Notebook, 1993-

International Dunhuang Project --- Dunhuang Academy in China --- Central Eurasian Studies World Wide --- Celebrate the Silk Road [Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, DC] --- Dunhuang - Caves of the Singing Sands --- Silk Road to China

[From: De Silva, Anil and photographs by Dominque Darbois. The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting in the Caves of Tun-Huang. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1964.}

Foreword --- Inroduction --- 1. Pre Han Art --- 2. The Han Dynasty [206 B.C. - A.D. 220] --- 3. The Three Kingdoms and the Six Dynasties [A.D. 220-589] --- 4. The Sui Dynasty [A.D. 589-618]

The Art of Chinese Landscape
Painting in the Caves
of Tunhuang - Introduction

NOTE: There are numerous plates and illustrations in the original text which are occasionally described here but which are not all included here.

Year by year if it is not the Golden River
it is the Jade Gate Pass.
Morning after morning we take up whips
and gird on our swords.
Through the white snow of three springs
we have buried our comrades in green tombs of exile.
Where for ten thousand li the Yellow River
winds its way through the Black Hills.

Lu Chu Yung
[9th c. A.D.]

The Silk Road, the oldest trade-route known to man, used in prehistoric times for the exchange of bronze and furs, stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Great Wall. It was firmly established by the first century B.C., and it was the route along which jade found its way from China to the West and which enabled caravans laden with lacquer and silk to reach all parts of the then known world.

Semi-diplomatic and commercial missions starting from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, the Middle East, Bactria, Samarkand and India crossed the Central Asian region, reaching the silk markets of the Tarim basin by two desert routes which met at the frontier town of Tun-huang. This territory was encompassed by immense mountains - the massifs of karakorum and K'un-lun in the south and the Celestial Mountains [T'ien Shan] in the north. The southern road, coming from India, passed through Yarkand, Khotan and Mir�n, the northern route by way of the Pamirs and the oasis of Kashgar, Kuchá, Kyzyl and Turfan. They were the principal arteries for trade and the transmission of religious and scientific ideas. These Central Asian kingdoms along the Silk Road were rich flourishing gardens in the desert. Such famous travellers [p. 15] as Hsüan Tsang in the seventh and Marco Polo in the thirteenth century have left us vivid descriptions of their beauty. The hardships of the journey over snow-clad passes and across burning sands were relieved only by the luxury and plenty found in these romantic oasis cities.

The frescoes from the cave-temples in these kingdoms show splendid horsemen, presumably just like those whom Hsüan Tsang describes as riding out to meet him when he arrived on his way to India. These cavaliers wore high boots and riding-coats of silk falling to the knees and taken in at the waist with metal belts. Their tunics of blue, grey, white and olive green were embroidered with pearls and lined and trimmed with fur. They must have presented a splendid sight with their coloured and gilded banners and their standards sculptured and painted with heraldic animals such as the tiger or the dragon.

Marco Polo seems to have taken the southern route for, speaking of Khotan, he says, 'everything necessary for human life is here in the greatest plenty - cotton, flax, hemp, grain, wine. The inhabitants cultivate farms and vineyards and have numerous gardens. They also make a living by trade and manufacture.'

But moments of relaxation in these desert cities, with their refinement and luxury, did not overcome the fear of the desert that filled the hearts of even such intrepid merchants as the Chinese. As late as the thirteenth century Marco Polo says, 'it is a well-established opinion that the desert is inhabited by spirits who call the travellers by their names and speak to them as if they were their companions, thus leading them into the abyss. One hears the sound of music; of arms and tambours . . .'

With these merchant caravans - laden with Alexandrian glassware [particularly welcome all over Asia], silk, spices, ivory and elephants from India for the Roman armies, precious stones, jade, coral, [p. 16] amber and crystal - came widely differing types of people. Syrian jugglers and acrobats mingled with diplomats and high priests. Christians, Hindus and Buddhists lived side by side, and at Tun-huang, as in all the other Central Asian kingdoms, a hybrid population came into being.

