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Dunhuang Art

Summary and Keywords

The oasis city of Dunhuang lies at the eastern end of the southern Silk Routes, in Gansu Province in northwestern China. In the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang was established by the Chinese Han dynasty as a center for military operations and trade. Over time, Dunhuang became an important hub for multicultural trade as well as for the transmission of commodities, ideas, and religions. The status of Dunhuang as an important regional center for Buddhism is demonstrated by a wealth of paintings and manuscripts that provide crucial insights into the unfolding of religious praxis and developments in visual culture over many centuries.

A few centuries after the establishment of Dunhuang as a military garrison, the construction of cave shrines in the area began. Four major groups of cave shrines were constructed in the Dunhuang region: the Mogao, Yulin, and Western Thousand Buddhas caves, and the Five Temples site. The most well-studied of these are the Mogao 莫高, or “peerless,” cave shrines, which are located 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang at the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha 鳴沙山 (Mountain of the Singing Sands). From the 4th to the 14th centuries, 492 man-made caves were carved from the sandstone cliffs, stretching 1,680 meters from south to north. They were painted with over 45,000 square meters of mural paintings and installed with more than 2,000 painted clay sculptures. To the north, 248 additional caves were carved. Mostly unadorned, the northern caves served as habitation chambers for monks.

In addition to the mural paintings and inscriptions in the Mogao caves, more than 50,000 manuscripts and portable paintings were discovered in 1900 by the caretaker and Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 from one cave, numbered Mogao cave 17, popularly though perhaps problematically known as the “library cave.” These objects were dispersed in the early 20th century to library and museum collections, the most prominent of which are the Stein collection in the British Museum, British Library, the National Museum of India, and the Pelliot collection in the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. For this reason, the study of Dunhuang art and material culture encompasses both objects held in museum and library collections worldwide as well as mural paintings and sculptures located in situ in the cave shrines. Bringing these two bodies of material into conversation with one another enables a nuanced understanding of Dunhuang as a religious and artistic center, focusing in particular on the Mogao caves.

Keywords: Dunhuang, Mogao caves, Buddhism, Buddhist art, China, mural painting, conservation

Cave Shrine as Architectural Prototype

According to a dedicatory stele titled “Stele for a Buddhist Shrine at the Mogao Caves by Mr. Li” (Li Jun Mogaoku fokan bei 李君莫高窟佛龕碑‎), which is dated 698, the first cave shrine at the Mogao site was established by a monk named Lezun 樂尊‎.1 In this account, Lezun arrived at the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha in the year 366 and witnessed a golden light which manifested the form of a thousand buddhas. Thereafter, he excavated the first cave shrine as a meditation chamber and was followed shortly after by another monk, named Faliang 法良‎. Certain Dunhuang manuscripts place the date of Lezun’s arrival even earlier, in the year 353.2 These two caves, their locations unknown as of the early 21st century, inaugurated a thousand years of continuous activity at the site.

The carving of shrines from living rock was a practice that began in India and was transmitted to China along the Silk Routes. The excavation of cave shrines involved the participation of teams of laborers and artisans, each specializing in specific skills, and unfolded over multiple steps. To begin, caves were carved directly into the cliff face through the use of hammers and chisels. Wooden facades were attached to the cliff face, and most cave shrines were divided into smaller antechambers and larger main chambers connected by a corridor. After the excavation of a cave was complete, the walls were smoothed over with several layers of earthen plaster composed of clay, silt, sand, and plant fibers, beginning with a thicker plaster and finishing with a thinner, finer plaster. After the final plaster layer had dried, it was treated with an alum and glue sealant that prepared the wall for the application of paints by creating a smooth, watertight ground.3

Dunhuang ArtClick to view larger

Figure 1. Plan of a central pillar cave. Drawing by Ernest Baroni.

Dunhuang ArtClick to view larger

Figure 2. Plan of a hall cave. Drawing by Ernest Baroni.

The construction and decoration of cave shrines was facilitated by a modular process that favored certain architectural prototypes and resulted in the establishment of a local painting academy as well as the development of the standardized painting compositions known as transformation tableaux (bianxiang 變相‎). At the Mogao site, the most common cave types are the central pillar and hall caves. Central pillar caves take their name from the square pillar that connects the floor and ceiling of the main chamber, a distant descendant of the India stupa, or reliquary mound (figure 1). Sculptural icons could be installed in a niche carved into the east-facing wall of the pillar, or on all four sides. The hall cave, however, consisted of an open main chamber in which the icons were placed in a niche carved in the rear, or west wall (figure 2). Another important cave type was the great buddha cave in which a colossal buddha statue was built against the rear wall; four of these exist at Mogao: the standing buddhas in caves 96 and 130 and the reclining parinirvāṇa buddhas of caves 148 and 158. The monumental buddha statues were carved from living rock and covered with clay. The sculptural icons of ordinary Mogao cave shrines were built on a wooden armature stuffed with reeds and covered with a mixture of straw and clay. Left unfired, they were painted on the surface with bright pigments. Although many of these statues have not survived the centuries, extant works still remain, such as the intact sculptural ensemble in the Tang dynasty Mogao cave 45 (figure 3).

Dunhuang ArtClick to view larger

Figure 3. Sculptural ensemble. Tang dynasty (618–907). West wall niche, Mogao cave 45, Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Reprinted from Dunhuang wenwu yanjiusuo, ed., Zhongguo shiku: Dunhuang Mogaoku 3 (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1987), plate 124.

The painting materials consisted of plant dyes such as indigo and lac, mineral pigments including azurite and malachite, as well as locally produced synthetic pigments such as carbon black, lead white, and vermilion.4 During the 10th century, a well-organized painting academy flourished under the patronage of the Cao 曹‎ clan, the local rulers of the Return to Allegiance Army (Guiyijun 歸義軍‎) between 914 and 1006. The hierarchical structure of this government-sponsored institution is attested in the Dunhuang manuscripts from the Stein and Pelliot collections. At the top of the hierarchy were the painting bureau commissioner and painting guild manager. Below them, the head of artisans oversaw specialists, painters, artisans, and apprentices possessing varying degrees of experience and skill.5

The general areas of mural paintings were laid down first by master painters in red, pale green, or black paints, after which they were painted over by subsequent layers of pigments by the artisans working under them.6 Sketches and pounces from the library cave provide further insights into the artist’s practice at Dunhuang. Sketches executed in monochrome black ink allowed artists to experiment with the visual formulae and compositions of large-scale murals. The greatest number of extant sketches pertain to the Magic Competition, a motif that appeared in fifteen cave shrines at the Mogao and Yulin sites. The theme of the Magic Competition was a contest between Buddhist devotees, led by the buddha’s disciple Śāriputra, and the heretics, commanded by Raudrākṣa, with each side engaged in increasingly more elaborate feats of magic in order to demonstrate their supremacy over the opposing side. A close examination of the Magic Competition mural on the west wall of Mogao cave 196, which dates to the period of the Return to Allegiance Army (848–1036), invites comparisons to sketches drawn onto three scrolls now in the Pelliot collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The sketches pertain to individual characters and scenes of competition between the two sides.7

