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Mogao Cave 296 (Northern Zhou 557-581AD)
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Figure 1: The main niche (west wall)

This cave is a square assembly hall with a truncated pyramidal ceiling.

The Buddha in the main niche (in the west wall) is original (Figure 1). It has the characteristics of statues in the Northern Zhou, such as a bigger head, round face, bigger upper torso, but shorter legs.

His halo consists of four bands: three with flames and one with miniature Buddha patterns, all in different colours. It is framed by the peach-shaped mandorla, which has six bands of flames and miniature Buddha patterns. The flames are full of vibration.

The zaojing contains bands of miniature Buddhas, four kinds of palmette scrolling, and the pointed valance hanging around a central lotus (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Zaojing

There are many striking narrative illustrations on the walls and slopes of the ceiling. One of them is the story of Bhiksuni (an ordained nun) Suksma, who suffered a lot from her evil karma made in previous lives. She married a number of times, and all her husbands and children were brutally killed. She herself was twice buried alive with the dead. All this happened to her because, in her past life, she had jealously and cruelly murdered her husband’s son by another wife. Finally she converts to monastic life. Although the objective of this story is to tell people not to make wicked karma, the complex plots of Suksma’s suffering are more touching and more attractive than the objective.

The longest illustration in this cave is the jataka tale of Prince Good Conduct (Figure 3), from the Sutra of the Wise and Foolish. Although the story is not complete here, it consists of 28 scenes. The prince is very kind and generous to his people. He and his brother cross the sea to search for the Mani Pearl, which can bring treasure and happiness for their country. But the ship sinks. Prince Good Conduct obtains the pearl from the dragon king and saves his brother, but his brother renders him blind and steals the pearl. Prince Good Conduct begs for a living by playing music in a royal grove, and the princess falls in love with him. The depiction of plots stops here because the space is fully filled. It does not tell the happy ending — that the prince and princess live happily, get married, return home, forgive the evil brother and share the treasure with all their people.

Figure 3: Jataka of Prince Good Conduct, east slope

Another illustration is on the Sutra of the Field of Merits. This sutra suggests that people should perform good deeds to attain merits, such as planting trees and gardens to shade people and building boats to transport people. There are scenes of bridge-building and monasteries, which provide very good information on Chinese architecture. The scenes of a sick person being fed, the activities of the travellers, and a merchant caravan with its camels and horses (Figure 4) mirror lives on the ancient Silk Road.

Figure 4: Camels and horses crossing bridges 

The episodes in these stories are not painted in sequence and some are not even completed. It indicates that the artists focused on the overall picture, not the individual scenes. Another trait is that the artists started using landscape and animals as background to reinforce the effect of the scenes, such as adding a tiger chasing two deer in the battlefield scene to emphasize the bloody situation.