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The Art of Dunhuang
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Figure 1: Mogao Grottoes along the cliff, Dunhuang, Gobi Desert, China

Among the must-see treasures of the world are the 1600 year old Dunhuang cave-temple museums. They include the Mogao Grottoes, the Yulin Grottoes, the Western Thousand Buddha Grottoes, the Eastern Thousand Buddha Grottoes, and the Five Temple Grottoes.

Among them, Mogaoku (the Mogao Grottoes, also known as Caves of Thousand Buddhas) is the most magnificent. A total of 735 caves (including 492 containing artwork) have been identified. They were constructed along the cliff facing east, extending from north to south ( Figure 1). The decorated caves are found mainly in the southern section.

Cave art is an invention of the ancient Indian Buddhists, but their achievement was far surpassed by the Chinese grottoes, both in grandeur and in the length of time the original artwork has remained in situ.

Besides the ample achievement in visual art, the Dunhuang art is a witness to the toleration and fusion of different cultures. It didn’t inherit any one single style; instead it assimilated many different influences from metropolitan China, Central Asia and India, and integrated them into a unique style.


·         A. The Architecture of Dunhuang Grottoes

             1.       Meditation Cave

             2.      Central-pillared Cave

             3.      Assembly Hall

             4.      Others

·         B. The Polychromed Statues

·         C. Murals

              1.       Buddhist Images

              2.      Narratives of Buddhist Stories

              3.      Historical Stories of Buddhist Events

              4.      Narratives from the Sutra (Jingbian)

              5.       Decorative Patterns and Zaojing

              6.      Apsaras (The Flying Celestials)

              7.       Portraits of Donors

              8.      Yun-ran – a painting technique

·         A. The Architecture of Dunhuang Grottoes

·         The architecture of the Dunhuang caves can be grouped into three types, based on: the construction styles inspired by the various religious practices; the influences from India and Central Asia; and the needs of the people at different periods in time.

Figure 1: Cave 285, example of a Vihar cave

·         1. Meditation Cave — This earlier type of cave has a square or rectangular main chamber, with meditation cell openings along both sides of the mai(west) niche (Figure 1). This design was derived from the Vihara (monks’ resident) style of India, such as those found in the Ajanta caves. When cave construction first started in China, they were mainly constructed and decorated with Indian characteristics mixed with Chinese traits.

·         The size of the meditation cells is only one to two square metres each, just big enough for one person to practise sitting meditation. The cave ceiling is either flat or in a truncated pyramidal shape.

·         Today only three caves of this type exist in Dunhuang.

·         2. Central-pillared Cave — This type of cave (Figure 2) has a rectangular main chamber with a central square pillar, niches on each side of it, a gable ceiling at the front part and a flat ceiling at the back portion of the cave. This design was derived from the Chaitya (assembly or prayer hall that houses a stupa) type of Indian architecture.

·         A stupa is a religious structure that serves as a receptacle for relics; it can also be just a site of worship and pilgrimage (called chaitya in this case), representing the Buddha. It may be in the shape of a dome, mound, or pagoda and must have an odd number of storeys.

Figure 2: Cave 428, example of a Chaitya (Central-pillared) cave

·         The central square pillar in the caves served as a stupa for devotees to worship or practice circumambulation (walking meditation around the stupa in clockwise direction). The gable ceiling is to imitate the traditional Chinese wooden structure.

·         This type of cave was the most popular from the earliest period until the Northern Zhou (557-581).

·         3. Assembly Hall — This type of cave (Figure 3), mainly for devout Buddhists to gather and worship, has a square or rectangular assembly hall with a main niche. It became popular from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) onwards, and most caves in Dunhuang are of this type. Usually the cave has one or more statues on an altar or in a niche in the main wall facing the entrance. Later, the main niches and the dais were changed to different shapes or styles, but the overall design of the cave remained the same.

Figure 3: Cave 249, example of an Assembly Hall cave

·         The cave ceiling is usually of truncated pyramidal shape. The decorated coffer inset at the crown of this ceiling, called zaojing, is known in the West as a laternen decke, or lambrequin ceiling. (The fabulous designs of zaojing are discussed elsewhere in this article in the section titled “Decorative Patterns and Zaojing”.)

·         4. Others — Since the 8th century, other special kinds of caves were constructed. Small square caves, each with the statue (or painted image) of a prominent monk in it, were used as memorial chapels. Also, some rustic caves, sealed with mud and serving as graves for the monks, were built in the northern section.

·         In the Western Xia (1036-1227) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, a round multi-layered altar (or stupa) in the centre of the chamber became a new feature of the caves.

·         In addition, there are some residential caves for monks, which contained cooking facilities. They are very simple and rustic, and also built in the northern area.

·         According to records, elaborate outdoor wooden eaves and passages connected the caves to each other, which must have looked gorgeous. Few of these wooden structures remain today, including only five eaves from the Late Tang and early Song, of which three still have paintings, as well as one wooden octagon stupa from the early Song.

