Dunhuang and the development of Chinese Art


This is an article taken from our China Eye magazine (2009) written by Brian Morgan.
Brian is a regular contributor to China Eye. He teaches Chinese arts and crafts including Brush Painting in the Yorkshire area where he has arranged several exhibitions. He has many contacts in China whom he visits frequently.

China is surrounded by high mountains to the West, and vast deserts to the North, and these factors kept it isolated for a long period. But there is a narrow accessible corridor, the Hexi corridor, in the North West, skirting much of the Gobi desert, and this became the main route for entering China, by the Great Silk Road, which opened about 80BC. It also became the route for the entry of Buddhism into China, and with it came major refinements in art, which gradually became assimilated into Chinese Culture.

The various parallel routes of the Great Silk Road all converged at Dunhuang, at the Jade Gate Pass, Yumenguan, after going endlessly through deserts, prosperous oases, massive sand dunes, and dried up lakes and riverbeds. It also passed through the terrifying Monster City, a place where the endless wind has carved the rocks into weird shapes, and with a constant moaning roar. Also the travellers' magnets would spin and turn, as the iron bearing rocks were around and above them, so only the bravest of travellers continued past this point. At this point is still a part of the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty, the most Western part of the Great Wall, and its' construction of now fossilised matting and baked sand and clay is still visible, after two thousand years.

At one point there is a huge sandstone hill, beside a river, the Magao Cliff,- a fertile and habitable spot. About 370 AD a Buddhist monk saw this mound, and saw lights which he likened to a thousand Buddhas. So he dug a cave into the soft sandstone, and built a shrine, like the cave shrines he knew in India. Other pilgrims followed, and the trend of cave building at Magao was to last for well over a thousand years. Many plaster statues on Buddhist themes were put in the caves, and these were surrounded by wall paintings. With religious travellers, envoys and merchants, Dunhuang was to become a melting pot of different cultures for centuries, the only place in the world where all of the old civilisations met. With it came a lasting and matchless sequence of art stretching well over a thousand years.

Before and up to the time of the early Han, 200-0BC, Chinese Art looked to the past, and the paintings were of mythological creatures, constellation stories, and historical figures. There was then an abrupt change, possibly because of the opening of the Great Silk Road, and the scenes depicted were of everyday life, and there was much mural and portrait painting. The portrait painting techniques had come from the Warring States period, 4 centuries BC, and matured in the Western Han, 0-200AD. The nearest they got to suggesting a 3D effect was by applying bright red patches to the cheeks and upper eyelids. These were simple techniques which matured and entered the Dunhuang cave paintings by the end of the 5th century.

Indian techniques of portrait painting had Greek, Persian and Afghan origins, and suffered many changes before entering Dunhuang, at the end of the 4th century. They used reddish-pinks for the body, vermilion-red for the eye-sockets, nose and outside of the cheeks, and highlighted the bridge of the nose and the eyeballs with white.

These two methods co-existed for over a century, before they fused, and this process was complete by the end of the 6th century. By the end of this time, they had adopted the now traditional Chinese method of the Three Whites, to forehead, bridge of nose, and to the lower chin, with vermilion and carmine highlights. Traditional colouring of portraits has altered little since that time. Only the recent work of Xian artists has introduced a mere trace of malachite green into more of the shaded parts, and reduced the density of the white washes.

All of the painting of the time was contained within outlines; only the colouring was really different. Up to this time most of the Chinese pigments used were of vegetable origin, and often changed colour or faded. Mineral pigments were brought in from India, and these gave a new stability to many of the colours, except those based on iron. Malachite green, Azurite Blue, etc., were brought into the Chinese palette. Some of the paintings done outside the caves with these pigments retain their freshness of colour even today, after well over fourteen hundred years of exposure to sun and weather. All civilisations had their own kind of flying angels. Western forms were like children with wings.

The Dunhuang flying divas originated in India, but their nudity was covered by a scarf, and they lost their haloes. They gradually merged with the original Chinese yuren, which floated on clouds, and developed into a new and unique form. The flying figures of the Tang had no wings, they did not ride on clouds, they were covered in a long, free flowing scarf like that of a Tang dancer, and were often in mirror image pairs on the cave walls.

