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Mogao Cave 156 (Late Tang 848-907AD)
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This cave has a truncated pyramidal ceiling and a niche on the west wall. Inside the niche is a horseshoe-shaped dais with a Buddha sitting with legs pendent (his head is destroyed). The style of the niche’s ceiling is same as the cave’s except it is rectangular. Inside the niche, the ceiling and four slopes are full of Vajrayana content which was popular in metropolitan China from the 8th century on. The images include Thousand-armed Avalokitesvra, Amoghapasa, Cintamani, Vajrasattva, etc.

Figure 1: Procession of Zhang Yichao (8.2x1.05m), south wall  

This cave was constructed in honour of Zhang Yichao who expelled the Tubo (Tibetans) and restored Chinese rule in the huge Hexi area including Dunhuang. On the north wall of the ante-chamber is an inscription entitled “Record of the Mogao Caves” written in 865, but is completely illegible now. However, a copy made previously provides valuable detailed information on the construction of the Mogao caves.

The most striking murals are the Processions of Zhang Yichao (Figure 1) and his wife Lady Song. Each procession scene is 8.2m long and 1.05m high, with approximately 240 persons and 110 horses in total. The processions are at the middle of the south and north walls, facing the main Buddha statue in the niche on the west wall, giving the impression they are marching towards it.

Figure 2: Cavalry in Zhang’s procession (partial view)  

Zhang’s procession, depicted in three parts and thirteen sections, starts on the south side of the entrance wall and continues on the south wall. It displays the different sections of his military forces (Figure 2) in proper order, starting with the cavalry carrying spears or various banners with dancers and musicians on foot in between. Zhang, depicted larger in scale, is riding a white horse and about to cross a bridge (Figure 1, mid left), and is followed by troops composed of his clansmen. Bringing up the rear are the hunting scenes and the scene showing the supplies borne by camels and mules. The arrangement of the military forces and the supply transportation caravan match closely contemporary Tang standards.

Figure 3: Procession of Lady Song (8.2x1.05m), north wall  

Lady Song’s Procession (Figure 3) is comparable to that of her husband, but somewhat different in character. Preceding her is a troop of entertainers, acrobats, dancers and a band, instead of soldiers. She is also riding a white horse, accompanied by nine mounted female attendants who all are holding objects in their hands, such as censers or toiletries. At the end of her procession are hunters and camels carrying luggage similar to that in her husband’s. The five large carts and two hexagonal pavilions display the life style of the nobility and the form of transportation at that time.

The unique depiction of these two processions marks a significant change in donors’ portraits at Dunhuang. The contents of the painting do not demonstrate how the Zhangs (and their successors) were devoted to the Buddha although they were Buddhists. Being the key images themselves, they just wanted to demonstrate their political power and social status. At the same time, these paintings provide lively and precious examples of a parade genre, particularly when there are no other surviving ones.

Figurev4: Entertainment in the Western paradise, south wall

In the depiction of the Western Paradise (Figure 4), a pair of dancers is performing. One of them is beating a long drum, while the other is playing a four stringed pipa on her back. Pipa was imported from Kucha (then a  centre of music in Central Asia, in present-day Xinjiang) and became very popular from  the early Tang on. It was played with a large plectrum at that time (it is played with fingers or imitative long nails today). Beside them are the musicians sitting on the floor playing different instruments. This style of entertainment was extremely popular during that dynasty.