B. The Polychromed Statues

There are 2415 statues remaining in Dunhuang, although many of them were restored in the Qing dynasty (1638-1911). Those still untouched are very valuable. The art styles of Chinese Buddhist statues were originally influenced by the Gandhara and Mathura styles in India, along with some other characteristics from Central Asia. Gandhara (present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan) was invaded by Alexander the Great in 327 BC, and then became an Indian Buddhist kingdom ruled by the Kushans (descendants of the Yuezhi from northwestern China) from 60 BC-c.230 AD. Gandhara art style has deep Hellenistic influences. Statues of Buddha were sculpted with him having a straight, sharply chiseled nose and brow, classical lips, wavy hair, drapery robes and contemplative attitude (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Buddha in Gandhara style


Figure 2: Buddha in Mathura Style

Mathura is a city in northern India, very close to its capital Delhi. Like Gandhara, it is celebrated for its art style. While the Gandhara School portrayed a realistic style, the Mathura school strove to impart a sublime and spiritual impression to the Buddha figure. Buddha images in this period are typified by round cheeks, fleshy lips, almond eyes, high-arched eyebrows, and short, snail-like curly hair. These Buddhas are wearing light robes, which look transparent, and are even symbolized by drawing only a few lines (Figure 2). The Buddha images are augmented with an elaborately decorated nimbus.

Both the Gandhara and Mathura art centres developed their styles at the same time, continued for several centuries in India, and reached their zenith in Buddhist images during the reign of Kanishka, the Buddhist Kushan king (127-147 AD). The Mathura style exercised considerable influence on subsequent styles and paved the way for the emergence of Gupta art (c.320-550 AD), considered to be India’s “Golden Age”. These two schools then absorbed features from each other, sharing characteristics between them.

Figure 3: Example of early statues with Central Asian influences, Cave 275

Since the caves of the Dunhuang Grottoes are located in a cliff composed of sandstone, fine sculpting or stone carvings are not possible. Usually a statue was modeled in clay stucco over a reed bound armature (or over a sandstone base for a colossal Buddha) and then polychromed. Lively shapes created by sculpting are complemented by paintings, which can produce decorations not achievable by the former. In Dunhuang, one can see statues of Buddha, Bodhisattva, disciples, devarajas (the Four Heavenly Kings, Guardians of the four directions), and others. In the earliest period, there was usually a Buddha by himself or with two flanking Bodhisattvas in the main niche. Later on, two disciples, usually identified as Kasyapa and Ananda, were added beside him. Then, protectors of Buddhism, devaraja and vajrapani (literally, the one who holds a thunderbolt, and appears as a wrestler in Chinese art) were added at the outside edge of the niche. According to the sutras, a Buddha (usually dressed as a monk) has 32 auspicious signs, some of which have become stereotypical for his images, such as urna (the white curl between his eyebrows), usnisa (the fleshy protuberance on his head), and elongated ear loops.

Figure 4: Bodhisattva in pensive pose, Cave 257

Usually, the images of Buddha, dressed in monk form, are sitting or standing in different asana (poses) with different mudras (hand gestures). Their robes are worn with the right shoulder exposed or both shoulders covered. The Bodhisattvas appear as Indian royalty — they wear a high headdress and/or crown, are luxuriously jeweled, and have a dhoti (loin-cloth for Indian men) featuring dense and detailed patterns. In China, Buddha of the future, Maitreya, is dressed in the clothes of either a monk (as a Buddha) or a nobleman (as a Bodhisattva), depending on the scene he is in. In the early 5th century caves, such as Cave 275, Maitreya looks bold and vigorous (Figure 3), which was the ideal of northern Chinese men with nomadic characteristics. His dress and decorative style, his crown, his sitting position and the triangular back of the throne are elements influenced by the Gandhara art imported through Central Asia. There are some smaller statues of Bodhisattva in pensive pose (Figure 4), which influenced the artists in Korea and Japan in the 6th to 7th centuries in the creation of several world-renowned statues in wood, stone and bronze.

Figure 5: The Northern Wei statue, Cave 259

Since the Northern Wei (439-534), Buddha’s unisha is higher and his robe drapery is thicker. Crossed-legs become his most popular sitting pose. The proportions match the human size and the depictions are more realistic. His rustic face, displaying a serene smile, is famous for expressing meditative peace (Figure 5). Starting from the Northern Zhou (557-581), the statues in the main niche are in groups. The Buddhas have big heads, wide shoulders and short legs, which was the popular esthetic in northern China; the Bodhisattvas are petite and agile and look very similar to those excavated in Kucha (present-day Xinjiang, China) and Afghanistan. In the Sui (581-618) the art style in Dunhuang was in a period of transition. Sinicization of foreign art styles was re-established in the unified empire. The pantheon in the main niche was enriched — there are more statues in each group and the Buddha’s look is imposing and sturdy yet full of serenity and compassion. The Buddhas, of stout build and in rustic robes, show the beauty of fullness in size. Together with their arched eyebrow and plump cheeks, the expression is distinctly Chinese. Sui statues continued to have a beautiful face with a big head and short legs. Such proportions let people see the Buddha/Bodhisattva’sface clearly when looking up at it (Figure 6). The Bodhisattvas, in nobility form, are in a naturally tilted standing pose. The patterns designed on their attire are very detailed, and mixed with influences from the Persian Sasanian Dynasty (224-651 AD).