Though this route was used even by Byzantine envoys, in the thirteenth century the Silk Road became far safer for travel as a result of the Mongol consolidation of power in this region. Astonishingly accurate accounts have been left both by Western and by Chinese travellers describing such battles as the crossing of the Yangtze by the Sui and the sieges of the Byzantines by the Arabs, both in the seventh century. These memoirs disclose a picture of the great exchange of technical, scientific and religious ideas that took place between East and West. Guillaume Bouchier, for example, a Parisian goldsmith, worked in this region in the thirteenth century and was surely responsible for the fleur-de-lys motif painted on the robes of Buddha images [Needham]. Kumárajíva, son of an Indian father and Princess Jíva of Kuchá, became the most renowned Buddhist teacher in China. The Han emperor Wu Ti, in the second century B.C., extended the Great Wall both as a protection against the Hun invaders and as a barrier preventing the inhabitants from mixing with 'foreign barbarians'. Never has a fortification had such terrible associations for the people it was designed to protect. 'The bones of millions of men are buried in the Great Wall,' runs an old saying, and this is the theme of many Chinese folk-songs.

As in most periods of expansion, the splendour of the Han Empire [206 B.C. - A.D. 220] was built on much human misery. Later poets, in particular the great Li Po, sang of the desolate cries of the lost men who built the Wall: [p. 19]

Better for a man to die fighting;
How can one support the sorrow of oppression
While Building the Great Wall?
The Great Wall it goes without end,
It runs three thousand li over the earth.

The builders perished at their task. 'Alas, the dry bones on the shores of the Wu-Ting are still men who appear in the dreams of their loved ones.'

To consolidate the Great Wall, the Han emperors constructed an uninterrupted line of forts which ran from Chiu-ch'üan [the Fountain of Wine] to the east, passed north of Tun-huang, and across the salt marshes to the west. These fortifications were similar to those built by the Romans. History proved the utility of this construction, for throughout the centuries Tun-huang and the other forts were constantly subjected to attack. An anonymous poet wrote:

Bitter sorrow it is to inhabit the frontier.
Three of my sons went to Tun-huang,
Another sent to Lung-hai,
The fifth still further West,
Their five wives are pregnant.

The entire region was made an administrative area in 105 B.C. after General Ho Ch'ü-ping's brilliant victory over the Huns in 121 B.C. The foundation of Tun-huang dates back to this epoch, and the following imperial edict to the governor of the nearby fortress of Chiu-ch'üan explains its origin.

'Two thousand soldiers together with generals and officials are to proceed to occupy a locality in order to establish there an agricultural colony. It will be the duty of the governor to examine the configuration of this place and by utilizing natural obstacles a rampart will be constructed in order to exercise control. Let there be no negligence of any kind, and let the orders be conformed to .' 4

The governor of Tun-huang was the chief administrator of the western fortification, which was divided into several sectors under different military commanders. The 'Yü-Mên', or the Jade Gate, was one of these sectors, and soldiers from distant provinces, Shansi, Szechwan, Honan and Kiangsu were sent here for border service. Many of the men were deported convicts.

Watch-towers were distributed over the entire region; they were equipped with fire signals to warn of the approach of an enemy, as were those constructed by the Genoese much later along the shores of the Mediterranean.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries European explorers and travellers, Kropotkin the Russian, Sven Hedin the Swede, Bonin the Frenchman, and Sir Aurel Stein the Englishman discovered traces of these Han garrisons and watch-towers. Nothing is more poignant and revealing of this past and its human drama than the object brought to light after two thousand years. The Han rubbish dumps buried near the walls contained horse dung and dried branches of poplar for fires, an inscribed box containing one hundred bronze arrow-heads belonging to the Chu-chüeh company; pottery, spoons, combs, woven string shoes, beating rods, dice and silk rolls, documents on wood, paper, leather and silk; dated records of A.D. 17; folded and addressed letters, calendars, writing-slips and books [Stein].

We learn from these documents that capital punishment was carried out only after an application to the Throne, but corporal punishment [as in most armies until the nineteenth century] could be administered up to two hundred and thirty strokes. The men, simple soldiers torn from their loved ones, dreaded the icy wind which 'goes whistling through the Gate of Jade.' Yet the writing-slips on which they strove to improve their calligraphy are a silent witness to their efforts to better themselves in spite of such terrible conditions.

