The Splendid Heritage of Dunhuang

Internationally renowned yet rarely visited, Dunhuang features a wealth of precious Chinese art. WestEast take a look at the Middle Kingdom’s cultural oasis.

Through the transmission of Buddhism eastward to China, the compassion and wisdom of Buddhism gave Dunhuang art its timeless stature. Dunhuang is riddled with caves, including the Mogao Grottoes, the West Thousand Buddhas Caves, the Yulin Caves and the East Thousand Buddhas Caves. Exhibitions on loan from the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques (Guimet) and the Dunhuang Research Institute of China afford us the opportunity to see first-hand the wonderful works of art described in history books.

Breathtaking ‘Cave Art’

Situated in Gansu Province in the Hexi Corridor at the western extremity of the Silk Road, Dunhuang is a treasure trove of human civilisation. Over a span of more than a thousand years, from the 4th to 14th Centuries, countless monks, men of stature and commoners carved out with unswerving devotion one splendid cave after another in the cliffs of Dunhuang. The complex cave paintings and Buddha statues separated the sacred from the mundane. What instilled these people, faced as they were with unending change and warfare, with the tremendous dedication needed to create art that would mark the apex of human civilisation?

More than 1,600 hundred years ago, monks who felt that the mountains along the Silk Road near Dunhuang were shaped like thousands of Buddhas, decided to excavate caves and make the area a centre of Buddhism. Countless Buddhists came, dug the innumerable caves and created thousands of Buddhas and murals. Its beautiful art and faith make Dunhuang culturally significant.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) placed the Mogao Grottoes, a series of 735 caves, the most splendid of Dunhuang’s myriad caves, on the World Heritage List in 1987. Images from the Mogao Grottoes took centre stage in an exhibition entitled “From the Forgotten Deserts: Centuries of Dazzling Dunhuang Art” held in Taiwan. The Dunhuang Research Institute of China made full-scale models of cave No 45 of the Tang Dynasty at its prime, cave No 17 of the late Tang Dynasty and cave No 3 of the Yuan Dynasty to enable visitors to experience the caves as if they were in Dunhuang. Valuable field work findings and historical information were provided at the exhibition, which also provided information on increases in wind and sand erosion due to climate change that have almost overwhelmed the caves over the past century.

Dunhuang Studies

One scholar of history and culture in Mainland China asserted that “The Mogao Grottoes are not a dead exhibit from a thousand years ago; rather, it is a life that lived for a thousand years”. Since the introduction of Buddhism into China during the reign of Eastern Han Dynasty’s Ming Emperor, Dunhuang has been the first stop in the transmission of Buddhism eastward. Cave excavation can be traced back to 366 AD during the Period of the Sixteen Kingdoms. The discovery of Buddhist texts in the Mogao Grottoes drew worldwide attention and prompted the establishment of Dunhuang research, which includes two major areas: 1) silk painting literature, classical silk painting, block prints, paper paintings, sculpture, as well as public and private documents all found in the Scripture Caves; and 2) findings inside the Mogao Grottoes.

The Mogao Grottoes are a treasure trove of art. After incorporating local customs along the way, frescos at the height of Sui and Tang Dynasties showed changes from the excessive sentimentality that marked the religion during earlier periods in India. The spirit of compassion and wisdom dealing more with the human world filled the void. To truly comprehend the hidden truths and fully appreciate the Dunhuang paintings you need to start with religion. The story of King Shipi Feeding His Body to the Eagles in the Bensheng Sutra was captured on the cave walls and called Myriad Forms. The Buddhist scriptures exude boundless wisdom and literary grace. The incorporation of traditional Confucian thinking during the Sui and Tang Dynasties into Buddhism created a uniquely local religion that offered solace to the world through harmony and the hope of Paradise.

The Vimalakirti, Amitayurbhavana, Saddharma Pundarika, and Sukhavativyuha Sutras appeared in large quantities on cave walls in Dunhuang during this period. In contrast to stories of feeding body parts to eagles and giving one’s body to feed a tiger, the story of a Buddhist hermit named Vimalakirti was better able to win over Confucian literati. Steeped in traditional Confucianism thinking, the idea of becoming a monk was already hard enough to accept; injuring oneself was inconceivable. Hermits, who unlike monks did not shave their heads, became, for Sui and Tang literati, new objects to learn from and admire.

Dunhuang Art: Close to Grassroots Culture

Recognised by the United Nations and highly-revered by the world, Dunhuang art is part of the cultural heritage of human civilisation. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world come to witness the magnificence of the Mogao Grottoes.  The paintings reflect traits peculiar to various periods and also reveal the historical development of Buddhism in China, including its rise and decline. The paintings of the Sixteen Kingdoms as well as the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties were childlike – unembellished and simple. During the Sui Dynasty, youthful vigour and boldness were incorporated into the paintings. Paintings at Tang Dynasty combined shape, texture and colour to give the art a sense of mature fullness and elegance. After the Tang Dynasty, the art waned, becoming gloomy and lifeless, like a man in his final years. Religious art serves as a mirror to changes in society and is a looking-glass of time.

No two pieces of art in Dunhuang are alike. Artisans of the different periods underwent distinct artistic training and had different perceptions of life and aesthetics. They were from the people and, as such, were familiar with their pain and sorrow.  Deeply aware of the hopes of the people, artisans projected the prayers and dependence of the people on Buddha into their work and created Buddhas with whom they were familiar.

Perhaps, we’ve all dreamed of going to Dunhuang to gain enlightenment and reach Nirvana. Dunhuang art adds a spiritual facet, compassion and wisdom to the never-ending path to discovery. Like thriving vegetation, China’s ancient desert wonder continues to grow and flourish.

Text: Chih-Hung Lin 
Translate: Chris Findler
Photo courtesy: National Museum of History, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts

Published in Issue 14 LUXURY, 2005