar texts that contained a wide range of simple and complicated characters.” [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “Consider two Tang-dynasty texts that describe calligraphy in human terms, both physical and moral. Here, the properly written character assumes the identity of a Confucian sage, strong in backbone, but spare in flesh: 1) "[A written character should stand] balanced on all four sides... Leaning or standing upright like a proper gentleman, the upper half [of the character] sits comfortably, while the bottom half supports it." (From an anonymous essay, Tang dynasty). 2) "Calligraphy by those good in brush strength has much bone; that by those not good in brush strength has much flesh. Calligraphy that has much bone but slight flesh is called sinew-writing; that with much flesh but slight bone is called ink-pig. Calligraphy with much strength and rich in sinew is of sagelike quality; that with neither strength nor sinew is sick. Every writer proceeds in accordance with the manifestation of his digestion and respiration of energy." (From Bizhentu, 7th century). [Source:Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Other writings on calligraphy use nature metaphors to express the sense of wonder, the elemental power, conveyed by written words: 1) "[When viewing calligraphy," I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding [in the sky], frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a phoenix dancing, a startled snake slithering away in fright. (Sun Guoting, 7th century). 2) A dragon leaping at the Gate of Heaven. (Description of the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi by Emperor Wu [r. 502-49]). \^/

“And so, despite its abstract appearance, calligraphy is not an abstract form. Chinese characters are dynamic, closely bound to the forces of nature and the kinesthetic energies of the human body. But these energies are contained within a balanced framework—supported by a strong skeletal structure—whose equilibrium suggests moral rectitude, indeed, that of the writer himself.” \^/

Tang Calligraphy, Buddhism and the Art of Copying


Du Fu calligraphy

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Although the style of calligraphy developed by Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi was widely admired and practiced during their lifetimes, its continued influence on later calligraphers depended on the dissemination of original writings or reliable facsimiles to practitioners in other locales and to later generations. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

“During the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 589-618) the monk Zhiyong, a seventh-generation descendant of Wang Xizhi, produced many copies of traditional Wang style writings for distribution among various temples throughout (modern day) Zhejiang province. Zhiyong was also the teacher of Yu Shinan, an assistant in the Palace Library at the Sui court who went on to hold more senior academic positions at the early Tang court under Taizong. The Tang emperor appreciated Yu's steadfast personality and extensive learning as well as his excellence as a calligrapher. /=\

“It is important to note here that copying, in the history of both Chinese painting and calligraphy, does not carry the same pejorative connotation that it does in the European tradition, where the copy invariably stands in a subsidiary and inferior relationship to its original. Copying in China, on the other hand, was seen as a valuable educational tool, allowing the writer to model his writing stylistically, and more importantly, himself, on the character and intellect of the master calligrapher whose mode of writing he practiced.” /=\

“Religious calligraphy continued to be of great importance during the Tang. Until the widespread use of printing in China after the Tang dynasty, religious texts were copied by hand. Buddhist texts in particular were copied in great numbers by monks or by individuals. Copies of the entire Buddhist canon were undertaken by imperial decree, and often the work of many individual calligraphers went into the completion of various sutra texts, which could be quite long. When sutra texts were commissioned, it was common practice to have the most talented calligraphers do the first and last scrolls, with the work parceled out to other scribes in between. The brush used for sutra copying was different in shape from a regular calligraphy brush, with a much shorter tip. Decorative refinements, such as the use of specially made papers and gold or silver inks, were employed in the copying of religious texts, but rarely occur in secular examples.” /=\

Calligraphy and the Tang Emperor Taizong


Taizong calligraphy

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Calligraphy is an art form that has been closely associated with political power throughout China's history. Tang Taizong (r. A.D. 626-649) himself was an avid collector of Wang Xizhi calligraphy during his day, and went to extreme lengths to gather up all the known extant Wang Xizhi works. He commissioned professional copyists to do careful reproductions of the works in the imperial collection and patronized Wang-style calligraphers at his court, many of whom held high-ranking posts. Taizong took Wang Xizhi as the model for his own writing, which he practiced using copies provided by Yu Shinan (who because of his teacher Zhiyong was believed to be the closest Tang dynasty practitioner to the original Wang style). [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

Taizong reportedly tried to obtain the original manuscripts of Wang Xizhi by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. Taizong so admired Wang's work he took the calligrapher's famous “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” with him to his grave.