Figure 6: The indigenized art style in the Sui, Cave 427

In the early period, the back of the main statues are attached to the wall, except for their heads, which were made separately and then put on top of the bodies. In addition, there are many molded figures, such as the Bodhisattva, apsaras (the flying celestia,ls) and the Thousand-Buddha motif, in bas-relief attached to the walls. Most of them are in miniature. Fully detached statues were not made until the 7th century. The first half of Tang marked the rising power and prosperity of the empire. This period was divided into the Early Tang (618-705) and the High (Flourishing) Tang (705-781) during which Dunhuang art reached its apex. The two colossal Buddhas made in this time reflected the strength and self-confidence of the empire. The statues, in general, were proportionate, radiating health and elegance (Figure 7). The Bodhisattva underwent further feminization. They are plump, graceful and lustrous, sitting in lalita pose (one leg crossed while the other pendent), or standing in a soft and relaxing pose, apparently resembling the curves of the letter “S” (Figure 8).

Figure 7: The Tang Buddha, Cave 328  

Figure 8: The Tang Bodhisattva,Cave 45

The flanking disciples of the Buddha, usually identified as Ananda (Figure 9) and Kasyapa (Figure 10), have changed completely from their Indian look to that of Chinese. Both of them wear splendidly decorated robes, but display the contrast between the clever, handsome and calm face of the younger one, and the weather-beaten face and protruding ribs of the older ascetic.

Figure 9: Ananda, Cave 45  

Figure 10: Kasyapa, Cave 419

In the Tang, the statues were made fully detached from the wall so they could be admired from all angles. Compared with previous styles, these are more realistic and more secular. These figures were made to resemble real people, such as beautiful court ladies, virile generals and learned monks. Colouring and the gilding technique are also splendid in this period. The gold, vermilion (made of cinnabar), green (made of malachite and/or turquoise) and blue (made of lapis and/or azurite) constitute a brilliant composition. 

Figure 11: The Buddha’s Nirvana, Cave 158

In the Middle Tang (781 to 848), as the empire was declining, vast areas including Dunhuang were occupied by the Tubo (Tibetans). Generally the Dunhuang statues in this period lost their vigorous spirit, and became more delicate, secular and humanized. They lost their nature of divinity in order to be closer to the people.

Figure 12: The Song statues, Cave 55

One of the exceptional works from this period is the Buddha’s Nirvana (his demise) (Figure 11). This enormous Buddha, with a round face and half closed eyes, looks very serene, elegant and relaxed. The soft lines on his neck and folds in his robe were created with many curved lines, while his whole body looks strong and virile. It is the perfect combination of the beauty of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine). Nirvana refers to the sense of liberation from existence. The enlightened Bodhisattvas standing behind the Buddha are admiring him, but many of his disciples and the laity are full of sorrow. The three groups of statues in Cave 55 (dated to the Song, 960-1276) are the only statues constructed after the Tang that still exist in Dunhuang (Figure 12). In general, techniques of sculpting, the drapery folds and attire design were copied from the Tang.

C. Murals

Murals, which can express rich content and complicated scenes better than statues, are a very important part of Dunhuang art. A mural is a painting on a treated wall. Three layers of plaster were applied to the rock to provide a smooth surface upon which to paint. In Dunhuang caves, almost all of the walls, and even the ceilings, have paintings. There are seven kinds of murals in Dunhuang, categorized according to their content:
1. Buddhist Images
2. Narratives of Buddhist Stories
3. Historical Stories of Buddhist Events
4. Narratives from the Sutra (Jingbian)
5. Decorative Patterns and Zaojing
6. Apsaras (The Flying Celestials)
7. Portraits of Donors
8. Yun-ran – a painting technique

C.1 Buddhist Images

The statues of Buddhas, disciples, Bodhisattvas and devaraja in the main niches are the worship objects and draw the most attention in a cave. In wall areas with few or no statues, their painted images are as important. Preaching Buddhas (usually in groups) were very prevalent during the early period. The early preaching Buddhas, such as those in Cave 248 (Western Wei), look dignified, and the many flanking Bodhisattvas, standing in a soft waving pose, are very lively. Unfortunately the flesh colour has darkened over time due to the oxidation of lead in the red pigment. 

Figure 1 : The Western Wei figures look like the ideal immortals, Cave 263

During the Western Wei, under influences from metropolitan China, the images had a new appearance. They wear Chinese style attire and the expressions look like ideal Chinese immortals. In Cave 263, the images of the three preaching Buddhas are all facing front (Figure 1). This mural was covered by another painting applied later in Western Xia (1036-1227). The top layer was removed recently, revealing the bottom painting in brilliant undimmed colours. The base colour is reddish brown but highlights are in azure blue. The combination is simple and displays the tone of harmony.