Another big change brought in with Buddhism, was flower painting, until then almost unknown in Chinese painting. This started with the sacred lotus, a symbol of enlightenment. While the paintings are largely on Buddhist themes, there is much else besides. Taoism crept, and was partly and slowly made part of the new Buddhism, with its emphasis on meditation and self sacrifice. Many caves were commissioned by wealthy donors, who would have their portraits painted on the access walls, and here is another valuable record. This was linked with the Confucian ethic of ancestor worship, and changed into a form beneficial and acceptable to Buddhism. Confucian ethics slowly crept into the sutras, the sacred writings of Buddhism.

Ancient lacquerwork
Lacquer painting on wooden planks
Fragments off lacquered wooden screens found in the tomb of Sima Jinlong (Ssuma ching-lung) of the Northern Wei. The printing us executed on a red lacquer background by first drawing the outlines in black lacquer and then filling them with pigments of yellow, white, green, blue, black and orange. The themes depicted are derived from legends of well-known figures in Chinese history. By resorting to the traditional 'structural method in the use of the brush', the artist has succeeded in portraying the figures in a very life-like manner. The inscriptions accompanying the paintings are written in a mixed style of the 'li shu' (clerical writing) and 'kai shu' (official writing), which is rarely encountered among the extant examples of the Northern Wei calligraphy. Apart from their intrinsic value as handicraft art works of the Northern Wei, these fragments have also preserved for us rate specimens of the art of painting of the time. Northern Wei (AD 336-534) Height 81.5cms Unearthed in 1966 at Datong, Shanxi.

Some of the artists were not confined by Confucian ethics, and brought nude and sometimes pornographic images in the Indian style. This was strongly discouraged, and was confined to a few less accessible caves only. The masculine Buddhas slowly became somewhere between feminine yet sexless.

The caves also became a repository of important manuscripts, in many of the languages of the time, Sanscrit, Persian, Early Tibetan, Hebrew, Nestorian Christian, Mongolian, etc. Although the Chinese linked the arts of painting, dancing and music, there were also vast quantities of administrative, political and scientific documents. Many were still on bamboo strip books of the ancient style.

It was through Dunhuang that some musical instruments came in from the West, notably the melancholy stringed pipa, which is now almost a symbol of Dunhuang. The development of mural painting can be followed in sequence, and shows the development from simplistic beginnings, right up to the refinement of the Song periods, in the 1200's.

It was in this period that traditional Chinese Art fully established itself, with emphasis on landscape painting and symbolism. Also Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, with all their influences on Chinese Art, developed a peaceful coexistence, and this combination spread along the trade routes into central China. The Dunhuang Caves were the melting pot where the art and culture of China assimilated Western styles, but were undoubtedly a major part of the art and cultural system of China.

The caves flourished until the mid 1300's, and the reason for their decline is not fully known. But certainly the caves were not looted. The most likely reason is that they became largely covered by a huge sand dune, which then gradually blew away, so that they were again exposed less than 2 centuries ago.

In the late 1800's there was still a large amount of sand in front, and this was steadily removed. In 1900 a long hidden side cave was opened, Cave 17, and this contained a large quantity of documents, embroideries and paintings, which had lain undisturbed for well over a thousand years; a treasury of history, science, astronomy, politics and religion. Among them lay the Diamond Sutra, a beautifully wood-block printed set of manuscripts, with type-set carved letters, and with a skill long predating Caxton. I have been in this cave, with its' fresh, and surprisingly modern style of wall paintings. A plaster statue of its' librarian still sits in meditative pose on a plinth, guarding the entrance.

The sutras, the sacred writings of Buddhism, had absorbed some of the facets of Taoism, like a reverence for Nature, and some clear Confucian ethics, like filial piety, responsibility and benevolence. The three systems, while also staying separate, blended into a unique Chinese form of Buddhism at Dunhuang.

Meditation was central to Buddhism, and to a degree to the Tao. These philosophies were also closely linked to Tang poetry in particular. It was during the Song periods, that Chinese Art throughout China fully established its' emphasis on landscape painting, and this was closely connected to poetry, to philosophy, to music, to Nature and above all to meditation. Fine landscape paintings, with their high pinnacles, cascading water, and forests of pine, were used to help focus the thoughts for meditation, as the mind meandered along unknown pathways, seeking its' own goals and salvation. This emphasis remains to this day, and, with little doubt that its origins lay in Dunhuang.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2010,China Eye Issue 24, Winter 2009

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