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Figure 4. Pounce. Guiyijun period (848–1036), 926–975. Ink and color on paper with pricked outlines. Traces of powder remain on the paper’s surface. 55.5 x 38 cm. From Dunhuang. British Museum, 1919,0101,0.73.2 (Ch.xli.004). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Due to differences between the dimensions of the cave shrines in which murals of the Magic Competition appeared, sketches could be employed as only a loose guide for the finished product, which necessitated the adjustment of proportions calibrated to different painting surfaces. Pounces, however, allowed painters to produce exact duplicates of certain motifs. A number of extant pounces pertain to the Thousand Buddhas motif, which was a repeating pattern of small seated buddhas commonly seen on the ceilings and walls of cave shrines (figure 4). Pounces are drawings in which the outlines are pricked with holes at regular intervals. After the pounce is laid against a wall, a colored powder is applied, which leaves behind an impression of the original drawing for the artists to fill in with line and color. Extant pounces of the Thousand Buddhas motif correspond to the dimensions of the Thousand Buddhas painted on the ceiling slopes of Mogao caves 147 and 196. Along with red powder residue on the pounces and the remains of dotted lines on the south ceiling slope of Mogao cave 98, this substantiates the use of pounces by artists at Dunhuang and demonstrates the variety of tools and methods that artists had at their disposal.8

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Figure 5. Sūtra on the Names of the Buddha (section). Guiyijun period (848–1036), c. 9th–10th century. Ink and color on paper. 27.5 x 225 cm. From Dunhuang. The British Library, Or.8210/S.253.

Another intriguing aspect of painting production at Dunhuang is the use of stamps to produce standardized images of the Thousand Buddhas. In a 9th- to 10th-century scroll from Dunhuang (figure 5), repeated images of seated buddhas, similar to those seen on the ceilings and walls of the Mogao cave shrines, were impressed by stamps over which colored pigments were then applied. The buddhas’ garments have been painted in alternating shades of red and brown. Beneath each figure is the expression “obeisance to” (nanwu 南無‎), followed by the buddha’s name.

Lists of the names of the buddhas of the past, present, and future and ten directions are preserved in multiple versions of the Sūtra on the Names of the Buddha (Foshuo Foming jing 佛說佛名經‎), of which there are numerous manuscript copies from Dunhuang. These formed the basis for repentance rites that were carried out in order to expiate the negative karma of devotees.9 The repentance rites involved evoking the buddhas’ presence by recalling their names and meditating upon their appearance.10 Yet another scroll impressed with the seated Thousand Buddhas was marked with a date to the right of every twenty-first image; these dates coincided with the six fasting days of the Buddhist calendar, suggesting a possible ritual context for this practice of recalling the buddhas’ names.11

Communities of Donors at Dunhuang

Who were the donors who commissioned the construction of cave shrines, and what roles did they play in communicating with artists and monks? The patronage of caves could be attributed to multiple donors or to a single clan, from ordinary laypeople to monks to local rulers and social elites. Schematic images of male, female, and monastic donors were painted on the walls of cave shrines, recording the names and intentions of individual donors. Mogao cave 428, which dates to the Northern Zhou dynasty (557–581), contains 1,189 donor images, the largest number of any cave shrine at the site. Of the donor images, 699 represented monks and nuns, demonstrating the joint patronage of laypeople and members of the monastic community.12

Yet other cave shrines, known as “family caves” (jiaku 家窟‎), resulted from the patronage of a single clan. The earliest identifiable family cave is the Tang dynasty (618–907) Mogao cave 220, which was built under the patronage of the powerful Zhai 翟‎ clan. On the west wall, the words “Zhai family cave” (Zhai jiaku 翟家窟‎) were brushed. The cave shrine continued to be managed by the Zhai clan for three centuries after its initial construction, with later layers of paintings concealing the earlier ones.13

In family caves, it was a common practice for donor images of the living to be placed adjacent to those representing deceased family members, suggesting a clan united in devotion to the buddha in life and in death. In certain cases, the placement of donor images was purposeful and suggested reverence to elder family members and the accrual of merit for their benefit. In Mogao cave 231, which is dated c. 839, images of the patron Yin Jiazheng’s 陰嘉政‎ deceased parents are placed not along the lower walls or below the niche containing the main icon, as is typical for donor images, but rather above the doorway to the main chamber located on the east wall. Furthermore, they are markedly larger in size than the typical donor image. The prominence given to the images and their placement evokes the plaques erected above the gates and doorways of the temple building, as well as ancestor portraits that commemorated deceased family members.14

The continuity between generations of donors also extended to the very iconographic programs of cave shrines. Mogao cave 61, which dates to c. 947–951, was built under the patronage of the Cao clan of the Return to Allegiance Army, specifically by Cao Yuanzhong 曹元忠‎ (r. 944–974). Intriguingly, eleven of the fifteen motifs that appear in the mural paintings of Mogao cave 61 also appear in the earlier Mogao cave 98, which dates a few decades earlier to c. 923–925. Mogao cave 98 was the first family cave constructed under the Cao clan and the main patron was none other than Cao Yuanzhong’s father, Cao Yijin 曹議金‎ (r. 914–935). The motivation for modeling his own cave shrine after that of his father might be attributed to Cao Yuanzhong’s desire to firmly establish his political authority in the region; it is instructive to note that the construction of Mogao cave 61 began only three years after Cao Yuanzhong assumed the position of military commissioner of the Return to Allegiance Army. As the fourth ruler, he followed after the relatively short reigns of his two elder brothers. Therefore, the appropriation of elements of the visual program of the earlier cave should be viewed as a purposeful borrowing and a visual evocation of the establishment of the Cao regime of the Return to Allegiance Army rather than as evidence of a lack of originality.15

In addition to untangling the visual cues that lay behind communicating religious devotion, political authority, and family lineage, another motivation for studying the patronage of the Mogao caves is to gain a more robust picture of Dunhuang as a multiethnic and multicultural regional center. Comparisons between the visual programs of Tang dynasty cave shrines and literary records of Buddhist monasteries in the Tang capital of Chang’an reveal surprising overlaps in the choice of subject matter and their spatial arrangement.16 This corroborates the presence of frequent cultural interchanges between the center and periphery of the Tang empire. However, the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang (786–848) was marked by increased multiculturalism, and the period of the Return to Allegiance Army, which ruled after the fall of the Tibetans, was characterized by intermarriages with the neighboring Uyghurs and Khotanese.17 Moreover, several dynasties that ruled in subsequent centuries, both in the central plains region of China and in the borderlands, were of non-Chinese origin, from the Khitan Liao (907–1125) and Tangut Xixia (1038–1227) to the Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) and Mongol Yuan dynasties (1279–1368).

Extant paintings, manuscripts, and textiles from Dunhuang and present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region attest to the visibility of Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, as donors and artists. Female donor figures wearing Uyghur dress can be seen in Mogao caves 98 and 61, attributed, respectively, to the patronage of Cao Yijin and Cao Yuanzhong.18 Comparisons between the religious iconography and artistic style of Dunhuang to images in the Bezeklik caves and other sites of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region shed light on common features. Surprisingly, some of the most prominent stylistic traits of Uyghur Buddhist art, including the rendering of facial features and the use of dark backgrounds, bright primary colors, and gold leaf are also shared with Uyghur Manichaean painting. Manichaeism was a monotheistic religion founded by the prophet Mani in Persia in the 3rd century ce. It seems likely that the Uyghurs began to convert from Manichaeism to Buddhism in the 10th century, yet still preserved the distinctive features of the older artistic tradition.19

Dunhuang as a Multicultural Center

Dunhuang ArtClick to view larger

Figure 6. Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas. Tibetan period (786–848), early 9th century. Ink and color on silk. 95 x 63.5 cm. From Dunhuang. British Museum, London, 1919,0101,0.50 (Ch.0074). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A portable painting from Dunhuang, now in the collection of the British Museum, represents an iconographic template known as the Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas (figure 6). A buddha wearing an elaborate crown is seated in the center under a jeweled canopy with his hands in the gesture of meditation, or dhyāna mudrā. On either side of the buddha is a row of four bodhisattva attendants. Their bodies turn to face the central buddha, and they are similarly adorned with jewelry and ornate crowns. According to horizontal cartouches bearing Tibetan inscriptions and the iconographic attributes of the deities, the identities of the bodhisattvas are: on the left, Maitreya, Kṣitigarbha, Mañjuśrī, and Ākāśagarbha; and on the right, Avalokiteśvara, Sarvanivāraṇaviṣkambhin, Samantabhadra, and Vajrapāṇi.20 The elongated yet robust bodies of the deities suggest a Himalayan rather than Tang Chinese style of art.