Figure 2 : Thousand-Buddha motif, Cave 263

The Thousand-Buddha motif has always been very popular. Usually these Buddhas are 10-20 cm in height, in four different colours and designs, and are arranged in a regular repeated pattern in each row. The colour scheme of these images in multiple rows filling large areas of the wall creates a dominating effect of slanting rays radiating onto the walls. Some of these miniatures are not just painted but moulded in bas-relief and attached to the wall. Figure 2 shows the different styles of two periods. The greenish motif (top layer) was painted in the Western Xia (1036-1277). When part of this layer was removed, the original Northern Wei mural (reddish brown) was revealed. Buddha is always in the foreground of the niches or paintings. Since the Northern Zhou, Bodhisattvas started to appear, either flanking the Buddha or by themselves. In the Sui and Tang, they became more prominent and noble-like, appearing dressed in splendid attire.

Figure 3 : Thousand-armed Guanyin, Cave 14

Avalokitesvara (Guan-yin, Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion) is the most well known of the Bodhisattvas. He wears sumptuous clothes and jewelry, and sometimes has a Buddha on his crown. He looks like a noble lady and, after the Tang, he has many female characteristics. Later on, he even becomes the main theme (or image) on the whole wall because of his compassion in providing salvation to all suffering beings. In Vajrayana Buddhism, his eleven-headed, thousand-armed and thousand-eyed form symbolizes that he is mighty, and can be everywhere to help people who are in peril (Figure 3).

Figure 4 : Guardian of the North at ceiling corner. Cave 108

The other popular Bodhisattvas are Manjusri, Bodhisattva of Transcendental Wisdom, and Samantabhadra, Bodhisattva of Universal Good. They always appear as a pair in Chinese art, one at each side of the main niche or at the entrance. Since the mid-Tang, Ksitigarbha, Saviour of Suffering Beings in Hell, has also been popular. There are also figures of devaraja and vajrapani, who are protecting the land and people. Since they are of less importance, they always stand at the edges or outside of the niches, or in the dado part of the walls. After the Five Dynasties, the devaraja became so popular that they were painted at the four corners of the ceiling to look after the cave and their devotees (Figure 4).

C.2 Narratives of Buddhist Stories

Painting the narratives in sequences began in the Western Wei. The mode of expression varies from painting to painting: single theme, in groups, in episodes, gigantic illustrations of sutras or in panels. In the early period, the themes were about the life of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, and his previous lives (known as Jataka tales). 

Figure 1 : The Great Departure (Cave 329, Early Tang)

The heroic acts are highlighted in the foreground with small mountains in the background. They are beautiful paintings but usually flat without a three-dimensional effect. There are usually eight scenes in Sakyamuni’s life story, each of which can be an independent theme of a mural. The most popular ones are: The Conception, in which the Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) is riding solemnly on an elephant descending to Earth; The Great Departure, in which Prince Siddhartha is riding on a horse as if flying to leave his father’s palace to search for the meaning of life (Figure 1); and The Enlightenment and the Defeat of Mara, of which there is a prominent example in Cave 254 (Figure 2). In this painting, Sakyamuni is attacked by Mara (the king of demons), his armed soldiers and three beautiful daughters, who symbolize all kinds of illusion. Fear and temptation are eventually subjugated and he reaches enlightenment. He sits serenely, with his left hand in meditative mudra and his right hand holding his robe. The murals have rich and complex plots, compact compositions and vigorous lines depicting muscular images. 

Figure 2 : The Enlightenment moment (Cave 254, Northern Wei)

Until the Northern Wei, multiple scenes of a story are depicted in a panel. The arrangement was then changed to the Chinese style with the scenes in horizontal rows, similar to traditional scroll painting. In Cave 290, episodes of 87 scenes of Buddha’s life were painted in three registers on both slopes of the gable ceiling (Figure 3). The drawing is clear and fluent and the colours are simple and mild, with buildings and landscape separating the scenes and as backdrop. It is the best mural illustrating Buddha’s whole life in the early period.

Figure 3 : Life story of Sakyamuni in three registers (Cave 290, Northern Zhou)

Cave 61 contains a mural illustrating the whole life of Sakyamuni, consisting of 128 scenes in the dado part of the south, west and north walls. It is very rich in content, reflecting contemporary activities including court life, banquets, archery competition and horse racing, farming, and life of the populace.

Figure 4 : Ruru (the Deer King) jataka, Cave 257, Northern Wei

Not only was Sakyamuni’s life a popular theme, but so were his previous lives (Jataka). There are more than 500 known jataka tales in Buddhism, each representing one of Buddha’s countless previous lives, such as: Prince Mahasattva offering his own body to feed a starving tigress and her cubs; King Sivi offering his flesh to save a dove; Prince Sudana giving up all his belongings, including his own children; and Deer King Ruru forgiving the betrayal of a man he saved from drowning (Figure 4). These examples of famous jataka tales depicted in Mogauku all emphasize Sakyamuni’s countless good deeds and self-sacrifice in his previous lives while accumulating merits for his enlightenment. These tales also reveal the law of Karma (one’s deeds) and causality by distinguishing between the beneficial and harmful effects of good or evil karma.