Of the more prominent academicians at Taizong's court, Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun were valued as keepers of the calligraphic tradition, serving as tutors to the sons of nobility and as scholars of rank in the Palace library and Institute for the Advancement of Literature, respectively. /=\

Famous Tang Calligraphers

Chang Hsu from the mid-Tang period is famous for his "tipsy" cursive that provided an alternative to the classic style of Wang His-chih. Whenever Chang painted when he was drunk it was said that his brushes flied and danced with unbridled emotion. Huai Su was even less restrained than Chang Hsu. He was famous from his extremely fluid and spontaneous "wild" cursive. Wang Wei (701–759) was admired as a poet, painter and calligrapher. who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings."

Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun were famous calligraphers in Taizong’s court. They served as tutors to the sons of nobility and as scholars of rank in the Palace library and Institute for the Advancement of Literature, respectively. The characters in their calligraphy was regular script. Both precision and spontaneity were required to make high-quality works.

Chu Suiliang (A.D. 596-658) is well-known early Tang calligrapher. The style used in his early life was said to be solid and firm. The sensitive, delicate style of his later years has been described as "a frail lady unable to bear the weight of her own garments." [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

Gao Xian is famous for his “Thousand character essay,” which displays alternating lines of regular and running script. Born in Wucheng (present-day Huzhou, Zhejiang Province), he was an eminent monk who lived during the mid-Tang Dynasty. Only 243 characters of the original one thousand characters are left. “Thousand character essay,” is regarded as a great calligraphic achievement of the mid-Tang Dynasty and is known for the charming vitality of its free and spontaneous brushstrokes. The Handscroll is Cursive Script, Ink on paper (length: 30.8 centimeters, Width: 311.3 centimeters). [Source: Cultural China]

Individualist Styles of Tang Calligraphy

20080303-cursive script Zhu Yunmingf, Ming shnag M.jpg
Cursive script
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Individualism became an important strain in painting, calligraphy, and poetry during the middle to later years of the Tang dynasty. As the central political sphere declined, there was an upsurge in localized unorthodox creative activity which seemed to stand outside all previous traditions. Daoist painters got drunk and painted with their hair or dragged each other across the paper’s surface, and their Chan counterparts sought similar release from societal constraints in calligraphy through the use of a new style of writing aptly named "wild cursive." [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

“The moral and civic value attached to modeling oneself on the great early Tang masters of the standard script from Taizong's court was still recognized, but the new emphasis on individuality, the spontaneous, and the uninhibited marked a profound shift in calligraphic practice from an ultimately conservative tradition to one that favored self-expression and change. /=\

As court calligraphers throughout the Tang period were engaged in setting and maintaining a standard for elegant writing in the Wang tradition, the actual forms of calligraphy championed by the court became increasingly conventionalized and stagnant. Wild cursive, a radically modified version of the draft cursive script of the Han dynasty, can be seen as a reaction against the atrophied writing styles of later Wang tradition calligraphers. /=\

Zhang Xu and Wild Cursive Calligraphy

20080303-Can Zheng Tie runnings cript, northern soing, shang M.jpg
Running script
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Zhang Xu (active A.D. 710-750) was said to be the originator of the wild cursive script. He enjoyed considerable fame in his own day, and is counted among the Tang poet Du Fu’s "Eight Drunken Immortals." Although wild cursive seems to break radically from all past traditions, Zhang Xu did base his writing style on one of the more prominent earlier calligraphers. It is believed that he was further influenced by the Daoist practice of automatic writing in sand. Zhang Xu's calligraphic style is widely praised, especially by later scholars, yet one of the by-products of his style is a pronounced deformation of word structures.[Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

Zhang Xu was also the teacher/model of two calligraphers of the following generation who were revered for their unorthodox and highly individualistic styles. The monk Huaisu (735?-800? AD) was a man of letters; also known as the "Drunken Monk," he followed Zhang Xu's wild cursive mode of writing. In one of the extant examples of his calligraphy, Huaisu complains about eating bitter bamboo shoots, and also admits his unbounded passion for liquor and fish. The sample of Huaisu's writing below is an autobiographical essay that includes comments on his own study of calligraphy./=\

Yan Zhenqing and His Strong, Moralistic Calligraphy

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Yan Zhenqing (A.D. 709-785) was a leading figure among loyalists to the Tang throne during the politically turbulent eighth century. He was a dedicated and brilliant military figure who suffered great personal loss at the hands of aspirants to the throne yet remained unswerving in his loyalty to the legitimate ruling house. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