The central buddha of the maṇḍala is understood to represent Vairocana Buddha. The identification of the buddha, in conjunction with the inscriptions from the painting, attests to the significance of Vairocana in early Tibetan Buddhism and the transmission of the iconography of this maṇḍala to the Dunhuang region, where it appears in Mogao cave 14 and Yulin caves 20, 25, and 38. The prominence of Vairocana as the main icon in Tibetan temples suggests that the cult of Vairocana had firmly taken root in Tibet by the 8th century.21 During this period, Vairocana was associated with the foundation of the Tibetan empire, echoing the imperial associations of Vairocana that were present elsewhere in Asia, as in China and Japan, where important images of Vairocana at the Longmen caves and Tōdaiji were sponsored through state patronage.22

Moreover, images of the Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas were commissioned in order to commemorate treaty negotiations between the Tibetans and Chinese in the early 9th century. Starting in the second half of the 7th century, the Tibetans and Chinese vied for control of the Tarim Basin and the Chinese military garrisons in Central Asia, culminating in the fall of Dunhuang to the Tibetans in 786. Between 706 and 822, seven treaties were signed between the two parties.23 The last of these was commemorated by a large stone carving of the Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas located in Denma Drak, Dagyab Province, in the Kham region of present-day Tibet Autonomous Region.24 Sponsored by the abbot Yeshe Yang, the dedicatory inscription states that the sculpture was made in 816 at the beginning of treaty negotiations between the Tang and Tibetan courts. It also names the Tibetan ministers who led the treaty negotiations and the Tibetan and Chinese craftsmen who made the sculpture.25 Furthermore, Tibetan language manuscripts from Dunhuang make note of a “treaty temple” named Dega Yutsel that was built to commemorate the same treaty. Importantly, its iconographic program too emphasized the Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas.26

Returning to the painting from Dunhuang, its relatively small size suggests that it might have been commissioned for the performance of a private ritual rather than to make a grand commemorative gesture. In the lowermost portion of the painting, beneath the pedestal supporting the buddha, the barely perceptible figures of two lay donors can be discerned. A dedicatory inscription was originally brushed adjacent to the female donor located in the lower right of the painting, although the fragmentary condition of the silk has rendered it illegible.

The Path to the Pure Land

Dunhuang ArtClick to view larger

Figure 7. Bodhisattva Guide of Souls. Guiyijun period (848–1036), second half of 9th century. Ink and color on silk. 80.5 x 53.8 cm. From Dunhuang. British Museum, London, 1919,0101,0.47 (Ch.lvii.002). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The motifs of Dunhuang paintings and donor inscriptions indicate that one motivation behind the sponsorship of paintings was the accrual of merit for deceased family members.27 A 9th-century portable painting on silk depicts a bodhisattva with feet supported by opened lotus blossoms and holding an incense burner in one hand and a textile banner with trailing tassels in the other (figure 7). The bodhisattva’s descent from a heavenly realm is suggested by the trailing red clouds behind him. His gaze is trained on a woman dressed in the characteristically voluminous Tang dynasty style; her face is turned downward in a reverential manner. As the title of the painting indicates, the deity is the “bodhisattva guide of souls” (yinlu pu[sa] 引路菩‎[ 薩‎]). The woman represents the soul of a deceased devotee, and the Chinese-style buildings in the upper left corner convey the pure land toward which she is being led by the bodhisattva guide.28

A number of Dunhuang paintings and manuscripts articulate a belief in the bureaucracy of the afterlife, which was governed by the Ten Kings of Hell. The earliest dated manuscript of the Sūtra of the Ten Kings of Hell is from Dunhuang and was brushed in the year 908. The sūtra itself was probably composed in China sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries.29 An elaboration upon the Indic notion of the underworld, the Ten Kings were the judges of the afterlife in front of which the deceased would appear in sequence and have their deeds reported and evaluated. This liminal stage between death and rebirth lasted three years and was punctuated at regular intervals by the performance of memorial rituals directed toward the Ten Kings by monks who were engaged by the living relatives of the deceased family member in order to ease their loved one’s progression through the prolonged process of judgment. In addition to the performance of ceremonies, the copying of the sūtra was itself also a merit-making activity.30

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Figure 8. Kṣitigarbha and the Ten Kings of Hell. Guiyijun period (848–1036), c. 926–975. Ink and color on silk. 91 x 65.5 cm. From Dunhuang. British Museum, London, 1919,0101,0.23 (Ch.0021). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

One bodhisattva who was specifically charged with leading souls in the afterlife was Kṣitigarbha. A common formula of portable paintings from Dunhuang is the arrangement of the Ten Kings on either side of Kṣitigarbha, who is depicted in the center holding a staff that breaks open the gates of hell and a flaming jewel (figure 8). The prominence given to the bodhisattva in scale and position emphasizes his ability to intercede with the kings on behalf of the deceased. Each of the Ten Kings is shown seated in the manner of a court official behind a table upon which a scroll recording the deeds of the deceased is unrolled. Each king is attended in turn by petty bureaucrats. Below Kṣitigarbha is a jailor showing a deceased soul, his head locked in a wooden cangue, his sins as reflected in a round mirror. At the very bottom of the painting are images of the donors kneeling on either side of a blank central cartouche; this may have been a generic composition rather than one commissioned by a specific donor. Similar paintings in the Mogao caves show the Ten Kings as an independent motif or joined with Kṣitigarbha.31

Mapping Pilgrimage: Mount Wutai at Dunhuang

The notion of a pure land was not restricted to buddhas alone. The most prominent of the bodhisattvas were also associated with their own realms that came to be identified with sacred mountains in China, allowing devotees the opportunity for direct encounters with bodhisattvas in these numinous realms. One of these was the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, whose pure land was Mount Wutai 五台山‎, located in northern China in present-day Shanxi Province. His association with Mount Wutai had crystallized by the Tang dynasty. In the period of the decline of the dharma, it was believed that Mañjuśrī would reside on the “Mountain of Snows.”32 Although originally conceptualized as a mountain in the Himalayas, Chinese monks gradually came to identify Mañjuśrī with Mount Wutai in China, perhaps because the mountain was capped with snow even in the height of summer.33

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Figure 9. Panorama of Mount Wutai. Guiyijun period (848–1036). Mural painting. West wall, Mogao cave 61, Dunhuang, Gansu Province.

Courtesy of Wei-cheng Lin, by permission of the Dunhuang Academy.

