The paintings and manuscripts from cave 17 at Mogao

Buddhism in China

Buddhism probably arrived in China during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.), and became a central feature of Chinese culture during the period of division that followed. Buddhist teaching ascribed great merit to the reproduction of images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, in which the artisans had to follow strict rules of iconography.

A twelfth-century catalogue of the Chinese imperial painting collection lists Daoist and Buddhist works from the time of Gu Kaizhi (c. 344-406 C.E.) onwards. However, no paintings by major artists of this period have survived, because foreign religions were proscribed between 842 and 845, and many Buddhist monuments and works of art were destroyed.

Traveling monk, ink and colors on paper, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty, 10th century, © Trustees of the British Museum. This painting shows a traveling monk, wearing a hat, holding a fan and accompanied by a tiger.

Traveling monk, 10th century, Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty, wearing a hat, holding a fan and accompanied by a tiger, ink and colors on paper, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China © Trustees of the British Museum. The little Buddha supported by a cloud may be there to protect him, and has been identified as Prabhutaratna (a Buddha of the past).

The Valley of the Thousand Buddhas

What has survived from the Tang period (618-906) is an important collection of Buddhist paintings on silk and paper, found in Cave 17, in the Valley of the Thousand Buddhas at the Chinese end of the Silk Road. Since Dunhuang was under Tibetan occupation at this time, its cave shrines and paintings escaped destruction.

The “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas,” or Qianfodong, are situated at Mogao, about 25 kilometres south-east of the oasis town of Dunhuang in Gansu province, western China, in the middle of the desert. By the late fourth century, the area had become a busy desert crossroads on the caravan routes of the Silk Road linking China and the West. Traders, pilgrims and other travelers stopped at the oasis town to stock up with provisions, pray for the journey ahead or give thanks for their survival. At about this time wandering monks carved the first caves into the long cliff stretching almost 2 kilometers in length along the Daquan River.

Over the next millennium more than 1000 caves of varying sizes were dug. Around five hundred of these were decorated as cave temples, carved from the gravel conglomerate of the escarpment. This material was not suitable for sculpture, as at other famous Buddhist cave temples at Yungang and Longmen. The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas gained their name from the legend of a monk who dreamt he saw a cloud with a thousand Buddhas floating over the valley.

Sealed for a thousand years, then rediscovered

Photograph of Dunhuang.

Photograph of Dunhuang

When the Silk Road was abandoned under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), oasis towns lost their importance and many were deserted. Although the Mogao caves were not completely abandoned, by the nineteenth century they were largely forgotten, with only a few monks staying at the site. Unknown to them, at some point in the early eleventh century, an incredible archive—with up to 50,000 documents, hundreds of paintings, together with textiles and other artifacts—was sealed up in one of the caves (Cave 17). Its entrance concealed behind a wall painting, the cave remained hidden from sight for centuries, until 1900, when it was discovered by Wang Yuanlu, a Daoist monk who had appointed himself abbot and guardian of the caves.

The first Western expedition to reach Dunhuang, led by a Hungarian count, arrived in 1879. More than twenty years later one of its members, Lajos Lóczy, drew the attention of the Hungarian-born Marc Aurel Stein, by then a well-known British archaeologist and explorer, to the importance of the caves. Stein reached Dunhuang and Mogao in 1907 during his second expedition to Central Asia. By this time, he had heard rumors of the walled-in cave and its contents.

After delicate negotiations with Wang Yuanlu, Stein negotiated access to the cave. “Heaped up in layers,” Stein wrote, “but without any order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet…. Not in the driest soil could relics of a ruined site have so completely escaped injury as they had here in a carefully selected rock chamber, where, hidden behind a brick wall, …. these masses of manuscripts had lain undisturbed for centuries.” (M. Aurel Stein,Ruins of Desert Cathay (1912; reprint, New York, Dover, 1987).

The abbot eventually sold Stein seven thousand complete manuscripts and six thousand fragments, as well as several cases loaded with paintings, embroideries and other artifacts; the money was used to fund restoration work at the caves.The manuscripts are now in the British Library and the paintings have been divided between the National Museum in New Delhi and the British Museum, where over three hundred paintings on silk, hemp and paper are kept.

Bodhisattva as Guide of Souls, ink and colors on a silk banner, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, Five Dynasties, early 10th century, © Trustees of the British Museum

Bodhisattva as Guide of Souls, early 10th century, Five Dynasties, ink and colors on a silk banner, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China © Trustees of the British Museum

This painting is inscribed with the characters yinlu pu or “Bodhisattva leading the Way.” It is one of several examples from Mogao of a bodhisattva leading the beautifully clad donor figure to the Pure Land, or Paradise, indicated by a Chinese building floating on clouds in the top left corner. The two figures are also supported by a cloud indicating that they are flying.

The bodhisattva, shown much larger than the donor, is holding a censer and a banner in his hand. The banner is one of many of the same type found at Mogao, with a triangular headpiece and streamers. The woman appears to be very wealthy, with gold hairpins in her hair. Actual examples of these were found in Chinese tombs. Her fashionably plump figure suggests that the painting was executed in the ninth or tenth century.

Change over a thousand years

During the thousand years of artistic activity at Mogao, the style of the wall paintings and sculptures changed, in part a reflection of the influences that reached it along the Silk Road. The early caves show greater Indian and Western influence, while during the Tang dynasty (618-906) the influence of the latest Chinese painting styles of the imperial court is evident. During the tenth century, Dunhuang became more isolated and the organization of a local painting academy led to mass production of paintings with a unique style.