C.3 Historical Stories of Buddhist Events

Figure 1 : Welcoming the stone Buddha statues (Cave 323, High Tang)

Some of the murals are related to historical events. In Cave 323, there are eight stories in total on the rectangular space on the south and north walls. They are not displayed horizontally or independently, but in a unified composition and are separated with landscape. Here the mature technique of landscape drawing called “Boneless” (wugu), which has no outline, was employed. Continuous and natural mountains are used not only for separating the episodes and for decoration, but are also part of the story and are used to strengthen the expression. One of those stories is The two stone statues of the Buddha floating on the river (Figure 1). Two stone statues suddenly appear floating on the river (top right). The Daoists want to welcome them but are stopped by a storm. When Buddhists, old and young, monks and laity, walk or ride ox to welcome them, the weather turns favourable, and the statues come close to shore and are carried back to the town by boat to be worshipped. This painting is one of the best from the Tang. It shows contemporary costume, means of transportation and social life in a lusty manner.

C.4 Narratives from the Sutra (jingbian)

Visual art is very helpful in propagating religious doctrine, especially for the long and complicated sutras. Illustrations from many sutras are depicted in Dunhuang (several of which are described briefly in this website’s glossary), such as: the Lotus Sutra, the sutras about Maitreya, Amitabha, Medicine Buddha and Vimalakirti, Sutra of the Wise and Foolish (Damamuk-nidana Sutra), Sutra of the Descent to the Island of Lanka(Lankavataram Sutra), Sutra of Golden Light (Suvarna-prabhasa Sutra), Sutra of the Great Demise (Mahaparinirvana Sutra), Sutra of Requiting Blessing Received, and Sutra of the Field of Merits. 

Figure 1 : Ajatasatruusurps the Throne (Cave 45, High Tang)

In the story of Prince Ajatasatru, illustrated in Cave 45, the scenes on the vertical margin run in sequence from the bottom upwards (Figure 1). Ajatasatru usurps the throne by imprisoning his father King Bimbisara (and eventually kills him). His mother Queen Vaidehi secretly brings food to the king, but is discovered by their son and is also imprisoned. She calls on the Buddha for help and asks for a paradise where she can be reborn. The Buddha appears and teaches her the sixteen ways of visualization, which provides devotees a simple method of meditation and the hope of rebirth to a paradise. Here the artists painted various architectures to separate the independent scenes, which is different from the horizontal style in the earlier period. In addition, the expression is now more mature.

The story scenes in Dunhuang started with a single painting and evolved into complicated episodes. The Jataka tales in the early period have more foreign influence — the style is quite simple, bold and uninhibited, and with more floral decoration. Since the 6th century, artists employed horizontal composition with landscape and buildings, a style from metropolitan China used to enrich the content and enliven plots to create complexity. Since the High Tang, vertical margins were very popular and were usually painted on both sides of the main theme — the Pure Land.

Episode drawing reached its apex in the High Tang but became less important in Dunhuang murals afterwards. Buddhism had been very popular at the time and the basic doctrines, like Sakyamuni’s life stories and the Jataka tales, were already well known. These depictions were no longer needed in detail, while the depictions of paradise (the Pure Lands) or the preaching scene from a sutra became more attractive. The most popular ones are on the Lotus Sutra, Virmalakirti Sutra, Mahaparinirvana Sutra, and the Pure Lands of Amitayus, Maitreya and Medicine Buddha.

Huge depictions of Pure Lands with rich content and complex composition were created in the Tang. Everything is arranged neatly in order and viewers do not perceive any confusion. Proportions between the main figures, the secondary ones and the backdrop became progressively more rational. As well, artists became very skilled in employing the “bird’s-eye” perspective.

The depiction of Pure Land is more symmetrical than in earlier murals and became the model for paradise paintings of the High Tang and later. The preaching scene (Figure 2), although still in the centre of the painting, is now surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped architectural complex of grand buildings, which are copies of the palaces or great monasteries in the capital. Below the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are terraces over a lotus pond. On the terraces are smaller Buddha groups, musicians and dancers. This is an illustration of the perfect world people could only imagine.

Figure 2 : The Western Pure Land and related stories on vertical margins (Cave 217, High Tang)

Beside the paradise scene are vertical margins with depictions providing more explanation of the sutras. The scenes are separated by mountains and rivers. The episodes are all depicted in Chinese style. Many of these landscape paintings were by prominent but unknown artists of the “Bright Green Landscape” school, which reached its golden era in the Tang. Such paintings in Dunhuang are extremely valuable because no authentic work by the grandmasters of this school can be found anywhere else. They emphasized the techniques of outlining and the use of bright colours. Other than paintings of this school, there are plenty wonderful examples of landscape paintings of other style in Dunhuang as well. During the later part of the Tang, some narrative panels appeared below the main scenes to provide further explanation of the main theme. For example, the sixteen ways of visualization on the panels describes the details that could help people to be reborn in the Amitayus (Amitabha) paradise depicted in the main painting.