“Because of his reputation as a staunchly moral and principled individual, Yan Zhenqing's forceful and majestic individual style assumed the heroic proportions of his own life. One of the requisite techniques of Chinese calligraphy is maintaining the brush's upright position in order to transfer more directly and powerfully the flow of energy from hand to paper. From Yan Zhenqing's time forward, saying someone wrote with an "upright brush" carried an especially strong tone of moral approbation. His calligraphy was particularly influential among literati of the Northern Song, including Su Dongpo and Huang Tingjian. /=\

“Evaluative writings on calligraphy often equate the structure ("architecture") and line quality of the written word with the physical human self. Some examples are criticized for being too "fleshy" while lacking in bone structure. Yan Zhenqing's regular script inscriptions contrasts with the more orthodox court tradition that favored the elegance and ease of Wang Xizhi style calligraphy, represented by Chu Suiliang from the time of Taizong and Li Yong, the foremost Wang tradition calligrapher of the first half of the eighth century. Although some of Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy is riddled with mistakes and corrections, his writing has been especially valued by connoisseurs.” /=\

Mogao Caves

Mogao Grottoes (17 miles south of Dunhuang) — also known as Thousand Buddha Caves — is a massive group of caves filled with Buddhist statues and imagery that were first used in the A.D. 4th century. Carved into a cliff on the eastern side of Singing Sand Mountain and stretching for more than a mile, the grottoes are one of the largest treasure house of grotto art in China and the world.


Outside Mogao Caves

All together there are 750 caves (492 with art work) on five levels, 45,000 square meters of murals, more than 2000 painted clay figures and five wooden structures. The grottoes contain Buddha statues and lovely paintings of paradise, asparas (angels) and the patrons who commissioned the paintings. The oldest cave dates back to the 4th century. The largest cave is 130 feet high. It houses a 100-foot-tall Buddha statue installed during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Many caves are so small they can only can accommodate a few people at a time. The smallest cave is only a foot high.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Within the caves, the monochrome lifelessness of the desert gave way to an exuberance of color and movement. Thousands of Buddhas in every hue radiated across the grotto walls, their robes glinting with imported gold. Apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and celestial musicians floated across the ceilings in gauzy blue gowns of lapis lazuli, almost too delicate to have been painted by human hands. Alongside the airy depictions of nirvana were earthier details familiar to any Silk Road traveler: Central Asian merchants with long noses and floppy hats, wizened Indian monks in white robes, Chinese peasants working the land. In the oldest dated cave, from A.D. 538, are depictions of bandits bandits that had been captured, blinded, and ultimately converted to Buddhism."Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010 <+>]

“Carved out between the fourth and 14th centuries, the grottoes, with their paper-thin skin of painted brilliance, have survived the ravages of war and pillage, nature and neglect. Half buried in sand for centuries, this isolated sliver of conglomerate rock is now recognized as one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. The caves, however, are more than a monument to faith. Their murals, sculptures, and scrolls also offer an unparalleled glimpse into the multicultural society that thrived for a thousand years along the once mighty corridor between East and West. <+>

“The Chinese call them Mogaoku, or "peerless caves." But no name can fully capture their beauty or immensity. Of the almost 800 caves chiseled into the cliff face, 492 are decorated with exquisite murals that cover nearly half a million square feet of wall space, some 40 times the expanse of the Sistine Chapel. The cave interiors are also adorned with more than 2,000 sculptures, some of them among the finest of their era. Until just over a century ago, when a succession of treasure hunters arrived across the desert, one long-hidden chamber contained tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts. <+>

"The caves are a time capsule of the Silk Road," says Fan Jinshi, director of the Dunhuang Academy, which oversees research, conservation, and tourism at the site. A sprightly 71-year-old archaeologist, Fan has worked at the grottoes for 47 years, ever since she arrived in 1963 as a fresh graduate of Peking University. Most other Silk Road sites, Fan says, were devoured by the desert or destroyed by successive empires. But the Mogao caves endured largely intact, their kaleidoscope of murals capturing the early encounters of East and West. "The historical significance of Mogao cannot be exaggerated," Fan says. "Because of its geographical location at a transit point on the Silk Road, you can see the mingling of Chinese and foreign elements on nearly every grotto wall."” <+>

A total of 243 caves have been excavated by archaeologists, who have unearthed monk's living quarters, meditation cells, burial chambers, silver coins, wooden printing blocker written in the Uighar and copies Psalms of written in the Syriac language, herbal pharmacopoeias, calendars, medical treatises, folk songs, real estate deals, Taoist tracts, Buddhist sutras, historical records and documents written in dead languages such as Tangut, Tokharian, Runic and Turkic.