Even so far from the heart of the empire, the remains of quantities of books have been found, including a large number of primers and such classics as Liu Hsiang's Biographies of Eminent Women, written at the end of the first century A.D. [Stein]. [p. 22]

The strategic importance of Tun-huang is evident from the story that in circa 104 B.C. the Son of Heaven fell into a violent rage when he heard the news that General Li Kuang-li, who had ridden out of the city with ten thousand men to meet the Ta-Wan [Ferchana], had been defeated. The emperor immediately sent emissaries to close the Jade Gate and declared that any member of the defeated army who ventured to enter the city would at once be decapitated. General Li Kuang-li 'was overcome with fear and remained at Tun-huang,' we are told. The emperor, however, later relented, as he sent the general for his second and victorious expedition some sixty thousand men, not counting camp-followers, thirty thousand horses, and one hundred thousand cattle [Stein]. The deployment of such forces would strain the resources of any city, even today.

Beyond the western limits of the Great Wall and its Jade Gate, in the vast desert valley of the Su-lo Ho, lie the green oasis of Tun-huang and Chi'ien-fo Tung, the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas. One thousand miles from Peking, watered by the perpetual snows on the Nan Shan ranges, it was the base from which China advanced across the Great Gobi into the Tarim basin and the Celestial Mountains.

When one reaches the airport of Chiu-ch'üan, one sees ranges of bare weathered hills and in the background the deep blue of the snow-capped Nan Shan. The rest of the journey is by jeep, which takes the new desert road, while the horse-drawn carts with their curiously large wheels [the same as those painted in the frescoes of the caves] follow the old track taken by explorers and archaeologists such as Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot.

Tall poplars seem to emerge from the blue waters of a lake shimmering in the heat, with curious rocks reflected in its milky surface; this vision is like some long-forgotten mirror, reflecting a dream; it is a mirage, receding before us as we advance, and it is this vision that is so often painted on the walls of the Caves of Ch'ien-fo Tung. A herd of gazelles scatters towards the hills. The wheels of the carts creak piercingly as they wend their way; hundreds of lorries pound [p. 23] along what may now be called the oil road, for upon the arid slopes and hills the black derricks of the oil-fields stand out against purplish red, yellow and pink peaks.

Passing the oasis town of Tun-huang after eleven hours on the road, we turn left and drive fifteen kilometers further into the desert; we enter a silent valley, the wide river-bed in summer holding only a stream. Suddenly the greenish-grey spurs of a sand ridge rise perpendicularly out of the desert from north to south. Here, dug directly into the sand cliff, are the first caves. 'A multitude of dark cavities honeycomb the somber rock in irregular tiers. From the foot of the precipice flights of steps connect the grottoes, the whole resembling the troglodyte dwellings of anchorites seen in early Italian paintings.' 5

The bells of the Ming gateway ring out softly as we drive under the rustling branches, the hour is sunset, and the outline of distant mountains, the white plastered wall, the tops of the trees, the vast desert beyond the river-bed, the luminous st�pas where the monks lie buried, the distant hills - all are in carnadine, glowing in a liquid crimson light.

From their foundation in A.D. 366 by the monk Lo Tsun the caves suffered repeatedly from invasions. The most important was in 763, when Tun-huang was conquered by the Tibetans. The monks were influential in bringing about the return of the region to imperial control on June 23, 848. In recognition of this the elders Hung Jên and Wu Chan were given ecclesiastical titles by the Son of Heaven; this rather wonderful letter was found among the documents walled up in one of the caves.