C.5 Decorative Patterns and Zaojing

The Lotus, one of the most important metaphors in Buddhism, is the most common motif in the murals in Dunhuang. The flowers grow in muddy ponds, but raise their blossoms — clean, beautiful and fragrant — high above the water. It symbolizes transcendence and purification. 

Figure 1 : Floral pattern under gable ceiling, Cave 427 

Figure 2 : Zaojing (Cave 428, Northern Zhou)

In the early period many caves contained a central pillar. The ceiling in the front portion of the cave was gabled and the back was flat. On the gable ceiling, imitation rafters were painted with lotus and palmette. Sometimes, souls born, from the lotus, or birds such as peacocks or parrots, were painted in between the rafters (Figure 1). Many designs, suc,,h as plants, pearl medallions, geometric shapes, flames or animals are used to decorate the niche lintels. Bands of floral scrolling or flame-shapes are common bandings decorating the halo, nimbus and mandorla. These designs and pa,tterns are very ornamental. The flat ceiling is usually an interlocking floret design w,ith a large lotus inside the square, while a quarter lotus, flame or apsaras is at each corner (Figure 2). The zaojing (decorated coffer) of an assembly hall cave has the most attractive patterns. They are filled with floral, faunal and geometric designs, shaped like a square canopy symbolizing heaven and imparting a splendid and dignified aura. This also characterizes the Chinese cave temples.

Figure 3 : Zaojing (Cave 407, Sui)

The four sides of the zaojing (usually with a lotus in the centre) are enclosed by a border with layer after layer of designs. Triangular valances, embellished with tassels or other layers of designs, are in the outermost border. The zaojing motif became more important and more complicated since the Sui. The famous one in Cave 407 (Figure 3) has an eight-petal and double-layered lotus. In the centre are three rabbits running in a circle. Only three rabbit ears were painted, but when one looks at each rabbit individually, they all seem to have two ears. Around the lotus are eight lively apsaras flying swiftly with a long sash. The dotted designs of petals or triangular valances of the outer square, adopted from Central Asia, are very often seen in silk and brocade in the Sui and Tang. The decorations of zaojing are even more sumptuous in the Tang. In Cave 329, the centre is a circle composed of lotus petals, symbolizing the dharmacakra (Turning of the dharma Wheel). Outside of the lotus is the azure sky with coloured clouds floating and apsaras flying. It looks gorgeous and dynamic.

Figure 4 : Zaojing with grape and pomegranate designs (Cave 209, Early Tang)

The decorated zaojing in Early Tang are refreshingly innovative. The spacious coffer of Cave 209 is filled with grape and pomegranate designs, with crisscrossing creepers ingeniously symbolizing a bumper harvest, thus breaking the earlier monotony of using only lotus as the main theme (Figure 4).

Figure 5 : Lifenduijin technique (zaojing in Cave 61,Western Xia)

In the Five Dynasties, in addition to the colourful floral designs from the Tang, the traditional Chinese dragon and phoenix patterns also became popular. The colours of zaojing are no longer gaudy; instead, the background is in green or blue with reddish brown, and the objects in focus are highlighted in gold. The centre motif has a coiled dragon encircled by four small dragons, and are accompanied by colourful floral scrolls and clouds (Figure 5). The image is both elegant and dignified. The dragons are embossed and gilded by a technique called li-fen-dui-jin (literally, squeezing plaster and adhering gold foil on the painting). The method is similar to that of decorating a cake with cream — plaster is mixed with glue, and then squeezed on lines or spots of a painting, such as at the image of a dragon or jewelry; then gold foil is glued while the plaster dries. It gives the effect of resplendent bas-relief.

C.6 Apsaras (The Flying Celestials)

The images of apsaras should be classified as a kind of Buddhist figure, but because they are unique in Dunhuang art, they are described in a separate topic. Apsaras was originally a female spirit of the cloud and water in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. It is also said that she was the wife of Gandhara, court servant of the Hindu god Indra. Later on these two names, gandhara and apsaras, were used to refer to the heavenly musicians and their wives, respectively. The apsaras are also the handmaidens of Indra and one of their duties is to dance before his throne, since they are accomplished dancers. In Buddhist sutras, the scenes of celestials (male and female) singing, dancing and/or scattering petals to praise the Buddha and other saints are often described. These images arrived in China and, together with Buddhism, played an important role in Chinese art, even more so than in their native land. From then on, the term “apsaras” in China refers to the flying celestials in either gender, young or old, monks or laity, singular or plural (although it has a plural form apsarasas in Sanskrit). 