History of Mogao Grottoes


Mogao Cave 249

Mogao was a major center of Buddhist scholarship and a trading post on the Silk Road for more than a thousand years, until 1372 when the Chinese withdrew their garrisons and the area was taken over by the Mongols. The caves were largely abandoned after that.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “The caves began as a vision of light. One evening in A.D. 366, a wandering monk named Yuezun saw a thousand golden Buddhas blazing in a cliff. Inspired, he chiseled a small meditation cell into the rock; others quickly followed. The first caves were no larger than coffins. Soon, monastic communities began carving out larger caverns for public acts of devotion, adorning the shrines with images of the Buddha. It is these early grottoes that inspired the nickname the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010 <+>]

“Their canvases consisted of nothing more than river mud mixed with straw, but Dunhuang's artists would, over the centuries, record on these humble surfaces the evolution of Chinese art---and the transformation of Buddhism into a Chinese faith. One of Mogao's creative peaks came during the seventh and eighth centuries, when China projected both openness and power. The Silk Road was booming, Buddhism was flourishing, and Dunhuang was paying fealty to the Chinese capital. The Tang cave painters displayed a fully confident Chinese style, covering whole walls with minutely detailed Buddhist narratives whose color, movement, and naturalism made the imaginative landscape come alive. The Middle Kingdom would later turn inward, finally shutting itself off from the world during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. <+>

"Unlike Indian Buddhists, the Chinese wanted to know in detail all the forms of the afterlife," says Zhao Shengliang, an art historian at the Dunhuang Academy. "The purpose of all this color and movement was to show pilgrims the beauty of the Pure Land---and to convince them that it was real. The painters made it feel like the whole universe was moving."

“More earthly tumult periodically swept through Dunhuang. Yet even as the town was conquered by competing dynasties, local aristocracies, and foreign powers---Tibet ruled here from 781 to 847---the creative enterprise at Mogao continued without pause. What accounts for its persistence? It may have been more than a simple respect for beauty or Buddhism. Rather than wiping out all traces of their predecessors, successive rulers financed new caves, each more magnificent than the last---and emblazoned them with their own pious images. The rows of wealthy patrons depicted on the bases of most murals increased in size over the centuries until they dwarfed the religious figures in the paintings. The showiest patron of all may have been Empress Wu Zetian, whose desire for divine projection---and protection---led her to oversee, in 695, the creation of the complex's largest statue, a 116-foot-tall seated Buddha. <+>

“By the late tenth century the Silk Road had begun to fade. More caves would be dug and decorated, including one with sexually charged tantric murals that was built in 1267 under the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan. But as new sea routes opened and faster ships were built, land caravans slipped into obsolescence. China, moreover, lost control over large portions of the Silk Road, and Islam had started its long migration over the mountains from Central Asia. By the early 11th century several of the so-called western regions (part of modern-day Xinjiang, in China's far west) had been converted to Islam, and Buddhist monks placed tens of thousands of manuscripts and paintings in a small side chamber adjoining a larger Mogao grotto. Were the monks hiding documents for fear of an eventual Muslim invasion? Nobody knows for sure. The only certainty is that the chamber---now known as Cave 17, or the Library Cave---was sealed up, plastered over,and concealed by murals. The secret cache would remain entombed for 900 years.” <+>

In 1900, the priest Wang Yuanku discovered the famous Hidden Library, a trove of 50,000 documents, including the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest book. In 1907, the British-Hungarian archeologist Sir Aurel Stein paid Wang four silver pieces and hauled off thousands of manuscripts, silk scroll paintings and wood slips, and the Diamond Sutra out of China. These are now housed in the British Museum, the British Library and the National Museum in New Delhi.

