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Mogao Cave 323 (Early Tang –Song 618-960AD)
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This is a mid-sized, Early Tang cave with an antechamber and a corridor. The main square chamber has a truncated pyramidal ceiling. The antechamber, corridor and the entrance wall were renovated in the Five Dynasties (907-960) and the Western Xia (1036-1227). A new layer of mural was painted on parts of the walls during each of the renovations. All paintings on the north and south walls, the ceilings of the cave and niche, and part of the east wall are originals.

 

Figure 1: Zhang Qian dispatched to the Western Region, north wall

The special feature of this cave are the murals, with rich content on the south and north walls illustrating the history of Buddhism in China. These paintings form a series of narratives arranged in chronological order from the Han to the Sui (the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD). Mountains and rivers are used to separate the scenes, but also link them together in harmony. The images at different distances are proportional. Tang landscape painting reached its zenith at this time.

On the north wall is the story of Zhang Qian being dispatched to the Western Region by Emperor Wu (who reigned 140-87 BC during the Han Dynasty). According to history, Zhang was sent with the intention of forming an alliance with Yue-zhi (a tribe originally northwest of China, which moved to the west to escape Xiong-nu) to fight against Xiong-nu (the Huns). Although his mission failed, he travelled as far as Bactria, and brought home very detailed information about Central Asia and even India, yet did not mention Buddhism. However, Chinese Buddhists liked to emphasize that their religion had been accepted by the Chinese about 120 years earlier than the formal history records. The murals depict Emperor Wu receiving two gold (or metal) statues after a victorious war and worshipping them in a palace where offerings were made to Heaven (Figure 1, top right). However, he did not know what and who these statues were. So he sent Zhang to the West again, who found that they were statues of Buddha. The scene (Figure 1, bottom) shows Emperor Wu on a horse, under a decorated canopy and followed by an entourage, sending Zhang, who kneels on ground, off on the journey.

Though this may not be precise historical fact, it is still a very good source for studying the Silk Road history and the interaction between China and Central Asia.  

 

Figure 2: Two stone Buddha statues floating on river, south wall

The first scene on the west side of the south wall (Figure 2) depicts the story of “Two Stone Buddhas Floating on the River,” which happened in 313 AD, according to Buddhist records. Depicted at the top right, two stone statues are found floating on a river near the estuary in south China. The Daoists (below the statues) want to welcome them but are stopped by a storm. The statues are not reachable until the Buddhists arrive. The weather turns favourable, and the statues come close to shore and are carried by boat to the town to be worshipped. The story may imply that Buddhism was transmitted to south China by sea. In the illustration, people are coming to welcome the statues. A man is pulling an ox with a woman and child sitting on it, and another woman is walking behind and whipping the ox (bottom right). They might be three generations of a family. These scenes vividly reflect contemporary methods of transportation and local life.

The second scene depicts the story of the bronze Buddha found in 326 AD in present-day Yangzhou, southeast China. People wanted to carry the statue into town in an ox-cart. But the ox stopped in front of a monastery by itself, so they placed the statue in the monastery to be worshipped. A year later, the lotus base of the statue was found. Forty-four years later, the mandolor was found. According to the Sanskrit inscription at the back of the lotus base, the statue was made by the fourth daughter of the great king Asoka, who united India in the 4th century BC and spread Buddhism to a vast area.

 

Figure 3: A bronze image of Buddha was found, south wall

As illustrated in Figure 3, radiating colourfully are the bronze statue (top-centre) and the lotus base (top-right). People are rowing boats to welcome the statue.

In the centre of the figure, one can see the missing part in which a big ship was originally depicted. It was removed with chemical solution by American Landon Warner in 1924. He also carried off (in his words: to rescue) several other pieces of murals and a Tang statue from the Dunhuang caves. They are now part of the priceless collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

These murals provide rich information about the sailing and shipbuilding industries in the Tang dynasty.

 

Figure 4: Emperor Wen (of the Sui) and Master Tan-yan, south wall

Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty (reigned 581-604) is depicted in another scene (Figure 4) in the cave. The Emperor was brought up in a monastery and was very fond of Buddhism. When he united China, he became one of Buddhism’s greatest donors. In the illustration, he sits humbly (centre-left) as a disciple, listening to the dharma talk given by Master Tan-yan, who is sitting high up on the terrace (top-left). At the bottom-right corner, Tan-yan is praying for rain.

On the east wall, beside the entrance, are paintings about the precepts of devotees. The Chinese ordination had started in the early third century and it took a while for the Indian monastic precepts to be modified to suit Chinese society (for instance, going for alms everyday is normal in India but not acceptable in China). In the Tang, the Chinese even developed additions to and replacements for the Indian precepts, and ran the monasteries like small governments. The mural emphasizes the importance of observing the precepts, and is the most complete of such depictions in Dunhuang.