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Dunhuang murals reveal history of Tang, Five Dynasties

SHA WUTIAN | 2022-08-25 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Female donors of the Cao family portraits, mural painting, Mogao Cave 61 PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHA WUTIAN 

There are a large number of grottoes dated to the Tang Dynasty (618–907) in the Dunhuang Grottoes. Most of the murals housed in these caves are jing-bian paintings [paintings based on Buddhist scriptures], which basically cover the main themes and contents of all the jing-bian paintings in Dunhuang caves.

A mirror of Chang’an 
There were many temples in Chang’an City [in present-day Xi’an, Shaanxi Province] during the Tang Dynasty. Studies show that there used to be more than 120 temples of various sizes in Chang’an. At the time, it was a tradition for renowned artists to paint murals in public spaces such as temples, which was an important way for artistic talent to be recognized and accepted by the public. Many famous Tang artists, including Wu Daozi, Yan Liben, Zhang Xuan, and Zhou Fang, left their artworks in the temples of this capital city. Unfortunately, these outstanding pieces of art have been lost to history.
Fortunately, the lost art of Chang’an, and other art across the country, has been well preserved in the Tang Dynasty Dunhuang caves. The size, structure, and style of the jing-bian paintings, including the scenes of secular life in the paintings, such as architecture, music, and dance, are full of Chang’an fashion. The drafts of these paintings must come from Chang’an and Luoyang. Therefore, interpreting the historical and cultural connotations of Tang Dynasty murals in Dunhuang caves will provide irreplaceable archaeological materials for reconstructing and restoring life in Chang’an of the Tang era.
Cave 220, or the “Zhai Family Cave” [the construction of the cave was originally funded by the Zhai family], which was constructed in 642, is a good example [of how the Dunhuang murals mirror life in Chang’an]. The mural depicting a grand Sogdian Whirl dance on the north wall, with a deng-lou [a tower-shaped structure decorated with lanterns] in the center of the dance floor and two deng-lun [a structure with layers of wheels, decorated with lanterns] on each side of the dance floor, reflect how the Hua’e Tower [a luxurious building in Chang’an during the Tang era] was magnificently decorated on the fifteenth night of the first lunar month—a scene portrayed in a poem titled “Tage Ci,” written by the Tang scholar Zhang Yue (667–730).
In the Tang Dynasty Mogao caves, there is a mural based on the Vimalakirti Sutra, illustrating how princes of different countries practiced their Buddhist devotions, and a mural based on the Nirvana Sutra, showing princes of different countries mourning for the nirvana of the Buddha. These murals were very likely inspired by the “Wanghui Tu” and “Zhigong Tu” [both were paintings showing the friendly communications between countries] that appeared and became popular in Chang’an at that time. Therefore, these murals vividly record how the prosperity of the Silk Road influenced Chang’an City.
Cultural influence of Tubo
Between 786 and 848, Dunhuang was under the control of the Tibetan Tubo Kingdom. The construction of Buddhist caves in the Mogao Grottoes was not affected [under the Tubo’s rule] and was further developed. Therefore, nearly 60 caves were constructed during the Tubo period, with even richer themes. During the rule of the Tubo, although most of the cave donors continued to be the Han people, some caves were constructed with funds from the Tubo people. The jing-bian wall paintings in these caves were dominated by the Tang style, which reflected the great influence of the popular Tang Dynasty paintings at that time. Additionally, it indicated that when learning from the Tang, the Tubo rulers also completely adopted the jing-bian paintings, which were popular in Chang’an, Luoyang, and other places in Tang, as a form of their Buddhist art.
There are various images of donors in Tubo costumes that are clearly and well preserved in the murals of the Dunhuang caves, represented by the murals in caves 359, 158, and 361. In particular, a mural in Cave 359 portrays a Sogdian family of 77 members with the surname of “Shi,” among whom almost all the male members are dressed in Tubo costumes with various styles and hats. It is a visual historical document that almost completely records Tubo costumes. 
The Dunhuang murals also illustrate the relationship between the Tang and the Tubo. Typical examples include the scene of a Tubo ruler and a Tang Dynasty emperor standing side by side, which was painted in the mural based on the Nirvana Sutra in Cave 158 of the Mogao Grottoes, and the mural based on the Golden Light Sutra, depicting the Tubo and Tang people driving elephants together [Cave 154], etc. These represent an important image of the harmonious relationship between the Tang and Tubo.
Clues of the Guiyi Circuit
The Guiyi Circuit [a regional regime nominally subordinate to the Tang Dynasty and later on the Five Dynasties and Northern Song Dynasty, existing from 851 to 1036, headquartered in modern Dunhuang] was seldom mentioned in China’s official history. However, there are rich archives of the Guiyi Circuit preserved in the Library Cave [also known as Cave 17 in the Mogao Grottoes]. Studies of the Dunhuang archives present the complete history of the Guiyi Circuit to the world, reflecting the unique value of Dunhuang Studies to historical research.
In addition to the manuscripts preserved in the Library Cave, the Dunhuang murals are also an priceless resource for constructing the history of the Guiyi Circuit. The murals in Cave 98 involve almost all the social groups that were related to the Guiyi Circuit when the Cao family usurped the Guiyi Circuit throne [from the Zhang family], including the male members of the Zhang family and the Cao family, the officials at all levels of the Guiyi authority, monks, and even the king and queen of Khotan [as the queen of Khotan was a daughter of the Guiyi ruler]. Such a cave is almost a map of the political alliances of the Guiyi Circuit under the control of the Cao family. 
During the rule of the Guiyi Circuit, super-large caves were frequently constructed, life-size donors’ portraits often appeared in the murals, wall paintings depicting the image of Shakyamuni and the history of the Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan were drawn in large size, and even the scene of princes of various countries practicing their Buddhist devotions appeared on a large scale in the murals based on the Vimalakirti Sutra. These changes suggest that the Guiyi Circuit maintained local political rule by Buddhism. Meanwhile, they emphasize the hardships of the Guiyi Circuit in surviving independently as a small local regime.
Dunhuang murals are extremely rich in content. With the development of academics, combined with the application of high-tech approaches, and the continuous updating of image research perspectives, the role of the Dunhuang Grottoes in historical research is attracting more and more attention. The murals in the Dunhuang Grottoes record the history, culture, and art of the Tang Empire in various ways. They are waiting for us to reveal and discover unknown historical information, and find the unique academic value of the Dunhuang Grottoes and the historical research of the Tang Dynasty.
Sha Wutian is a professor from the School of History and Civilization at Shaanxi Normal University.