Mogao Cave 275 (Northern Liang A.D. 421-439)

According to the Dunhuang Research Academy: Mogao Cave 275 “is one of the oldest caves in Mogao and has survived for more than 1,500 years. Although this cave is tiny, it has a relatively large statue in front of the main (west) wall; nevertheless, the proportions are harmonious. This main statue, 3.4 meters tall, is the largest of the early period. It is a Bodhisattva identified as Maitreya, the future Buddha. He has a round face, a robust physique and a calm expression. The handsome face has very long ear loops, straight nose, contoured lips and lightly protruding eyes, which are looking down compassionately on the visitor. Wearing a crown containing three round jewels (with a Buddha in the centre jewel), he sits cross-ankled. His sitting pose and decoration, as well as the triangular brocade-patterned backrest, suggest influences from Central Asia. [Source: Dunhuang Research Academy, March 27, 2014 public.dha.ac.cn ^*^]


Mogao Cave 275


“Statues of Maitreya are dressed either as a Bodhisattva (i.e., in the form of a nobleman, since the historical Buddha Sakyamuni was born a prince) or as a Buddha (in the form of a monk). The worship to Maitreya in China reached its zenith between the 5th and the 6th centuries, especially in the north. The cross-ankled sitting pose is the most popular among his statues of that time. The pair of lions flanking him do not appear convincing since the artists (mostly from central China) had not seen a real one and depicted them according to others’ descriptions and their own imaginations. ^*^

“On the upper part of both the north and south walls are three niches. The inner two on each wall are carved in the traditional Chinese building style — each has a gateway with a central tiled roof flanked by towers (known as que in Chinese). Inside each niche is a Bodhisattva seated cross-ankled. Que were popular until the Han dynasty (the 3rd century) for palaces and royal tombs, but few examples are found now. They are moulded and painted with details in Mogaoku. It contains very precious information on the history of Chinese architecture. ^*^

“In the third niche (not shown in the figure) on both walls near the entrance is a Bodhisattva in a pensive pose. These two niches are decorated in Indian style, with spreading branches of two trees on its arched top. Since the original front wall had collapsed, in the Northern Song (960-1127) a partition wall was built to provide some protection, and a new layer of mural was painted on the ceiling and part of the walls. This partition wall was removed in the 1990s, revealing the original layer. Another part of the mural was also damaged by the construction of a hole in the Qing (1638-1911) used for the convenience of walking to the adjacent cave. The hole is now filled. ^*^

Murals in Mogao Cave 275

According to the Dunhuang Research Academy: “Murals in this cave illustrate the Buddhist stories. Each of them consists of several episodes within a single rectangular space, with multiple depictions of the same person to represent different times and places within the same scene. The dominant figures in all scenes are always larger in scale. All the figures are dressed and decorated in Central Asian style. The imported Indian colour shading technique (yun-ran) was employed, but the red or reddish brown has oxidized and turned to dark grey, and the white highlight has become off-white on the human faces. [Source: Dunhuang Research Academy,March 27, 2014 public.dha.ac.cn ^*^]


Mogao Cave 275


“Generally in the Buddha’s Life Story, there should be Four Encounters (Prince Siddhartha encounters an old man, a sick person, a corpse and a mendicant monk). Here, on the south wall, only the first and the last were depicted to imply them all. From the first three, the young prince is aware that life is impermanent so it causes suffering, while the fourth sets out a path for liberation. ^*^

“Of the five jataka tales depicted on the north wall, the most famous are that of King Sivi (who offers his flesh — his whole body — as ransom to save a dove’s live from a hawk) and King Candraprabha (who even gives away his head a thousand times in his thousand lives). The third king can tolerate his body to be used for lighting a thousand lamps; the fourth has a thousand nails nailed into his body, and the fifth gives away his eyes. These tales all signify self-sacrifice — especially of the physical self. The subject of these murals illustrates the message that achieving enlightenment requires toleration of pain and the sacrifices of self. Some scholars suggest the composition of this cave depicts Buddhahood in the past (with jataka on the north wall), the present (with Sakyamuni’s life story on the south) and the future (with Maitreya in the centre). ^*^

“Below the jataka tales on the north walls is a row of 33 donor images. These men, 18 cm high, are clad in nomadic riding dress. All of them are shown in three-quarter view, lining up behind one another and facing in the direction of the procession. They hold a softly bent flower in their raised hand. A monk, who is taller than the others by a head, leads with an incense burner. There is no inscription to reveal information about these donors’ names and their ranking. According to their costumes, some suggest they belong to the Xianbei tribe who were active patrons at the time. Later in 439, Toba clan of the tribe founded the Northern Wei dynasty.” ^*^

Mogao Cave 254 (Northern Wei A.D. 439-534)