'O Master Hung Jên, you are an excellent child of China and a model of discipline for the western countries. Your conduct is pure and you guard in your most profound being the sword of intelligence. You continue, at a great distance, to cherish your ancient country. I confer on you the title of assistant to the altar beyond the capital, and I bestow on you the violet garment, so that you may be [p. 24] resplendent among the somber costumes of the barbarians. I do not know, O Master, if you will well support the heat of the summer . . . You have changed the hearts of those men of strange race, their irascible and violent spirit has been [through the sovereign doctrine] entirely suppressed.' 6

The splendor of the monasteries has long since disappeared. At one time there were over a thousand grottoes, and today there remain four hundred and sixty-nine chapels, their walls magnificently covered with frescoes. The rock is friable and unsuitable for carving. Before being painted, the walls were prepared with a first coat of mud mixed with dung, straw and animal hair and were finished off with a layer of white kaolin, used for making pottery. The colours employed in the paintings were malachite green, azurite blue, orpiment yellow, iron oxide or earth red, vermilion or cinnabar, gold-leaf, lamp black, white lead, kaolin and red lead; the pigments were mixed with glue and painted on to the prepared wall surface. The technique was not usually al fresco, although they are generally referred to as frescoes. Many techniques seem to have been employed for the actual design, including free-hand drawings, stencils and compasses for the nimbuses or haloes. But whatever technique was used, the overall effect of the intricate and well-balanced compositions which cover the wall surface is one of incredible richness.

Chinese archaeologists have discovered that in a great many of the caves the walls have three different layers of frescoes, superimposed one upon the other. They correspond to frescoes painted at different epochs - for example, Wei, Sui and T'ang. The work involved in taking off each layer of paint without destroying the others and placing each layer in another location, poses a technical problem of the greatest magnitude. It could perhaps be undertaken by real international co-operation.

The survival of these caves is something of a miracle. One trembles at the thought that they were for over fifteen hundred years subject to barbarian invasions, and also exposed to erosion by the devastating [p. 25] desert winds that sweep down from the north, 'the wind which sings in the trees of the Bodhi.'

In ancient times numerous monasteries lay among the groves of elms and poplars running alongside the caves. Today the plastered white buildings of the newly-constructed Tun-huang Research Institute lie under their swaying branches.

At the beginning of this century nearly twenty thousand MSS were discovered where they had been walled up in the eleventh century for protection against invaders. Having been forgotten for eight hundred years, they were found by Chinese workmean while repairing the wall of one of the larger caves. A great part of these texts, which are found in Europe, brought by Paul Pelliot and Sir Aurel Stein, are written in Chinese, Tibetan, Turki, Uighur, Tokharian, Brahmi and Old Persian. They were to cast a brilliant if fitful light on the extraordinary community of peoples that lived in Central Asia, and they have had a revolutionary effect on the study of Chinese literature, for they contain MSS of popular Buddhist narrative. This speaks for the importance of Tun-huang, for even today twenty thousand MSS would be considered a library of significance.

Paul Pelliot says that he felt intoxicated when the monk in charge opened the doors of the storehouse and he remembered the superstitious awe with which Petrarch looked upon Greek texts for the first time.

From the middle of the fourth century Tun-huang grew in importance as a centre, not only of trade, but of Buddhist learning, and is today the glorious repository of an unbroken tradition of Chinese painting from its foundation right up to the debased art of the Ch'ing dynasty in the nineteenth century. One thousand five hundred years of painting - one of the richest museums in the world. Tun-huang owes its greatness as a cultural centre to its benefactors: merchants, army commanders, religious societies, royal and princely donors. [p. 26]

Inscriptions on the walls bring us close to the men and women who donated them, for frequently these caves were for generations maintained by the same family or religious association. Cave 309, for example, was built by 'the Celestial Princess who bears the Li family name and who is the third daughter of the Great King-Emperor, by celestial brevet of the Great Kingdom of Yu t'ien [Khotan], [and who] makes this offering because she has recently become the wife of the Great Preceptor Ts'ao Yen [governor of Tun-huang].' 7

Above another painting we read, 'the chief of the battalion of infantry Te Hang-chia, pure and pious, has reverently painted a representation of the Bodhisattva Kuan-shih-yin, in the hope that the souls of his father and mother will be born in the pure earth [Sukhávat�] and that all members of his family, great and small, will find perpetual happiness. I make a vow that I, donor with a full heart, will present offerings and never cease to burn incense and will keep the lamps alight; this will serve to remind me in later years. In the fourth year of K'ai-pao, the sixth day of the ninth month [15th Oct. 972].'

