Dunhuang Cave Donors Part 1 敦煌石窟供养人第一部分

Dynastic Features 时代特征

This article is a direct translation of the selected Chinese texts from the Dunhuang Academy website with permission from the Dunhuang Academy. To read the article in Chinese, please click here. Images Courtesy of Digital Dunhuang of the Dunhuang Academy. 此文章为敦煌研究院授权其网站原文节选翻译。阅读原文中文版请点击这里。图像均由敦煌研究院授权发表。

The rich documentation of ancient Dunhuang donor activities in the Mogao Grottoes could be grouped into two categories: 1) reference materials about donors, which include about 7,000 inscriptions among the mural paintings in the Mogao caves, donor inscriptions on paintings on silk and paper excavated from the Library Cave, and writings about monastery and worldly Buddhist believers donor activities from the Tang and Song dynasties; 2) donor images, which include tens of thousands donor portraits in the Dunhuang Caves from the Sixteen Kingdoms period to the Yuan dynasty, and hundreds of portraits of donors from the the Tang, Five Dynasties, and Song dynasties on silk, hemp, and paper excavated from the Mogao Grottoes Library Cave.

Donor portraits with Xianbei ethnic features, mural painting, Mogao Cave 285 north wall.

Dunhuang cave donor portraits from different historical periods exhibit different features. In the early Sixteen Kingdoms period, images in Northern Liang, Northern Wei, Western Wei, and Northern Zhou caves were very small. Individual portrait was only under 20cm in height. They were usually painted on the south or north wall, or in a line form in the lower middle portion of the south and north walls, inside the cave. Portraits from the Sui and Tang periods were bigger in size and increased in quantities. They were painted lower in the caves, usually on the bottom of each wall surrounding the cave. Donor images from the late Tang Dynasty Zhang Family Guiyijun (Return of Allegiance Army) period got much taller, with some of life size. They also started painting in the entry hallways. Subjects were the cave owner, or those closely related, starting to express the family cave nature (of the Dunhuang caves). While inheriting the portrait styles from the late Tang period, paintings from the Five Dynasties Cao Family Guiyijun period also had new features, which include equal to larger life size donor images. In addition, the family cave nature was more emphasized by including portraits of several generations of males, females, elderlies, children, and even deceased members from the cave owner’s family. During the Shazhou Uyghur, Tangut, and Yuan dynasties, there were rarely any donor images. Those few images were much smaller in height and scale, and had no set positions, with some (painted) higher and others lower. (This historical trend) indicated that donor status in the Dunhuang caves got more important later on when the portraits got bigger and the location (changed to) the bottom of the four walls and hallways. However, the situation in the Yulin Grottoes was a little different from that of the Mogao Grottoes. (In the Yulin Grottoes), there are paintings on all four walls in the ante-chambers, ante-hallways, and the portraits were relatively smaller, not as tall and large as those from the same period in the Mogao Grottoes.

Female donor portraits, mural painting, Mogao Cave 285 north wall.

The artistic expression of these donor portraits also had historical features of the different periods. During the Sixteen Kingdoms and Northern Dynasties periods, donors showed northern minority ethnic, such as those of Xianbei, features. Sui and early Tang dynasty males (in the paintings) wore round neck robes and females wore slim shirts, small cuffs, and long skirts. High Tang Dynasty portraits illustrated the consensus aesthetic appreciation of roundness and plumpness of the time. Middle Tang Dynasty images had influences from High Tang styles, and at the same time, had portraits in foreign dresses. Till late Tang dynasty, especially during the Five Dynasties and Song periods, all cave donors were painted about the same, which were relatively dull and boring. Female donor portraits showed obvious dynastic features. The later the dynastic periods the more detailed. Early images were basically rough outline shapes. Sui and early Tang portraits started to show dress patterns. Late Tang, especially Five Dynasties and Song portraits had detailed delineation of the dress patterns and styles, expressed with complicated varieties. Male and female donors from each dynasty were separately painted at different locations, either left or right, but never on the same wall, strongly reflecting the differentiation between males and females since ancient China. Among the same gendered donors, those converted to Buddhism were always painted in front of all the other family members, stressing the Buddhist nature of the caves.

Monk and donor portraits, mural painting, Mogao Cave 220 north wall.

Donor inscriptions also showed some dynastic features. Early Sixteen Kingdoms and Northern Zhou period (inscriptions) usually only wrote donor names or Buddhist names, with most of (the donors) being Buddhist converters, and ending with characters of “offer with whole heart” (一心供养). Several later inscriptions contained official titles. Till Sui and early Tang dynasties, not only did the quantity of secular donors increase, but they also came with simple official titles. Middle Tang dynasty (inscription) developed on top of those from the early and high Tang. Till late Tang, Five Dynasties, and Song periods, the inscriptions became very long and complicated, emphasizing on showing individual reputation and merit services. Therefore, those donor inscriptions reflected a general trend: as the dynasties progressed, the “offering” in the writings inscribed became less related to Buddhism, but more to show individual status.

Continue to Part 2 – Donor and Portrait Types 继续阅读第二部分 – 供养人及其像类型

Original Translated Version: 08/04/2021