According to the Dunhuang Research Academy: Mogao Cave 254 “This cave is one of the most fabulous constructed in the fifth century. It has a square central pillar with niches on each side and a flat ceiling with painted coffering. The front portion of the cave has a gable ceiling with bas-relief simulated rafts in red. This design combines Chinese and Central Asian architectural features. The design, with a pillar in the centre, functions as a stupa for worship or walking meditation, and is a feature from India; the gable ceiling, as well as the style of four small niches above the murals in the front part of the cave, is typically Chinese. There is also a window of Chinese style above the entrance on the east wall, which is quite rare in Dunhuang caves. Sun shines through the window onto the main Buddha creating a halo on his head and upper torso, which seems to emphasize his stateliness.[Source: Dunhuang Research Academy, March 26, 2014 public.dha.ac.cn ^*^]


Mogao Cave 254


“Entering this cave, one is attracted by the calm azure colour. On the front (east) face of the pillar is a niche in which sits the cross-ankled Buddha. The beautiful blue of his halo and mandorla is made of lapis, which was imported from present-day Afghanistan, and was as precious as gold at that time. Some scholars suggest that this statue illustrates the episode in which Maitreya descends to Earth in the future, while the small figures in Bodhisattva’s form in the niches on the side walls represent him meditating in Tushita Heaven now. On the other hand, some insist that this is the statue of Sakyamuni, and that the Bodhisattvas in the small niches should not be Maitreya since it is not logical to repeat the same theme in a row along the walls. ^*^

“Behind the pillar on the west wall is a Buddha dressed in a white robe, which is quite unusual. Many interesting suggestions have been put forward to explain why his robe is white. Recently, the paints in this cave were analyzed by the Dunhuang Academy. Arsenic was found, suggesting the original colour of this robe could have been beige or light yellow. The remaining area of the wall is painted with the Thousand-Buddha motif. These Buddhas are in the same foreign style as that of the jataka; however, each of them (1,235 in total) was inscribed with Chinese names. These miniature images represent Buddhas from the past and future kalpa (literally: aeon). Together with the statues and paintings of Sakyamuni and Maitreya, both belong to the present kalpa. The arrangement of this cave focuses on the Buddhas in all times. ^*^

“In Buddhist tradition, the replication of the image of the Buddha is a valid method of spreading Buddhism and of attaining merit for oneself. Also, visualizing Buddha is one of the key methods of meditation. Therefore, the Thousand-Buddha motif has always been popular. At the top of all walls is a frieze depicting a heavenly scene. Each of the musicians plays a different instrument, and dancers in various poses perform under an arched opening. It illustrates the bliss of heaven. ^*^

Murals in Mogao Cave 254

According to the Dunhuang Research Academy: Mogao Cave 254 ““The murals of this cave are very significant. They are mostly depictions of the jataka, previous life stories of the Buddha. Their unique and painstaking compositions convey a sense of firmness and resolve, attracting numerous artists. The Mahasattva jataka on the south wall illustrates Prince Sattva offering himself to a starving tigress and her cubs. The scene consists of several episodes within a single rectangular space. It starts from the top centre (1) with Prince Sattva and his two brothers looking down at the tigress and her seven cubs. The story continues on the right. (2) The prince kneels and pierces his neck with a bamboo stick, and (3) then dives with an outstretched left arm from the cliff to feed the tigress. The figures of the Prince touch each other to form a beautiful curve. (4) Then his remains are found by his saddened family. A Chinese style stupa built to commemorate the event concludes the story. The stupa was depicted in a very unusual way. The three storey building is shown in a bird’s eye view but its front steps are at ground level, refocusing the attention on the main theme. This story is depicted in a circular sequence. It is a sad episode but not meant to be frightening and no gore is depicted. [Source: Dunhuang Research Academy, March 26, 2014 public.dha.ac.cn ^*^]


Mogao Cave 254


“There are more principal scenes, including Buddha’s Enlightenment (the Subjugation of Mara), on the same wall. Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha’s lay name), is meditating under a fir tree. When he is about to attain enlightenment, Mara (king of demons) and his soldiers attack him with all sorts of weapons and poisoned arrows, but everything fall before reaching him. Mara’s three beautiful daughters (left bottom corner) seduce him but turn into old and ugly women (right bottom corner) right away. All these attacks serve as a foil for the Buddha. He subjugates Mara, who personifies all kinds of temptation and vexation, and attains enlightenment. His right hand is in an ‘earth touching’ mudra which means he is calling upon the earth to be his witness of becoming a Buddha (an enlightened one). Indian fir tree has been renamed to Bodhi (enlighten) tree thereafter. As a protagonist, Buddha’s outsized figure is at the centre. The artists demonstrated outstanding achievement by creating a sharp contrast between the Buddha who is dignified, calm and full of compassion, and the demons who look wrathful, cruel and aggressive. ^*^

