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Mogao Cave 16 (Late Tang 848-907AD)
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This cave is located on the ground level at the north end of the southern section of the cliff directly below caves 366 on the top level and 365 in the middle. All three caves have wooden eaves in front of the entrances; together they are called TheThree Storey Building which was dedicated by Hong-bian (?-862?), the chief monk in the Hexi area in the Late Tang.

Figure 1: Bodhisattvas painted in the Song, north wall on corridor

Cave 16 is one of the largest caves in Mogao Grottoes, with a truncated pyramidal ceiling and a horseshoe-shaped altar in the centre of the chamber. At the bottom of the altar are 21 dharma protectors, 17 lions and 18 wrestlers, all were painted in the Late Tang. The back of the altar (west side) is a tall wall extending to the ceiling with paintings from the Tang and Song dynasties. The nine statues on the altar were made in the Northern Song (960-1127) and restored in the Qing (1644-1911). The thrones and the lower part of their bodies are still the original ones.

All the walls in this cave have two layers of paintings. The top layer painted with embossed technique was added during the Northern Song/Western Xia period (Figure 1). The covered layer was found in 1981 when working on the conservation of the murals. Only a small part has been uncovered. It seems to depict the Pure Land, and still shows the wonderful undimmed colours of the original Late Tang painting.

The top layer on the four walls is the Thousand-Buddha motif. The images are quite dull and monotone. It indicates that the artists’ technique was declining and the quality of the pigments had become unaffordable during war time.

Figure 2: Zaojing with phoenix motif

The zaojing (decorated coffer) was painted in the Five Dynasties. During this time, in addition to the colourful floral designs from the Tang, the traditional Chinese dragon and phoenix patterns also became popular. The colours are no longer gaudy. Instead the background is in green or blue with reddish brown, and the objects which are the focus are highlighted in gold.

The centre motif accompanied by colourful floral scrolls and clouds in the zaojing (Figure 2) was embossed and gold gilded by a technique calledli-fen-dui-jin (literally squeezing plaster and adhering gold foil on the painting). The method is similar to how a cake is decorated with cream — plaster mixed with glue was squeezed on lines or spots of a painting. Then gold foil was glued on while the plaster dried. It gives the effect of resplendent bas-relief, as well as looking elegant and dignified.

It is worth noting that the centre motif of the zaojing in this cave is a phoenix, which was the totem of the Tanguts, encircled by four smaller dragons (the symbol of the Chinese empire). Some scholars suggest that it symbolizes that the Chinese would capitulate to the ambitious Western Xia kingdom.

The four slopes have a partial gold gilded chessboard pattern with floral designs which are also popular flat ceiling designs.

Figure 3: The hall of Cave 16 and the opening of Cave 17 on corridor

The coarse scratches traced by blowing sand can still be seen on the walls of the entrance corridor which have illustrations of scenes of preaching Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (Figure 3). Through the north wall is an opening leading to Cave 17, the stunning world renowned Library Cave. The opening was sealed over and covered by the Western Xia mural and not discovered until 1900. The reason for hiding the manuscripts and sealing this cave still remains a mystery.

Figure 4: The Dunhuang manuscripts ready to go with Stein, 1908

The photo illustrated (Figure 4) was taken by the Hungarian-British Auriel Stein when he carried off the discovered treasures in 1908.