A battalion commander of infantry at Tun-huang made an invocation 'with a full heart to Kuan-yin for her to protect the fortified towns so that the district will prosper and that the routes to the east towards China and to the west will be open and free; that in the north the Tartars and in the south the Tibetans cease their depredations and revolts. Third day of the seventh month of the fourth year of K'ai-yun [2nd Aug. 947].' 8

As one enters a cave at Tun-huang and looks silently at the walls, the majestic calm of the Buddhas and other divinities, hieratically still and immense, contrast with the secular scenes where the life [p. 29] of man, the mere earth-dweller, continues on its mundane course. Busily he rushes around, be he prince or peasant, slave, soldier or merchant. Galloping cavaliers fight endless battles; merchants sail ships on rough seas; cavaliers venture forth from strong fortified cities for remote regions; pious devotees stand or kneel in reverence. Man ploughs, hunts, intrigues; dancing girls whirl to the music of ancient instruments in painted and sculptured pavilions, while the spiritual world of compassionate benevolence, the w orld of the eternal Buddhas, looks down upon it all.

In this world of man - the landscape of the Chinese countryside, the strange rocks, the waterfalls, the endless miles of fantastic mountains and plateaux, the trees, the lotus ponds, the wild mountain gorges - they continue their evolution from the early vigorous landscapes of the fifth century to the monochrome world of the eleventh-century Sung poets.

As can be imagined, the mingling of many races is reflected in the paintings. At Tun-huang a powerful Chinese idiom meets an equally strong tradition from India and Central Asia. This inevitably leads to an art that has its own individuality. But the spirit that dominates almost all the paintings, except those actually executed by foreigners, is Chinese. The old abstract swirling movement seen in cloud-scrolls and early bronzes is here and carries all before it. Never has this telling brush-stroke been produced by any other people except the Chinese. In some caves of the Wei, Sui and T'ang period the movement is almost overwhelming. One can well understand that Wu Tao-tzú's painting was said to be 'so lively that the silk could hardly contain it.'

Tun-huang is not, as is often claimed, an isolated phenomenon, but can be closely integrated with all phases of Chinese painting. An inscription in Cave 321 informs us that an atelier for craftsmen was set up by the administration of the 'Sand and Melon county', as the region of Tun-huang was called.

The whole evolution of landscape painting as found in the frescoes of Tun-huang is closely linked with the most ancient tradition of Chinese art, as well as with the development of painting at court. As few Buddhist murals survive in other parts of the country, we [p. 30] know only from literature that the subjects treated here are similar to those painted by great artists Ku K'ai-chih, Chang Sêng-yu, Wang Wei, Wu Tao-tzú, etc. It was from Tun-huang that Chinese landscape painting influenced the painting of Iran and Tibet, Central Asia and India. This influence also reached Indonesia and India by sea.

The three main forms of Chinese mountains spread over half the world. We find the stratified mountains as first seen in pre-han bronzes, the cone-shaped variety, and mountains with trees along the ridges. They are seen in Sassanian silverware, Persian miniatures, Indian Jain MSS, and Javanese reliefs. Animal and human figures threading in and out of winding valleys are seen in Central Asia and Tibet. 9

If Tun-huang disseminated Chinese techniques and ideas to the West, it was also the centre whence Western and Indian influence infiltrated into China; the use of shading to give the effect of volume [which probably came from India] seems to have started in Tun-huang earlier than in the rest of China.

Nowhere can the development of landscape painting be studied with such profit, and nowhere does it appear with such continuity as at Tun-huang. [p. 31]


1. Based upon a translation by E. Chavannes.

2. Based upon a translation by E. Chavannes.

3. Based upon a translation by E. Chavannes.

4. Based upon a translation by E. Chavannes.

5. Sir Marc Aurel Stein, Ruins of Desert Cathay, London, 1912, vol. 2, p. 23.

6. Based upon a translation by E. Chavannes.

7. Based upon a translation by E. Chavannes.

8. Based upon a translation by P. Pelliot.

9. J. Auboyer, 'L'influence chinoise sur le paysage dans la peinture de l'Orient et dans le sculpture de l'Insulinde', in: Revue des arts asiatiques, Paris, 1935, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 338 f.

[De Silva, Anil and photographs by Dominque Darbois. The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting in the Caves of Tun-Huang. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1964.]



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