“On the north wall are scenes of the preaching Buddha, together with Nanda (his younger brother) Entering Monastic Life, and King Sivi jataka. The King Sivi jataka panel illustrates one of the most popular themes in the early caves. In it, the king offers his flesh, including his whole body, to save a dove’s live from a hawk. The outsized figure of the king sits in a lalita pose, turns to one side in a three-quarter view, and is flanked by rows of figures in the assembly. On his right, each of the sad-looking court ladies has a different appearance. One of them is embracing the king’s knee and begging him not to cut his flesh. The artists skillfully narrated the rich content in a single picture. The costumes of figures and the painting style of the murals in this cave are strongly influenced by the art of Central Asia.” ^*^

Mogao Cave 249 (Western Wei A.D. 534-556)

According to the Dunhuang Research Academy: “This cave has a truncated pyramidal ceiling with zaojing, which was a new fashion in the Western Wei, following the earlier prevailing central-pillared style. This kind of roof provides a broader view of the cave and more freedom for the motif arrangement. All the images in this cave were painted in contemporary ideal standard — tall and slim, and demure and feminine, in order to look like Chinese immortals. They are floating on clouds with long flying scarves, as if the cave was really breezy and expressing the scene of heaven. Around the zaojing, on the four slopes, are Buddhist images, which are accompanied by immortals and gods from Hindu and Chinese mythology. This design is very similar to that of Cave 285. “[Source: Dunhuang Research Academy, March 23, 2014 public.dha.ac.cn ^*^]

“On the west slope, the four-eyed and four-armed giant at the centre is King of asura, which is one of the six categories of sentient beings in samsara (the endless circle of birth and death). He is holding the sun and the moon, and standing on the ocean with his legs partially submerged to below the knees. Above him are Mount Sumeru (the cosmic mountain) and the Heaven Gate. Beside him are gods of Wind (the one holding a billowing bag, to the left of the King’s raised arms), Rain (below the Wind God and close to the edge of the slope), Thunder (the one playing a circle of drums, to the right of the King’s raised arms) and Lightning (the one holding a drill or vajra, below the Thunder God and close to the edge of the slope). These gods are all animal-headed. ^*^


Mogao Cave 249


“On the east slope are two wrestlers holding the Mani pearl, a wish-fulfilling jewel and a metaphor for Buddha’s wisdom. A small difference from Cave 285 is that the two serpent-tailed Fuxi and Nuwa (the first ancestors in Chinese mythology) flying towards the pearl are not depicted here. On the north side, two of the four Chinese mythological protectors, Scarlet Bird (of the south) and Snake-turtle (of the north) are next to one of the wrestlers. Also on the slope are heavenly beings (Wu-huo) with two horns and two wings; and the three mythological creatures (Kai-ming) with 13, 11 or 9 human heads on tiger bodies, who might be the gods of Heaven, Earth and Humans, respectively. ^*^

“The north and south slopes depict two immortals traveling in heaven and escorted by a procession. The one on the south slope, riding in a four-phoenix chariot, is identified as the Western Mother Queen who existed a long time ago in Chinese mythology. The one on the north slope, riding in a four-dragon chariot, is the Eastern King who appears much later than the Queen. Originally they were described as half-human and half-beast creatures, and then humanized as royalty. According to legend, they meet once a year, but are not clearly described as husband and wife. They are in charge of everything in heaven and earth. If one can see them, it means one has attained immortality. The popularity of their images began in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

“Some scholars have different opinions on the identification of many images in this cave. Some suggest these two figures are Indra and his consort. Indra is an important god in Hinduism, but assimilated into Buddhism as a chief in one of the many heavens. According to Buddhism, god (deva) and goddess (devi) are considered as a kind of sentient beings within samsara. At the bottom of the slopes are landscape and hunting scenes. In the hunting scene, a hunter on a galloping horse is turning back to shoot. This posture is known as the Parthian shot since it was a military tactic made famous by the Parthians, ancient Iranian people. The Parthian cavalrymen usually shot the enemy while retreating or pretending to retreat. This scene was prevalent in Persian art of the time, while the plain mastery outline technique for the images of boars and ox was typically Chinese. Around the top of the walls are musicians performing in heaven’s balcony. Each is in an open cell facing outward, as if they are on stage. One is energetically blowing a conch, as another is calmly playing a lute. Their darker skin, the costumes and poses indicate that they are from Central Asia or India. The thick bold outline is a simple but distinct characteristic. ^*^