The art also reflects the changes in religious belief and ritual at the pilgrim site. In the early caves, jataka stories (about Buddha’s previous incarnations) were commonly depicted. During the Tang dynasty, Pure Land Buddhism became very popular. This promoted the Buddha Amitabha, who helped the believer achieve rebirth in his Western Paradise, where even sinners are permitted, sitting within closed lotus buds listening to the heavenly sounds and the sermon of the Buddha, thereby purifying themselves.

Paradise of Shakyamuni, with illustrations of episodes from the Baoen Sutra, ink and colours on silk, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, Tang dynasty, early 9th century, © Trustees of the British Museum

Buddha between two Bodhisatvas (detail), Paradise of Shakyamuni, early 9th century, Tang dynasty, with illustrations of episodes from the Baoen Sutra, ink and colours on silk, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China © Trustees of the British Museum

In this Pure Land, or Paradise painting, Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, with his hands in the vitarka-mudra (gesture of preaching), sits between two bodhisattvas. A dancer and an orchestra perform before him. Another group sits below them. The Buddha has the sun and the moon on his robes, the cosmological emblems of Mount Shumeru. The scene is probably intended to represent Shakyamuni’s cosmic aspect as expounded in the Lotus Sutra. Two mythical creatures standing on golden islands, the double-headed jiva-jiva and the kalavinka, flank this second group. A row of donors are shown at the base of the painting.

Paradise of Shakyamuni, with illustrations of episodes from the Baoen Sutra, ink and colours on silk, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, Tang dynasty, early 9th century, © Trustees of the British Museum

Paradise of Shakyamuni, early 9th century, Tang dynasty, with illustrations of episodes from the Baoen Sutra, ink and colours on silk, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China © Trustees of the British Museum

Along both sides of the painting a sequence of episodes tells the story of Prince Siddhartha from the Baoen-jing, the ‘Sutra of Requiting Blessings Received’. This is a jataka about Shakyamuni’s previous incarnation. Prince Siddhartha and his parents flee their palace upon hearing the murderous intent of a treacherous minister. When their provisions run out, Siddhartha offers his own flesh to his parents. After his parents have each taken a piece, Siddhartha is left by the roadside. A hungry lion appears, and the prince offers his final piece of flesh to the creature. The lion turns out to be the god Indra, who restores him to strength and wholeness.

Various Paradise paintings decorate the walls of the cave temples of this period, each representing the realm of a different Buddha. Their Paradises were shown in sumptuous Chinese palace settings. Simplified versions of these buildings appear on banners depicting bodhisattvas showing donors on their way to Paradise.

Patrons

The decoration of each cave-temple was usually commissioned by an individual (whether an official, monk, governor or merchant, for example) and dedicated to their families and deceased relatives. However, some were commissioned by groups of lay individuals, or a religious society. The responsibility for the cave’s upkeep was often passed on to the patron’s descendants, and it could stay in the same family for generations.

The caves were excavated by a team of workmen, who chizelled out the ceiling and walls, which were then plastered with clay tempered with chopped straw and finished with a thin layer of plaster. The paintings would have already been commissioned, and were executed by skilled workmen under the direction of a senior Buddhist monk. Sculptures made of stucco around a wooden armature were also an integral part of the decoration.

Patrons and their portraits played an increasingly important part as time passed. At first they were depicted as much smaller than the main figures in the composition and in a subordinate position to the side. However, they gradually increased in size, until by the tenth century they occupied a large proportion of the lowest register of the paintings. In some paintings they are shown as part of the main composition and in the same scale as the holy figures in the paintings.

Kshitigarbha as Lord of the Six Ways, ink and colours on silk, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, Northern Song Dynasty, dated 4th year of Jianlong (963), © Trustees of the British Museum

Kshitigarbha as Lord of the Six Ways, c. 963 C.E., dated 4th year of Jianlong, Northern Song Dynasty, ink and colours on silk, from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China © Trustees of the British Museum

The bodhisattva Kshitigarbha in the painting above is shown wearing a hood and seated on a lotus behind an altar accompanied by two worshipping bodhisattvas. On the three lines on each side of his halo are depicted “The Six Ways of Life”: gods, animals and hell (top left) and humans, ashuras (mythical four-armed figures) and hungry ghosts (right).

In the lower section of the painting are donor figures, wearing fashionable clothes, the women with typical tenth-century hair styles decorated with hairpins and flowers. According to the inscription, the donor wished to avoid all bad forms of rebirth: “The maker of this painting was the disciple of pure faith, Kang Qingnu. His body lodges in the House of Fire and he fears to fall in the Five Evil Ways. Fortune and disaster are inconstant; his heart longs to be among the emancipated…”. Kshitigarbha is depicted and invoked here as he had vowed to rescue souls even from the regions of hell, and this offers hope to the donor and his family.

© Trustees of the British Museum

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S. Whitfield, Aurel Stein on the Silk Road (London, British Museum Press, 2004).

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R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: Paintings from Dunhuang, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85).

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Cite this page as: The British Museum, "The paintings and manuscripts from cave 17 at Mogao," in Smarthistory, March 3, 2017, accessed May 27, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/the-paintings-and-manuscripts-from-cave-17-at-mogao-1-of-2/.