[Wesak special] An artisan’s guide to dunhuang art

Imagine this: You are an aspiring mural artist in 10th-century China, specialising in the making of religious art. Circumstances land you in Dunhuang, a little oasis town in northwestern China on the edge of the Gobi desert.

Your mission? To add your artwork to the walls of the Mogao caves

You are certainly not the first artist to do so. These man-made caves have been around since the fourth century AD. They served multiple functions — as places of worship, meditation huts, living quarters and burial sites for the monks, as well as storage units for scriptures and documents. 

You wander from cave to cave, admiring the artwork your predecessors created, wondering how you can contribute to this growing treasury of human creativity. At the same time, your funds are running low and you need employment. So where do you start?

Who’s the Boss?

First, let’s find out who’s in charge. 

At the point of your existence, Dunhuang was part of the Guiyi circuit which was controlled by the Cao family. They maintained cordial relations with central China. Central China had just experienced the fall of the Tang Dynasty, and was trying to sort itself out of the chaos. This period would go down in history as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. 

In the meantime, Dunhuang enjoyed relative peace. The Cao family were devout Buddhists and were passionate about constructing new caves. 

Portrait of Cao Yijin. He seized control of the Guiyi circuit from his predecessors, the Zhang family. (Painting featured is a reproduction of a mural)

According to popular belief, the construction of Buddhist sites promised great merit; the Caos were more than eager to secure merit in this life and the next. To ensure that their caves were decorated by professionals of the greatest artistic capabilities, the Caos even had their very own institution of painters and sculptors. The best course of action is to seek employment under them. 

You make your way to the Cao family’s art institution and are soon put to work. Your colleagues come from varied backgrounds. Some are skilled craftsmen with the title of ‘Boshi’ and are assigned the most challenging and intricate work; the others are ordinary artisans and interns learning the trade. There are also a number of freelancers who are farmers by profession, looking to supplement their meagre incomes with some craftwork. 

Your hopes of dazzling your colleagues with your creativity are soon dashed. Art has become largely formularised during this period; it is a decline from the beauty and grace of high Tang art. 

You are put to work drawing the likeness of your patrons and their wives. You spend your days painting them in various postures of devotion — eyes half-closed, palms clasped, bearing offerings for the Buddha, clad in their jewels and fine dresses — it feels like a far cry from the austerities demanded by the founder of their religion. But you, a mere wage worker, are not in the position to question the artistic and religious sensibilities of your client.

Female family members of the Cao family. Precedence is given to Cao Yijin’s Uyghur wife and his daughter who married the Uyghur king. The Cao family maintained matrimonial ties with surrounding kingdoms such as the Uyghurs and the Khotans.

At night, you set your tools aside and munch on your plain ration of bread. You listen to your colleagues talking about the hardships of their lives — one particular artisan could not even afford to feed his only son. You close your eyes and imagine a better time and place, a life beyond your reach……

Buddha: A Graphic Guide 

You find yourself standing before a large mural. 

It is a scene of perfect bliss. A number of intricate pavilions are connected by a zig-zagging maze of corridors and stairwells. Steps lead down into lotus ponds. Infants emerge, fully-formed, from the midst of the lotus flowers. 

And in the very centre, at the focal point of the picture, a large Buddha sits on a lotus-shaped dias. He is surrounded by a host of heavenly beings. They cluster around his seat, heads inclined, as if eagerly soaking in every word of his sermon.

Mogao Cave 217

It is the image of perfect bliss. A Buddhist vision of paradise, if it may be called so. The Tang dynasty Buddhists were gripped by the teachings of the Pure Land sect. The Pure Land, it was believed, could be reached at the end of one’s life by the devoted chanting of Amitabha Buddha’s name. And so, artists laid their imaginings down in paint and ink, depicting a perfect world where order and harmony reigned supreme. It was a picture that even the staunchest Confucianists, as opposed to Buddhism as they were, would not object to. 

The paintings were intended as meditation devices. Meditators, seated in the seclusion of these caves, fixed their eyes and minds upon these paintings and achieved transcendental states. At the same time, these paintings were also used as visual aids to educate illiterate masses about Buddhism. Some paintings were based on popular sutras; others (popular during the Wei-Jin era) depicted the life of the Buddha. It was the ancient Chinese’s version of “Buddha: A Graphic Guide”. 

Mural in cave 290 depicting the life of the Buddha

When Apollo Met the Buddha 

As your gaze lingers over the murals, you begin to notice other details. Here, Buddhist imagery basks in the spotlight, but other deities share the stage. Chinese deities such as NuWa and Fuxi hover above the Buddha in one grotto; the Queen Mother of the West rides in a carriage drawn by three phoenixes. Even Apollo, sun god of the Greeks, and Mithra of Persian Zoroastrianism are to be found among the heavenly hosts. It speaks of diversity and pluralism; a signifier of Dunhuang’s former status as an international hub on the Silk Road where the East and the West met. 

Mural in cave 285 depicting a pair of Chinese deities, Fuxi and Nuwa

It is a celebration of all things divine; a world far removed from the joys and sorrows of human existence. You wonder if these heavenly beings, happy as they were in their immortal existence, could ever relate to the pain of ordinary artisans like yourself. 

A Celebration of the Ordinary

And then you see them — ordinary people, just like you, carving out a living in the mortal world. Farmers sow their seeds and reap their harvest; fishermen haul in their catch and hunters chase after prey. A couple celebrate their nuptials with a feast, song and dance; their marital bliss preserved for eternity. 

Depiction of a wedding in Mogao cave 12. The newlyweds are on the right; it was a Tang custom for the bridegroom (in red) to kneel while the bride only had to bow

Mundane activities they may be; a cause for celebration nonetheless. 

You are drawn by these images. Art and religion are but two branches of the same tree. They are a means to transcend, to reach for something higher than oneself.

It is a lot to take in. No wonder, for the centuries-old murals have survived so much. Dunhuang was so out of the way that it survived many calamities that befell other temples such as wars, religious persecution, and natural disasters. 

Your Legacy

You are drawn out of your reverie by the shuffling of boots and the stamping out of your campfire. It is time to call it a day. A new day will begin tomorrow, and you will write the name of your patrons to their portraits. Their names, not yours, will be set in stone, to be preserved for posterity. 

But it is your work that future generations will admire, and future artists will copy. It is your work that will put Dunhuang on the map. Kingdoms rise and fall; ideologies gain and lose appeal. Social and religious contexts has made your art possible; yet, your art will transcend these temporal bounds. Someday, it will be rediscovered and admired for its own worth.

Reference: 马德 《敦煌工匠和敦煌石窟》