Figure 1 : Apsaras (Cave 257, Northern Wei)

In the Northern Liang and the Northern Wei (421-534), the apsaras are quite short and in a “V” shape pose (sometimes in a 90 degree bend) (Figure 1). They have naked upper torsos with flying scarves and wear dhoti as long skirts. They are heavy with stout builds, but they dance vigorously, looking like the wind blowing in the caves.

During the Western Wei, apsaras was understood to be a type of immortal of Chinese legends, who could float and roam in the air in tremendous curving lines. They appear together with the immortals, such as xi-wang-mu (Queen Mother of the West), the Thunder God and the Wind God. It shows that apsaras and immortals were placed into the same category by the Chinese when Buddhism first arrived in China. In fact, they are also called “Flying immortals” (feixian飛僊) as recorded in inscriptions in Dunhuang.

In the Northern Zhou, the images of apsaras reverted to the earlier style with strong influences from Central Asia. Looking strong and sporty, they are usually naked above the waist, wear dhoti and have bare feet. Some are even completely naked (see photos of Cave 428, Grotto Highlights), which is popular in India but very rare in China because of the different sensitivity to being naked.

Figure 2 : Apsaras in Sui (Cave 427)

In the Sui, they appear in groups. In Cave 427, at the top of the wall, is a band of apsaras sailing in the azure sky above the heavenly balcony (Figure 2). The simple contoured figures, their scarves and clouds all flying, create a beautiful and dynamic scene. In Cave 412, there are 26 apsaras on the ceiling of the niche. They are holding lotus or jewellery, playing musical instruments, dancing and scattering petals. Some of them are monks. They are all diving or floating on the reddish brown backdrop, imparting a happy and bustling atmosphere.

Dunhuang art reached its zenith in the Tang. The depiction of apsaras is also mature and perfected at this time. They are no longer in the stiff “V” shape, but are rich in the representation of the aesthetics of the human body.
The Early Tang apsaras are not shown as flying rapidly, but have a more relaxed appearance. On the ceiling of the niche in Cave 321, several apsaras are leaning along the heavenly balcony, scattering petals or looking down curiously at the secular world. They are in different lithe and graceful poses. Above them, another group of apsaras are diving in a very soft and natural pose. Each scarf and each movement displays impeccable art work.
In the High Tang, the apsaras are relatively slim and impressive. In Cave 39 (Figure 3), their long flowing scarves even flutter outside the boundary of the panel, providing a sense of breaking free. It looks as though they are really descending to earth.

Figure 3 : Apsaras (Cave 39, High Tang)

On the south wall of Cave 320 (Figure 4), the two apsaras in the centre (with headdress in fashion for Tang ladies) are holding a lotus on one hand and stretching another one as if they are scattering petals. They turn back to look at their scattering petal hands in a relaxed pose. The outer two apsaras, with more pronounced movement, are stretching both arms and chasing the ones in front. Each group makes for dramatic contrast. All of them are dressed in long skirts made of red brocade with beautiful patterns, and their feet are covered. They make a very natural curve to decorate the canopy and ingeniously fill up the empty corners. Although it is said that they are the most beautiful apsaras in Dunhuang, there are many others that are of equal beauty.

Figure 4 : Two pairs of apsaras (Cave 320, High Tang)

In the Middle Tang (the period of Tibetan rule), apsaras become plump and smaller in size compared with the previous ones, but they still have a noble bearing and are painted very delicately (Figure 5).

Figure 5 : Apsaras (Cave 159, Middle Tang)

Cave 158 focuses on the theme of Sakyamuni’s Parinirvana, so all apsaras look sad and solemn. One of them holds jewellery for an offering, sails slowly and is in deep mourning.
During the Late Tang and the Five Dynasties, Dunhuang was under control of the local magnates, the Zhangs and the Caos. Since the connection with metropolitan China was not as close as before, the development of art was isolated and declining. Although these two clans were also great supporters of Buddhism and Buddhist architecture, the art style was conservative and its glory waned.
At this time, apsaras appearing on the zaojing’s four corners were again in fashion. In Cave 161, the four apsaras are rich in colour, but only serve as a foil for the Avalokitesva in the centre, whose thousand arms are composed of many layers of circles, like a mandorla. On the frieze in the same cave, the apsaras still have the same appearance as they did in the Middle Tang (Figure 6).

Figure 6 : Band of apsaras on the slope (Cave 161, Late Tang)

From the Western Xia to the Yuan, some influences from both Han and non-Han combined to create a new style, but it never caught on.

Figure 7 : The Uyghur Apsaras (Cave 97, Tang)

Several apsaras in Cave 76 are depicted as lovely children. This style is quite popular in the Uyghur and Western Xia periods. Another example can be found in Cave 97 (Figure 7), illustrating one of the two boy apsaras in the main niche. His head is shaved except for two tiny pigtails. He wears leather clothes and a pair of red boots. Those were typical ethnic costumes of the Uyghur. In the Yuan, many apsaras also have the appearance of a child — short and chubby. The two illustrated on the north wall of Cave 3 are rich in colour, each with a lotus in one hand and a bud in the other, looking downward. It seems as if they are going to dive. Their lovely images may be the stereotype that the people of the Song and Yuan were fond of. In general, the techniques to depict apsaras after the Tang are just copies of the Tang style, while their expressions and movements are platitudinous and monotonic.