Mount Wutai was indisputably an important pilgrimage site in its own right. Intriguingly, a number of Dunhuang mural and portable paintings pertaining to Mañjuśrī on Mount Wutai attest to the interconnectedness of these two sacred sites. The most well-known of these is the celebrated mural painting on the west, or rear wall of Mogao cave 61, in front of which originally stood a sculpture of Mañjuśrī seated atop his characteristic lion mount (figure 9). It provides a topographic view of Mount Wutai’s five peaks and the western and eastern routes by which pilgrims accessed the many temples and stupas on the mountain, painted in fine detail and identified by the inscriptions brushed into cartouches. Although seemingly map-like in appearance, close examination of the painting reveals that its features do not accord strictly with the actual topography and architecture of the mountain peak but rather capture the experience of the pilgrim.34

Reinforcing such an interpretation of the mural painting, other motifs, particularly those in the upper register of the painting, depict the numinous sights and visions that were believed to be visited upon the pilgrim to the mountain. As a tenth-stage or advanced bodhisattva, Mañjuśrī could appear to devotees in a variety of forms distinct from his standard aspect as a young prince. These manifestations ranged from an old man to multicolored rays of light or clouds and mist; the bodhisattva was also associated with the imagery of auspicious birds or a lion, his mount. The manifestations of Mañjuśrī appear not only in the mural painting of Mount Wutai, but also in the corpus of Mount Wutai poems from the Dunhuang manuscripts.35

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Figure 10. New-style Mañjuśrī. Guiyijun period (848–1036), 925. Mural painting. North wall of corridor, Mogao cave 220, Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Reprinted from Dunhuang wenwu yanjiusuo, ed., Zhongguo shiku: Dunhuang Mogaoku 5 (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1987), plate 20.

As a bodhisattva, Mañjuśrī frequently appeared as an attendant to a central buddha figure and was often paired in this respect with the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Therefore, the representation of this bodhisattva in an independent guise as the “new-style Mañjuśrī” (xinyang Wenshu 新樣文殊‎) is noteworthy. This imagery, as seen in the north wall of the corridor of Mogao cave 220 (figure 10), features Mañjuśrī seated frontally on his lion mount. Rather than flanking a central buddha, he is now treated as the central deity and is in turn flanked by his own retinue, consisting of the young boy pilgrim Sudhana on the left and the king of Khotan on the right. Outside the thick outlines that encompass the painting, standing bodhisattva attendants have been painted on either side.

The large cartouche below Mañjuśrī not only identifies him as the new-style Mañjuśrī but further describes this representation as an auspicious image, or ruixiang 瑞樣‎. This associates the new-style Mañjuśrī with a specific class of imagery that flourished at Dunhuang during the 9th and 10th centuries.36 As recorded in numerous mural paintings and a large portable painting from the Stein collection divided between the British Museum and National Museum of India, certain famous icons were believed to have miraculously flown through the air from India or Central Asia onward to China. The animation that these famous icons possessed had a twofold significance: first, this proved their authenticity and sacrality, and second, the fact that they chose to fly to China authenticated the latter as a Buddhist realm in its own right.37

Dunhuang in the Present Tense: Conservation and Contemporary Art

The Mogao caves were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987. Even earlier, the site had been listed as one of the State Priority Protected Sites by the State Council in 1961 and was placed under the protection of national laws concerning the preservation of cultural relics.38 Moreover, the formation of the Dunhuang Academy (then named the Dunhuang Art Institute) in 1943 has greatly facilitated the systematic study and conservation and digitization of the mural paintings and sculptures inside the cave shrines in the early 21st century

In recent years, tourism at the Mogao caves has boomed, due in no small part to the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative promulgated by Chinese President Xi Jinping 習近平‎. Inaugurated in 2013, the goal of the OBOR policy is to foster economic development by recreating the premodern Silk Routes in two parts. The first is a land-based Silk Road economic belt that seeks to connect the interior provinces of China with Europe by establishing new infrastructure, particularly railroads, highways, and air routes that will cross Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. The second phase of the initiative is a maritime Silk Road that likewise seeks to increase connectivity between China and neighboring regions.

At Dunhuang, the economic impact of the OBOR initiative is felt most keenly in tourism.39 In 2015 alone, over 1.1 million tourists visited the Mogao caves, representing an increase of 40 percent in just one year. Interest in the Silk Routes has also led to the construction of a new conference center to accommodate an annual Silk Road Cultural Expo and the expansion of the small local airport.40 The huge influx of visitors has the potential to disrupt the delicate balance of what is already a fairly complex microclimate inside the cave shrines. Under the best of circumstances, the mural paintings might potentially suffer from moisture and humidity, threats that are increased by the introduction of exterior air into the cave shrines as visitors enter and exit; visitors’ bodies also carry moisture with them.41 The resulting effects on mural paintings range from the detachment of paintings from the cave wall, the deterioration of paintings from flood damage, color degradation or alteration over time, and the flaking of paintings and upper layers of plaster.42

In order to better understand and combat these damaging effects, a long-term partnership was created in 1989 between the Dunhuang Academy and the Getty Conservation Institute. This resulted in the joint authorship of the Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China in 2002.43 The next step in this partnership was the conservation of the Tang dynasty Mogao cave 85 in 1997 through 2010 in order to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for this and other caves. Among the goals of the project were the investigation of the causes behind the deterioration of mural paintings, monitoring the condition of mural paintings, the conservation of mural paintings and sculpture without disrupting their original appearance, and training mural painting conservators and scientists.44 The conservation regime for Mogao cave 85 included establishing environmental control measures, stabilizing and readhering detached areas of plaster, and cleaning the surfaces of mural paintings.45 The training of mural painting conservators has also been greatly facilitated by the establishment at the Courtauld Institute of a two-year master’s degree program: Buddhist Art: History and Conservation.46

Yet another form of present-day engagement with the visual culture of the Mogao caves lies in the realm of contemporary art. A 2013 special exhibition at the China Institute Gallery, “Inspired by Dunhuang: Re-Creation in Contemporary Chinese Art,” presented the work of artists who have found inspiration in the figural and decorative motifs of Dunhuang mural paintings, as well as in the local desert landscape.47 The artists featured in the exhibition were mostly born in China and are currently active in China, the United States, and Europe. Coming full circle, among this group of artists was the designer and educator Chang Shana 常沙娜‎ (b. 1931), the daughter of Chang Shuhong 常書鴻‎ (1904–1994), painter and founder of the Dunhuang Art Institute.


One of the enduring concerns in the study of Dunhuang art, and indeed, of the artifacts from Dunhuang in general, is how to reconcile the mural paintings with the objects recovered from the library cave. Many questions still remain concerning the provenance of the manuscripts and paintings that were interred in the library cave. Moreover, the removal of such items from the cave in the early 20th century disturbed their original placement, complicating the process of reconstructing their original context yet further.

Dunhuang ArtClick to view larger

Figure 11. Amitābha Buddha in the Western Pure Land. Tang dynasty (618–907). Mural painting. South wall, Mogao cave 172, Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Reprinted from Dunhuang wenwu yanjiusuo, ed., Zhongguo shiku: Dunhuang Mogaoku 4 (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1987), plate 9.

One of the most common compositional types is the transformation tableau, which refers loosely to a painting based upon a scriptural source. They frequently, though not exclusively, depict the buddha preaching in the center of a large composition that is flanked by narrative vignettes, conflating iconic and narrative modes of representation (figure 11). There may be additional panels of smaller images placed directly below that add further narrative details to the central composition. The term “transformation tableau” first appeared in Chinese literary sources in the 5th century and could refer variously to paintings, relief carvings, or sculpture. However, from the 8th century onward, the term began to be associated more closely with paintings based upon sūtras of the type that we see in the Mogao caves.48 For this reason, such paintings have also been termed sūtra paintings.49 Compositions similar to these mural paintings are also noted among the portable paintings recovered from Dunhuang.