Mogao Cave 148 (Tang, A.D. 705-781)

According to the Dunhuang Research Academy: “This cave has a transverse rectangular layout (17x7.9m) and a vaulted roof. The interior looks like a big coffin because its main theme is the Buddha’s nirvana (his demise; the liberation from existence). Because of the special shape of this cave, it has no trapezoidal top. The Thousand-Buddha motif is painted on the flat and rectangular ceiling. This motif is original, yet the colours are still as bright as new. On the long altar in front of the west wall is a giant reclining Buddha made of stucco on a sandstone frame. It is 14.4m long, signifying the Mahaparinirvana (the great completed nirvana). More than 72 stucco statues of his followers, restored in the Qing, surround him in mourning. [Source: Dunhuang Research Academy, March 6, 2014 public.dha.ac.cn ^*^]

Mogao Cave contains “the largest and best painting about Nirvana in Dunhuang....The Buddha is lying on his right, which is one of the standard sleeping poses of a monk or nun. His right arm is under his head and above the pillow (his folded robe). This statue was later repaired, but the ridged folds of his robe still retain the traits of High Tang art. There is a niche in each of the north and south walls, although the original statues inside were lost. The present ones were moved from somewhere else. ^*^

“On the west wall, behind the altar, is the beautifully untouched jingbian, illustrations of narratives from the Nirvana Sutra. The scenes are painted from south to north, and occupy the south, west and north walls with a total area of 2.5x23m. The complete painting consists of ten sections and 66 scenes with inscriptions in each; it includes more than 500 images of humans and animals. The inscriptions explaining the scenes are still legible. The writings in ink read from top to bottom and from left to right, which is unconventional. However, the inscription written in the Qing dynasty on the city wall in one of the scenes is written from top to bottom and from right to left, the same as conventional Chinese writing. Both of these writing styles are popular in Dunhuang. ^*^

“In the seventh section, the funeral procession is leaving town on the way to Buddha’s cremation. The casket in the hearse, the stupa and other offerings, which are carried by several dharma protectors in front, are elaborately decorated. The procession, including Bodhisattvas, priests and kings carrying banners and offerings, is solemn and grand. ^*^


removing teeth from Cave 148


“In the ninth section, Indra (one of the gods) is depicted in two continuing scenes. In the first, he stands beside the casket and is removing Buddha’s teeth. In the next, he travels on a cloud to bring the teeth back to heaven to be worshipped (top-left). On the other side (top-right), two asuras (a kind of celestial being) are escaping on a cloud after stealing two of the Buddha’s teeth. The contents of the painting are substantial and the depictions are very detailed and magnificent. The architecture and costumes in this mural are of Chinese style. Interestingly, a rooster is on top of the casket, which is a typical Chinese funeral custom for dispelling evil spirits. ^*^

“In Dunhuang, mural content with Vajrayana (the last phase of Indian Buddhism) first appears in the Sui caves. Vajrayana flourished in High Tang, thus it is called the Tang-mi (literally, the Vajrayana in the Tang dynasty). In this cave were the earliest examples of Vajrayana art in Dunhuang. It includes jingbian on the thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Guan-yin (Avalokitesvara) on the east wall above the entrance, and statues of his other forms — Amoghapasa in the north niche and Cintamanichakra in the south niche. Although the two original statues are now missing (the present ones were made in the Qing), the content of this cave is recorded on a stele, built in 776 or earlier, in the antechamber. Also in the antechamber are two devaraja (Heavenly Kings), two vajrapani (dharma protectors) and two lions made in Middle Tang and restored in the Qing. ^*^

“On the east wall, at each side of the entrance, other jingbian are painted — Amitabha is on the south side while the Medicine Buddha is on the north. Both of them have vertical margins on both sides to provide additional information on the sutra. They were painted in the High Tang and partly altered in the Western Xia. The magnificent depictions still represent Tang art. The main halls, corner buildings, cloisters, pavilions on water, etc. provide very good information on Tang architecture. In the corridor is the illustration of the Sutra of Requiting Blessing Received, which emphasizes filial piety and is believed to be written by the Chinese to conform with Confucius’ teachings. This is the first time the sutra is illustrated in Dunhuang.” ^*^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons: Mogao caves: Dunhuang Research Academy, public.dha.ac.cn

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.