C.7 Portraits of Donors

The images of donors are very important in Dunhuang since they make up a huge proportion of the mural surface. The basic motive behind the donation is to attain merit. It could be for the donor’s own spiritual well-being and/or worldly happiness. Alternatively, it could be transferred to others, such as deceased parents for the salvation of their souls, or members of the family so that all could be reunited in paradise.

Construction of a cave was funded by donations from a group of monks and/or laity, or by a single family. Many caves have donors’ portraits with inscriptions in cartouches beside the donors. Therefore, their names, origins and ranks, the merits they wished to have, etc. could be identified. However, these images, showing a contemporary, idealized look, were not realistic representations of the donors.

In the early period, long rows of donors’ portraits, in contemporary dress, were painted in less prominent areas, such as on the side walls in small rows, under the niches or under the main paintings. Later, they were painted on the dado part of the walls. For instance, the band, containing 70 donor figures, above the niches and below the six triads in Cave 285 is only 18 cm high (Figure 1).

Figure 1 : The donors (Cave 285, Western Wei)

The names on the cartouches and the costumes show that many of them were not Han (the majority ethnic group in China), but were minorities, such as the Xianbei from Northern China and the Sogdians (from present-day Samarkand). 

Figure 2 : Lady Wang with two daughters and 9 maids (Cave 130, High Tang, mural copy)

From the Sui (581-618) on, it became increasingly popular to add families, entourages and servants to the depiction of donor processions of high ranking local officials. The images of the entourages and servants are usually smaller in scale, overlapped, and without inscriptions. They carry canopies, parasols, ceremonial fans, swords, etc. (Figure 2). During the middle Tang (781-848), Dunhuang was controlled by the Tubo (Tibetan) who were very fond of building Buddhist monasteries and constructing caves. Their kings were also very happy to be the main donors and be placed in a prominent part of the painting. The best example can be found in Cave 159. Control of the Hexi area was regained by Zhang Yichao, the local magnate. This started the Late Tang period (848-906) of Dunhuang art. Depictions of his and his wife’s triumphal processions (in Cave 156) and portraits of eminent monks (in Cave 17) provided a new stimulus for the artists, replacing the stereotypical Pure Land scenes. Portraits of donors increased in number and size in the Five Dynasties and the Song. When Zhang’s successors, the Caos, were in power, they supported the renovation of existing caves and the construction of new ones. They had these caves decorated with their images in life-size or even larger.

The Caos controlled the Hexi area for 122 years. They formed alliances with their neighbours, the Uyghurs and the Khotan, and with the local elites, which can be noted by the inscriptions beside the portraits in the caves. In Cave 98, the Khotanese king’s huge portrait is 2.92m tall, and his robe and decorations are depicted in detail. The Caos’ female members portrayed in the large caves constructed or renovated at that time (Caves 61, 98, 100 & 108) were all painted with elaborate attire and jewelry. Even the make-up on their faces is still clearly visible today.

Figure 3: Khotanese Princess (Cave 61, Five Dynasties)  


Figure 4: Uyghurs King & Prince (Cave 409, Five Dynasties)

During the Western Xia and Yuan (1271-1368), more non-Han people, such as the Mongolians, were painted in the procession of donors. These images are extremely valuable for studying the politics and ethnic costumes and customs of the time.

Yun-ran (晕染) — a painting technique

During the 4th century, a new technique of image colouring from India, called Yunran, was assimilated into the Chinese painting technique. One lineage of this school became an important method by which the three-dimensional effect was rendered in China.

This integrated technique is also called Aotufa (凹凸法,the concave-and-convex technique), and similar to the Chiaroscuro style in Europe (a technique using light and dark with strong contrasts).However, this method is no longer used in China, and no examples exist except in Dunhuang. This is probably because it is difficult to employ this technique when applying ink or colours on the texture of paper used for Chinese painting. This painting technique is illustrated with an image from Cave 257 (Northern Wei).

Figure 1: The image as seen today.  

Figure 2: Step 1 Draw draft in reddish brown lines on the wall

Figure 3: Step 2 Fill the background in red  

Figure 4: Step 3Paint the white undercoat for the skin of the image

Figure 5: Step 4 Apply red in different shades to the skin.  


Figure 6: Step 5
Highlight the protruding parts of the face and body, such as the bridge of the nose,
the cheeks and chin,

 in white to emphasize the luster. The final step is to outline the contour in black ink.

When the technique further developed, different shades of red were applied on the face of a figure to show a beautiful and healthy-looking skin (same as today’s cosmetic make-up). The technique was also used on floral scrolls and landscape paintings.