Some scholars have tried to establish a connection between transformation tableaux and the genre of Dunhuang literature known as transformation texts (bianwen 變文‎).50 Transformation texts address both Buddhist and secular themes and may be defined as narratives that are written in semicolloquial Chinese in a prosimetric (alternating prose-verse) style. In drawing a connection between transformation texts and transformation tableaux, some scholars have looked toward South Asian prototypes for picture-storytelling and modern ethnographic data from throughout Asia in which narrative tales are recited or performed orally in front of portable illustrations, arguing that such a practice could have taken place in front of the Dunhuang mural paintings as well.51

A different perspective was introduced which posited that text and image mutually reinforced one another. A close study of Magic Competition murals showed that during the Tang dynasty, the mural paintings were composed for the first time in a manner that privileged spatial rather than narrative logic. Rather than following a linear narrative, the images were divided into two opposing groups: the Buddhist devotees and heretics. Furthermore, pairs of audience members that were absent from the textual source were added in order to create balance and underscore the compositional symmetry between the opposed figures.52 By demonstrating that transformation tableaux were not merely aids to oral performance but rather had their own pictorial logic distinct from the logic of written tales or oral performance, this established the mutually constitutive relationship between text and image, rather than the dependence of image upon text.

Building on this, the concept of world-making has been applied to the study of transformation tableaux. Rather than treating images merely as illustrations of Buddhist texts, this approach posits that a particular sūtra may give rise to a series of interrelated images unified by cues from the sūtra that are shaped by concerns and agendas not necessarily present in the text itself. This is what is defined as the world of that sūtra.53 In the case of the Lotus Sūtra, one of the most popular Buddhist sūtras in East Asia and at Dunhuang, this approach explains why certain motifs were stressed in transformation tableaux over others and how artists grappled with the complexities of the sūtra, which inevitably stymied a strictly linear approach.54

More recently, the issue of the text–image relationship has been revisited in consideration of the optical illusionism of cave shrines. It is argued that from the mid-8th century to the early 11th century, the interiors of Mogao cave shrines became more vernacular and therefore more immediate and immersive to their audiences. Illusionistic trompe-l’oeil effects are evident in the more lifelike treatment of furniture and textile elements of painted interiors. As a result, they elicited a type of viewer participation that was also characteristic of the interplay between the officiating monk and the audience during sūtra lectures.55

Primary Sources

The most important primary source for the study of Dunhuang art is the Mogao site. Open year-round, new policies were implemented in 2014 according to a visitor management plan developed by the Dunhuang Academy and Getty Conservation Institute that included the construction of a new visitor center located fifteen kilometers from the caves. Rather than proceeding directly to the caves, visitors first receive an orientation at the visitor center consisting of two films that address the history of Dunhuang and highlights of individual caves. Ticketing is managed via an online system, and the maximum capacity is six thousand visitors per day. In addition to tourist management, the Dunhuang Academy also responds to special requests from researchers.

The paintings and manuscripts from the library cave are now held in library and museum collections worldwide. The most prominent of these are the Stein collection in the British Museum, British Library, and National Museum of India, and the Pelliot collection in the Musée Guimet and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Those collections were assembled, respectively, by the Hungarian-British archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein (1862–1943), who came to Dunhuang in 1907, and the French sinologist Paul Pelliot (1878–1945), who followed one year later. In addition to these, the largest collection of Dunhuang materials in China is kept in the National Library of China in Beijing, where they were initially deposited in 1910 due to the intervention of Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉‎ (1866–1940) and other scholars to prevent their dispersal at the hands of foreign collectors. During the third Ōtani 大谷‎ expedition of 1910–1914, numerous Dunhuang manuscripts were collected by Tachibana Zuichō 橘瑞超‎ (1890–1968) and Yoshikawa Koichirō 吉川小一郎‎ (1885–1978). They are now divided among several institutions in Japan, including Ryūkoku University and Ōtani University.

Due to the absence of manuscripts in the Tangut script, the cave is believed to have been sealed up around the year 1035 for reasons which are still unknown.56 Scholars have offered differing explanations for why these objects were secreted inside the cave. Given the fragmentary nature of some manuscripts, Aurel Stein hypothesized that the cave was used as a waste repository for items cast off from the local monasteries.57 Yet another theory, put forth by Rong Xinjiang 荣新江‎, holds that the objects were stored in the cave by the Three Realms Monastery, which was located in front of the Mogao caves. The monk Daozhen 道真‎ (916–987) had made a vow in 934 to repair manuscripts in the monastic library; the fragments may therefore have been used to patch damaged manuscripts.58 Finally, noting the high number of Tibetan manuscripts in the cave and its location in the side wall of the memorial cave of Hongbian 洪辯‎, superintendent of monks during and after the period when Dunhuang was ruled by Tibetans (786–848), Imaeda Yoshirō has suggested that certain manuscripts may have constituted Hongbian’s personal collection.59

The only major North American expedition to Dunhuang was the Fogg Expedition of 1923–1924, led by Harvard University art historian and curator Langdon Warner (1881–1955). The sculptures and mural fragments that he collected are how housed in the Harvard Art Museums. The Princeton University East Asian Library holds the Dunhuang and Turfan Materials Collection. These items were collected by Guion M. Gest (1864–1948), the founder of the Gest Engineering Company and collector of Chinese rare books; the photographers James C. M. Lo 羅寄梅‎ (1902–1987) and Lucy Lo 羅先‎ (née 劉‎), who came to Dunhuang in 1943 and documented the site; as well as items gifted to the Los by the painter Zhang Daqian 張大千‎ (1899–1983), who was then also at Dunhuang, studying and copying the mural paintings.60

Given the far-flung nature of the source material, digital resources are indispensable for the study of Dunhuang art and material culture. The newest of these is the impressive open-access Digital Dunhuang site, developed by the Dunhuang Academy. The site currently provides 360-degree views of thirty cave shrines, enabling site users to engage in an entirely self-guided virtual visit and to examine specific murals closely. Still images of the mural paintings are also available for perusal, along with information regarding painting motifs. Users may select the English or Chinese language interface. The Dunhuang Academy’s own homepage provides useful information to visitors and links to other useful sites.

An important digital image resource is the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive on Artstor, developed by Sarah E. Fraser of Heidelberg University. This collection of images is available only to users with an Artstor subscription. Digital images of mural paintings from more than forty cave shrines are available; in addition to two-dimensional images, three–dimensional visual representations may also be viewed using Quick Time Virtual Reality (QTVR) technology. A special capability of Artstor is the ability to zoom in and capture high-quality close-up details. This collection also includes objects from the library cave and digitized images from the Lo Archive, which consists of black and white photographs that were taken by James and Lucy Lo at the Mogao caves. Beginning in 1943, they photographed the cave shrines for eighteen months using a system of mirrors and cloth screens in order to distribute natural light inside the caves. Their archive of 2,590 photographs is housed in Princeton University’s Visual Resources Collection.

One of the most long-standing digital platforms for Dunhuang studies is the multilingual, open-access website of the International Dunhuang Project. Founded in 1994 by Susan Whitfield and based at the British Library, the IDP is a partnership among libraries, museums, universities, and research institutes worldwide to preserve the archaeological legacy of Chinese Central Asia and to make this material accessible through online access and a program of research and education. The website offers over 470,000 high-resolution images and metadata pertaining to Silk Road artifacts from Dunhuang and other sites and is a veritable encyclopedia of Silk Road studies. Particularly helpful are the detailed entries on collections of Silk Road materials worldwide and downloadable PDF files of select publications on Dunhuang and Silk Road studies.

