Location:Home >> Dunhuang - Silk Road >>Content
Dunhuang Artisans and Patrons
Author:by Lou Jie, Liang Xushu, and Huang Yuanwei Published:2014.3.24 Views:

Construction of a Buddhist cave shrine at Dunhuang involved a series of steps: preparing the cliff face, excavating the cave, making paintings and sculpture, and building the decorative eaves and temple halls. Specialized artisans were needed for each step in the building of such caves.

Sources of Dunhuang's painters and artisans

Textual research and analysis of art styles of different periods show that the painters and artisans at the Dunhuang caves came from many different places. They were mainly composed of the following types:

1.Painters coming from the Western Regions (Central Asia west of Yumen) along with the transmission of Buddhism.

2.Artisans coming with ousted officials or powerful families, part of the migration from the China’s Central Plains to the frontiers.

3.Artisans coming with officials appointed by Chinese emperors.

4.Painters coming from the Central Plains.

5.Ethnic minority painters from bordering areas like Tibet or Mongolia, bringing with them new art styles and techniques during the Tibetan Occupation, the Western Xia dynasty, and the Yuan dynasty.

Fig. 1. Origins of the Dunhuang Artisans.

Division of labor among the artisans at Mogao

Patrons and donors hired specialized, highly accomplished artisans to construct the Mogao Grottoes. The artisans were divided into lianggong (excellent workmen), who hollowed out the caves from the cliff face, and qiaojiang (skilled artisans), who created the paintings and sculptures.

Therefore, construction of caves involved detailed division of labor from the very beginning. They include the following:

1.Chiselers who carved the cave into the cliff.

2.Stonecutters who handled stone materials and stone tools and also excavated caves.

3.Bricklayers who built wooden or earthen structures.

4.Carpenters who built structures and also made and repaired wooden tools.

5.Sculptors who modeled and colored the clay figures.

6.Painters who made the paintings.

Within these groups, artisans were ranked according to their technical ability as follows:

1.The duliao (dushi, dujiang), which refers to the highly skilled artisans who could develop and oversee the plan for a project as well as execute the technical work.

2.The boshi, which refers to senior artisans who had mastered technologies and could undertake difficult technical work; they could also independently implement a technical undertaking in the field. There were boshi in all kinds of trades.

3.The shi (master), who were mainly highly-ranked painters and sculptors. Technically, they should at least be boshi. Any boshi among the painters and sculptors who could teach disciples could be addressed as shi or master.

4.The jiang, which refers to those able to undertake general technical work. They accounted for the majority of the artisans.

5.The sheng, which refers to the level at which painters could paint under the guidance of masters or independently.

In the late Tang, Five Dynasties, Song, and perhaps some earlier periods, imperial and local “Painting Studios” and similar civil guilds were founded in which a group of highly skilled Buddhist art experts made a living by creating Buddhist paintings on silk or paper and in caves. Most painters from local painting studios or guilds were hired to paint the caves at Dunhuang.

Patrons of the Dunhuang caves

Construction of caves required a lot of manpower and financial resources. The people usually associated with commissioning cave construction at Dunhuang are as follows:

1.Powerful or noble families—they were the only group who could sponsor an entire cave or build a large cave.

2.Frontier generals and soldiers.

3.Temple monks and nuns as well as lay persons.

4.Commoners—devout believers, community members, merchants, artisans, and the like—who due to their lower social position and financial limitations would usually come together to build a cave.

5.Elite members of ethnic minorities, such as the king of Khotan and Uighur princesses.