Dunhuang Murals: gem in the world's history of art

Housing more than 50,000 square meters of gorgeous murals, the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang are a rare gem in the world's history of art.

The more than 500 Buddhist caves dug out of the mountains centuries earlier near Dunhuang look ordinary from outside. But housing more than 50,000 square meters of gorgeous murals, they are a rare gem in the world’s history of art.

Following the example of Indians, some Chinese Buddhist believers began to dig caves on mountains near Dunhuang around the middle of the fourth century to house Buddhist statues and for meditation.

Most cave owners or patrons also had the inside walls and ceilings of their caves painted with religious images and stories. And this tradition extended for more than 1,000 years.

Early murals there show a salient influence from India and Central Asia in terms of both content and painting techniques.

Some murals are covered with row after row of small images of Buddha, both standing and seated, with only inconspicuous alterations in their postures. That’s probably how they have earned their shelters the “Thousand Buddha Caves” reputation.

Deer King Jataka, Cave No. 257, Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534)

Early murals show influences from India and Central Asia in terms of content and technique. The costumes of the figures are very foreign and some of them are even half-naked, a feature rarely seen in traditional Chinese paintings.

The faces of the figures in those murals not only have the distinctive features of “foreigners,” but also feature rich shades to generate a 3D impression, a technique common in Indian and Western countries, but quite different from the traditional Chinese practice of line drawing.

Also, the costumes of the figures in such murals are very foreign and some of them are even half-naked, a feature rarely seen in traditional Chinese paintings.

No wonder some scholars and researchers suspect some of the mural painters were Indians or Central Asians.

However, most faces on the murals have turned black as a result of oxidation as lead-based pigments were used by the painters.

The painting style of the murals changed gradually in the following centuries, as traditional Chinese painting techniques such as line drawing replaced the imported ones. Maybe, it’s also because more Chinese artists had been employed to do the job, but no one seems to know for sure.

Content also changed over time. Instead of religious images and stories sometimes with a romantic touch, the murals began to adopt the realistic style that depicted the mundane life of people working in the fields, hunting, dining, singing and dancing or attending ceremonies for major holidays.


Cave No. 260, Northern Wei Dynasty


Cave No. 461 West Wei Dynasty

Flying apsaras, which come from Hindu myths, are common among the murals. It is estimated that there are more than 4,500 flying apasaras painted in the 270 plus Mogao caves.

During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), one of the most prosperous reigns in China’s history, murals often featured well-dressed and plump women, a trend during those years.

To paint the long dresses worn by those fair ladies, the artists created a special line drawing technique called “orchid leave drawing.” By changing pressure on the brush moving on the paper, the artist created lines with a graceful gradation of thickness.

Of all the images appearing in the murals there, two in particular have become Dunhuang icons known to many around the country.

One of them is a lady playing pipa, a Chinese lute, on her shoulder, a very uncommon way of playing that instrument. The other is the Flying Apsaras, a beautiful female celestial being and fantastic dancer.


Dancer Holding A Pipa Behind Her Back. Cave No. 112, Middle Tang Dynasty (781-847)

The image is part of a Pure Land (Amida’s Western Paradise) scene (top) in the cave. Surrounded by an orchestra and barefoot upon a carpet, the plump dancer holds a pipa behind her back. The artist used Chinese line drawing technique to depict the beautiful movements of her costume.

In addition to their artistic values, the Dunhuang Murals are today widely deemed as a treasure house containing extremely valuable information about religions, culture, economy, social life, military and international exchanges in ancient China, especially since it was a major stop along the ancient Silk Road.

The priceless murals attract hundreds of visitors every day, both from home and abroad. But many Chinese researchers and scientists are working hard to find an effective way to retard the process of oxidation of the wall paintings resulting from exposure to light and air.

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