Digital Silk Road, a bilingual English–Japanese open-access website maintained by the National Institute of Informatics, is a valuable portal to a constellation of online resources. Among them are the Digital Archive of Toyo Bunko Rare Books, Database for Buddhist Temples in China, and Silk Road maps and photographs. The Toyo Bunko archive includes full-text and searchable access to over two hundred titles, including the Aurel Stein expedition reports mentioned earlier (see “Expedition Reports”), and nimble navigation functions.

The Silk Road Seattle site, compiled by Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington, provides teaching and learning resources for Silk Road studies, including links to maps, historical texts, and curriculum materials. Particularly useful for the study of Dunhuang art, certain pages of the website highlight masterpieces of the Stein and Pelliot collections, as well as museums holding Silk Road artifacts. Finally, the Yale Silk Road website presents an online database of over eleven thousand images of major Silk Road sites taken during faculty site seminars led by Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan under the support of the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University in the summers of 2006–2010. Among the sites documented are ones located in Gansu, Ningxia, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Further Reading

General Reading

For general reading, the following titles provide accessible and scholarly introductions to the art and history of Dunhuang. Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, authored by one of the preeminent Chinese scholars of Dunhuang history, provides a historiographical overview of Dunhuang studies in tandem with a comprehensive introduction to the cultural, social, and political history of Dunhuang. Great attention is given to the discovery and dispersal of manuscripts from the library cave, as well as their potential for research. Though a slim volume, Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road deftly addresses the history of Dunhuang and explores certain caves in detail in order to illuminate major themes in Dunhuang art. Authored by the former director of the Dunhuang Academy, The Caves of Dunhuang systematically surveys the history, religions, and art of Dunhuang, paying close attention to mural paintings and their chronological development, objects from the library cave, and conservation. Finally, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road is a classic study of the Western exploration of Silk Road sites and collecting of Silk Road artifacts.

Fan, Jinshi. The Caves of Dunhuang. Translated by Susan Whitfield. Hong Kong: Dunhuang Academy in collaboration with London Editions, 2010.Find this resource:

    Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia. London: John Murray, 2006.Find this resource:

      Rong Xinjiang, Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang. Translated by Imre Galambos. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2013. Originally published as Rong Xinjiang 荣新江‎, Dunhuangxue shiba jiang 敦煌学十八講‎. Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2001.Find this resource:

        Whitfield, Roderick. Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road. Rev. ed. Los Angeles: Getty Trust Publications, 2015.Find this resource:

          Secondary Literature

          The secondary literature on the art of Dunhuang employs a broad range of disciplinary approaches. The most important source for Chinese-language scholarship on Dunhuang art and related topics is the journal Dunhuang yanjiu, which is edited by the Dunhuang Academy. Increasingly, the work of international scholars appears in the journal as well. Of the remaining four titles, the first two place Dunhuang art in conversation with the art of central plains China, and the latter two examine Dunhuang as a multicultural center for art production. Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618–960 examines mural and portable paintings in light of painting workshops and the artist’s practice and evaluates aesthetic theories of monochrome ink painting in Tang China. Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China reconstructs the visual worlds and cognitive model of the Lotus Sūtra in Dunhuang and central plains China. Uyghur Patronage in Dunhuang: Regional Art Centres on the Northern Silk Road in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries centers upon the impact of Uyghur donors on Dunhuang art during a period of the region’s increasing independence from the central Chinese court. In a similar manner, Maṇḍalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang explores the religious and artistic dialogue between Chinese and Tibetan communities at Dunhuang.

          Dunhuang yanjiu 敦煌研究‎, 1981–present.

          Fraser, Sarah E. Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618–960. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

            Russell-Smith, Lilla. Uyghur Patronage in Dunhuang: Regional Art Centres on the Northern Silk Road in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2005.Find this resource:

              Wang, Eugene Y. Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                Wang, Michelle C. Maṇḍalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2018.Find this resource:

                  Reference Sources

                  Any research project on Dunhuang art will by necessity begin with the following volumes. The first three are publications by the Dunhuang Academy. Dunhuang shiku neirong zonglu is a comprehensive index to the contents of the Mogao, Western Thousand Buddhas, and Yulin caves and the Five Temples site and offers detailed information concerning the numbers, placement, and motifs of mural paintings. This volume supersedes the earlier Dunhuang Mogao ku neirong zonglu, which focused solely on the Mogao caves. Dunhuang Mogao ku gongyangren tiji provides transcriptions of extant donor inscriptions in the Mogao caves. Shi Zhangru’s Mogaoku xing records the dimensions of the Mogao caves and was the product of a 1942 Academia Sinica expedition to the site.

                  Dunhuang yanjiuyuan 敦煌研究院‎, ed. Dunhuang Mogao ku neirong zonglu 敦煌莫高窟內總錄‎. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1982.Find this resource:

                    Dunhuang yanjiuyuan 敦煌研究院‎, ed. Dunhuang Mogao ku gongyangren tiji 敦煌莫高窟供人題記‎. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1986.Find this resource:

                      Dunhuang yanjiuyuan 敦煌研究院‎, ed. Dunhuang shiku neirong zonglu 敦煌石窟內容總錄‎. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1996.Find this resource:

                        Shi Zhangru 石璋如‎. Mogaoku xing 莫高窟形‎. Taibei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan lishi yuyan yanjiusuo, 1996.Find this resource:

                          Illustrated Catalogues

                          The following volumes offer high-quality color illustrations of mural paintings and items from the library cave, a great boon as photography is not permitted inside the Dunhuang caves. The five volumes in Zhongguo shiku: Dunhuang shiku are organized chronologically and feature a selection of images from specific caves. The titles in the Dunhuang shiku yishu series, however, focus upon an individual or a few Mogao and Yulin cave shrines and present introductory essays. Individual volumes in the Dunhuang shiku quanji series focus upon specific iconographical or visual motifs in the Mogao and Yulin caves. Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection in the British Museum and Les Arts de l’Asie Centrale focus on paintings, drawings, and textiles in the Stein and Pelliot collections, respectively. Bridging the mural paintings and material from the library cave, Matsumoto Eiichi’s Tonkōga no kenkyū is organized according to iconographic motif and treats Dunhuang mural and portable paintings in the Stein and Pelliot collections.

                          Dunhuang shiku quanji 敦煌石窟全集‎ series. Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 1999–present.

                          Dunhuang shiku yishu 敦煌石窟藝術‎ series. Nanjing: Jiangsu meishu chubanshe, 1993–present.

                          Dunhuang wenwu yanjiusuo 敦煌文物研究所‎, ed. Zhongguo shiku: Dunhuang shiku 中國石窟‎: 敦煌石窟‎. 5 vols. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1982–1987.Find this resource:

                            Eiichi, Matsumoto 松本栄一‎. Tonkōga no kenkyū 敦煌畫の研究‎. 2 vols. Tokyo: Tōhō bunka gakuin, 1937.Find this resource:

                              Giès, Jacques, ed. Les Arts de l’Asie Centrale. 2 vols. London: Serindia, 1994–1996.Find this resource:

                                Whitfield, Roderick. Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection in the British Museum. 3 vols. Tokyo: Kodansha International, in cooperation with the Trustees of the British Museum, 1982–1985.Find this resource:

                                  Exhibition Catalogues

                                  In the past few years, the number of exhibitions on Dunhuang art has grown rapidly throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Four particularly outstanding exhibition catalogues are given here that are characterized both by their framing of Dunhuang as a religious and artistic center as well as the scope of catalogue essays and object entries. The most recent of these is Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art of China’s Silk Road, produced for a 2016 exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Separate exhibition spaces featured portable paintings and drawings from the library cave, three full-size replica caves produced by artists from the Dunhuang Academy, and a three-dimensional virtual immersive experience. Particularly noteworthy was the emphasis on the multicultural nature of Dunhuang. Inspired by Dunhuang: Re-creation in Contemporary Chinese Art was authored for a 2013 exhibition at the China Institute in New York City. This exhibition took a novel approach to the art of Dunhuang by featuring the work of contemporary artists inspired by the cave shrines and the desert landscape of Dunhuang. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War, and Faith situated Dunhuang in the larger context of the Silk Routes, featuring portable objects from Dunhuang alongside artifacts from Khotan, Dandan Uiliq, Niya, Miran, and Gaochang. Organized at the British Library in 2004, the essays in this catalogue, several of which were authored by International Dunhuang Project scholars, set a new standard for museum exhibition writing. Finally, The Silk Route and the Diamond Path: Esoteric Buddhist Art on the Trans-Himalayan Trade Routes, authored for a 1982 exhibition at UCLA’s Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, focused specifically on esoteric Buddhist art and addressed Dunhuang art in conjunction with Himalayan art, focusing on cross-cultural transmission.

                                  Agnew, Neville, Marcia Reed, and Tevvy Ball. Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art of China’s Silk Road. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2016.Find this resource:

                                    Hai, Willow Weilan, and Jerome Silbergeld, Inspired by Dunhuang: Re-creation in Contemporary Chinese Art. Edited by Willow Weilan Hai and J. May Lee Barrett. New York: China Institute Gallery, 2013.Find this resource:

                                      Klimburg-Salter, Deborah E. The Silk Route and the Diamond Path: Esoteric Buddhist Art on the Trans-Himalayan Trade Routes. Los Angeles: UCLA Art Council, 1982.Find this resource:

                                        Whitfield, Susan, and Ursula Sims Williams, eds. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War, and Faith. London: British Library, 2004.Find this resource:

                                          Expedition Reports

                                          The government-sponsored expeditions led by Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot emerged in the wake of the Great Game and resulted in the transportation of thousands of paintings, drawings, textiles, and sculptural fragments to London, New Delhi, and Paris. Aurel Stein’s standard practice was to first publish popular accounts of his expeditions, followed by more scientific expedition reports. Serindia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China was based on Stein’s second expedition to Central Asia (1906–1908), during which he went to Dunhuang for the first time in 1907 and purchased manuscripts from Wang Yuanlu. His third expedition to Central Asia (1913–1916) brought him back to Dunhuang in 1914 and is recorded in Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Eastern Īrān. Paul Pelliot did not publish formal expedition reports, but the travel notebooks from his 1906–1908 expedition, during which he visited the library cave in 1908, were transcribed and published in 2008. They provide detailed insights into his itinerary, day-to-day movements, and personal reactions to the people and places that he encountered.

                                          Pelliot, Paul. Carnets de route: 1906–1908. Edited by Jérôme Ghesquière and Francis Macouin. Paris: Indes savants, 2008.Find this resource:

                                            Stein, Aurel. Serindia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921.Find this resource:

                                              Stein, Aurel. Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Eastern Īrān. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928.Find this resource:


                                                (1.) See a transcription of this stele in Sonya S. Lee, Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 278–281.

                                                (2.) Rong Xinjiang, Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, trans. Imre Galambos (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill: 2013), 58–59. This was originally published as Rong Xinjiang 荣新江‎, Dunhuangxue shiba jiang 敦煌学十八講‎ (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2001).

                                                (3.) Lori Wong and Neville Agnew, eds., The Conservation of Cave 85 at the Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang: A Collaborative Project of the Getty Conservation Institute and the Dunhuang Academy (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2013), 156–163.

                                                (4.) Wong and Agnew, eds., Conservation of Cave 85, 169–173.

                                                (5.) Sarah E. Fraser, Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618–960 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 34.

                                                (6.) Wong and Agnew, eds., Conservation of Cave 85, 177–181.

                                                (7.) Fraser, Performing the Visual, 71–86.

                                                (8.) Fraser, Performing the Visual, 102–108; and Sha Wutian 沙武田‎, Dunhuang huagao yanjiu 敦煌畫稿研究‎ (Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 2006), 266.

                                                (9.) Kuo Liying, Confession et contrition dans le bouddhisme chinois du Ve au Xe siècle (Paris: Publications de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1994), 230–231; and Stanley K. Abe, “Art and Practice in a Fifth-Century Chinese Buddhist Cave Temple,” Ars Orientalis 20 (1990): 1–31, 9–10.

                                                (10.) See Paul Harrison, “Commemoration and Identification in Buddhanusmrti,” in The Mirror of Memory: Reflections of Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, ed. Janet Gyatso (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 215–238.

                                                (11.) Hou Ching-lang, “La Cérémonie du Yin-cha-fo d’après les manuscrits de Touen-houang,” in Contributions aux études de Touen-houang, vol. 3, ed. Michel Soymié, 206–235 (Paris: École française d’Extrême-Orient, 1984), 229–230.

                                                (12.) “Mogao Cave 428 (Northern Zhou 557–581AD),” Dunhuang Research Academy.

                                                (13.) Ning Qiang, Art, Religion, and Politics in Medieval China: The Dunhuang Cave of the Zhai Family (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004), 5–6.

                                                (14.) Winston Kyan, “Family Space: Buddhist Materiality and Ancestral Fashioning in Mogao Cave 231,” Art Bulletin 92, no. 1–2 (2010): 61–82, 71–74.

                                                (15.) Sonya S. Lee, “Repository of Ingenuity: Cave 61 and Artistic Appropriation in Tenth-Century Dunhuang,” Art Bulletin 94, no. 2 (2012): 199–225, esp. 217–218.

                                                (16.) See Eugene Wang, “Pictorial Program in the Making of Monastic Space: From Jing’aisi of Luoyang to Cave 217 at Dunhuang,” in Buddhist Monasticism in East Asia: Places of Practice, ed. James A. Benn, Lori Meeks, and James Robson (London: Routledge, 2010), 65–106.

                                                (17.) Parallel developments at Dunhuang in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist praxis and visual culture are the focus of Michelle C. Wang, Maṇḍalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2018).

                                                (18.) Lilla Russell-Smith, Uyghur Patronage in Dunhuang: Regional Art Centres on the Northern Silk Road in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2005), 23–24.

                                                (19.) Russell-Smith, Uyghur Patronage in Dunhuang, 77–172.

                                                (20.) Jacob Dalton, “Amitābha with the Eight Bodhisattvas,” in The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, ed. Susan Whitfield and Ursula Sims-Williams (London: British Library, 2004), 202–203.

                                                (21.) H. E. Richardson, “The Cult of Vairocana in Early Tibet,” in Indo-Tibetan Studies: Papers in Honour and Appreciation of Professor David L. Snellgrove’s Contribution to Indo-Tibetan Studies, ed. Tadeusz Skorupski (Tring: Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1990), 271–274; see also Matthew T. Kapstein, Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 58–65.

                                                (22.) Kapstein, Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism, 60.

                                                (23.) See Yihong Pan, “The Sino-Tibetan Treaties in the Tang Dynasty,” T’oung Pao, 2nd ser., 78, no. 1–3 (1992): 116–161.

                                                (24.) For a close study of the carvings and a transcription and translation of the inscriptions, see Amy Heller, “Ninth Century Buddhist Images Carved at Ldan Ma Brag to Commemorate Tibeto-Chinese Negotiations,” in Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Fagernes, 1992, ed. Per Kvaerne (Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 1994), 335–349.

                                                (25.) Heller, “Ninth Century Buddhist Images,” 12–14.

                                                (26.) Matthew Kapstein provides a detailed study of the manuscripts Pelliot tibétain 16 and IOL Tib J 751 and their description of the “treaty temple” in Matthew T. Kapstein, “The Treaty Temple of the Turquoise Grove,” in Buddhism Between Tibet and China, ed. Matthew T. Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009), 21–72. In this article, Kapstein identifies the temple with Yulin cave 25, although more recently, he has revised his thinking on this issue. See Matthew T. Kapstein, “The Treaty Temple of De ga g.yu tshal: Reconsiderations,” downloaded from the author’s page.

                                                (27.) This has caused Robert Sharf to suggest that cave shrines are best thought of as mortuary shrines; see his “Art in the Dark: The Ritual Context of Buddhist Caves in Western China,” in Art of Merit: Studies in Buddhist Art and its Conservation, ed. David Park, Kuenga Wangmo, and Sharon Cather (London: Archetype Publications, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2013), 38–65.

                                                (28.) Whitfield and Sims-Williams, eds., Silk Road, 241 (plate 178), 243.

                                                (29.) Stephen F. Teiser, The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 8–9.

                                                (30.) Teiser, Scripture on the Ten Kings, 20–30.

                                                (31.) Teiser, Scripture on the Ten Kings, 35–40.

                                                (32.) For the prophecy concerning Mañjuśrī’s arrival at the “Mountain of Snows,” see David Quinter, “Visualizing the Mañjuśrī Parinirvāṇa Sūtra as a Contemplation Sūtra,” Asia Major, 3rd ser., 23, no. 2 (2010): 97–128, esp. 109.

                                                (33.) See Mary Anne Cartelli, The Five-Colored Clouds of Mount Wutai: Poems from Dunhuang (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2013), 39.

                                                (34.) Dorothy C. Wong, “A Reassessment of the Representation of Mt. Wutai from Dunhuang Cave 61,” Archives of Asian Art 46 (1993): 27–52, esp. 46.

                                                (35.) See Cartelli, Five-Colored Clouds of Mount Wutai, 65, 68–69, 78; it was believed that Mañjuśrī appeared as five-colored clouds to pilgrims who had less of a karmic affinity than those who were able to see him in his true form, seated atop his lion mount (116). One of the more unusual manifestations of Mañjuśrī was his thousand-armed form in which he holds a thousand begging bowls, from each of which a small Śākyamuni Buddha emerges. This form of the bodhisattva may also have been associated with Mount Wutai; see Michelle C. Wang, “The Thousand-Armed Mañjuśrī at Dunhuang and Paired Images in Buddhist Visual Culture,” Archives of Asian Art 66, no. 1 (2016): 81–105.

                                                (36.) Wei-cheng Lin, Building a Sacred Mountain: The Buddhist Architecture of China’s Mount Wutai (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014), 172–178.

                                                (37.) For other examples of auspicious icons at Dunhuang, see Wu Hung, “Rethinking Liu Sahe: The Creation of a Buddhist Saint and the Invention of a ‘Miraculous Image’,” Orientations 27, no. 10 (1996): 32–43; and Roderick Whitfield, “Ruixiang at Dunhuang,” in Function and Meaning in Buddhist Art, ed. K. R. Kooij and H. van der Veere (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1995), 149–156.

                                                (38.) “Mogao Caves,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

                                                (39.) Tourism and the arts are topics that receive emphasis in the official English-language website for the OBOR initiative; see “The Belt and Road Initiative.”

                                                (40.) Simon Denyer, “China’s Ancient Buddhist Grottoes Face a New Threat—Tourists,” The Washington Post, May 16, 2016.

                                                (41.) Wong and Agnew, eds., Conservation of Cave 85, 191–213.

                                                (42.) Wong and Agnew, eds., Conservation of Cave 85, 215–235.

                                                (43.) Neville Agnew and Martha Demas, eds., Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2002).

                                                (44.) Wong and Agnew, eds., Conservation of Cave 85, 9–13.

                                                (45.) Wong and Agnew, eds., Conservation of Cave 85, 259–293.

                                                (47.) Willow Weilan Hai and Jerome Silbergeld, Inspired by Dunhuang: Re-creation in Contemporary Chinese Art, ed. Willow Weilan Hai and J. May Lee Barrett (New York: China Institute Gallery, 2013).

                                                (48.) Wu Hung, “What Is Bianxiang 變相‎?—On the Relationship Between Dunhuang Art and Dunhuang Literature,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 52, no. 1 (1992): 111–192, esp. 116–123.

                                                (49.) Wu Hung, “Reborn in Paradise: A Case Study of Dunhuang Sutra Painting and Its Religious, Ritual and Artistic Context,” Orientations 23, no. 5 (1992): 52–60. In this article, Wu notes the popularity of sūtra lectures delivered by eminent monks at Dunhuang, but observes that the relatively small and dark spaces of cave shrines would have ruled out the performance of such lectures within; see Wu, “Reborn in Paradise,” 55–56.

                                                (50.) The first publication to establish a direct connection between transformation texts and transformation tableaux was Pai Hua-wen and Victor H. Mair, trans., “What is Pien-wen 變文‎?,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44, no. 2 (1984): 493–514, originally published in Chinese in 1982. For investigations into “transformation” (bian), see Victor H. Mair, Tun-huang Popular Narratives (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

                                                (51.) On this point, see Victor H. Mair, Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988); and Victor H. Mair, T’ang Transformation Texts: A Study of the Buddhist Contribution to the Rise of Vernacular Fiction and Drama in China (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1989).

                                                (52.) Wu, “What Is Bianxiang,” 160–166.

                                                (53.) Eugene Y. Wang, Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), xx–xxii.

                                                (54.) Wang, Shaping the Lotus Sutra, 67–121.

                                                (55.) Neil Schmid, “The Material Culture of Exegesis and Liturgy and a Change in the Artistic Representations in Dunhuang Caves, ca. 700–1000,” Asia Major, 3rd ser., 19, no. 1–2 (2006): 171–210, esp. 197–199.

                                                (56.) Rong Xinjiang, “The Nature of the Dunhuang Library Cave and the Reasons for its Sealing,” trans. Valerie Hansen, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 11 (1999): 247–275, esp. 247–248.

                                                (57.) Rong, “Nature of the Dunhuang Library Cave,” 250–257.

                                                (58.) Rong, “Nature of the Dunhuang Library Cave,” 257–266.

                                                (59.) Imaeda Yoshirō, “The Provenance and Character of the Dunhuang Documents,” The Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko 66 (2008): 81–102, esp. 86–92.

                                                (60.) See Huaiyu Chen and Nancy Norton Tomasko, “Chinese-Language Texts from Dunhuang and Turfan in the Princeton University East Asian Library,” East Asian Library Journal 14, no. 2 (2010): 1–13; and Huaiyu Chen and Nancy Norton Tomasko, “A Descriptive Catalogue of the Dunhuang and Turfan Materials,” East Asian Library Journal 14, no. 2 (2010): 13–208.