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Sixty caves from the late Tang dynasty, from Dazhong second year (848 A.D.) to the Tianyou fourth year (907 A.D.), have been preserved in the Mogao Grottoes. Cave 156 is one of the typical caves built during the time.
The Anlushan Rebellion broke out in the Tianbao 14th year (755 A.D.) under the reign of Tang Emperor Xuanzong. As An captured Luoyang and claimed himself the “Emperor Dayan”, followed by Tongguan fell to the hand of the enemy’s, the capital Chang’an fell into a state of chaos. Xuanzong fled to Sichuan in a flurry. Prince Li Heng led his army northward to Lingwu and proclaimed himself the new emporer, later knowns as Tang Emperor Suzong. Emperor Suzong transferred troops from Beiting and Anxi towns in Hexi and Longyou to suppress the rebellion, weakenning the military strengths in the western frontiers. Seeing the internal chaos of the Tang imperial court, the Tibetan regime from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which was experiencing a powerful and prosperous period, launched a surprise attack in Hexi, and quickly captured Liangzhou, Ganzhou and Suzhou. The Tang troops remained in Shazhou, together with officials, soldiers, and refugees from the east of Dunhuang, tried their best to resist the Tibetan invasion for 11 years, but were finally being conquered in 781 A.D. (or 786 A.D.). The Longyou and Hexi Corridor fell under Tibetan reign for the next 70 years. During the period, ethnic conflicts were acute. People of Hexi and Longyou missed the Tang rules. In 848 A.D., Zhang Yichao, a native of Shazhou, allied with other tribes and led an uprising while the Tibetan regime was stuck in a civil strife. The Han people and other ethnic groups responded in succession to fight against the Tibetan rulers. Zhang reclaimed Dunhuang and Jinchang and successively liberated 11 prefectures in Hexi from Tibetan rules, and was in charge of prefecture affairs. As a result, “they captured a land that stretched for four thousand miles to Yiwu on the west and Lingwu on the east, and millions of households, and reclaimed the territory of all six prefectures.” In Dazhong 5th year (851 A.D.), the Tang government established the Return to Allegiance Army Regime (Guiyijun) in Hexi, and appointed Zhang Yichao as the governor stationing in Dunhuang. The history of Dunhuang thus entered the late Tang dynasty, which was known as the “Reigning Period of Zhang Yichao”. In Xiantong 8th year (867 A.D.), the Tang government invited Zhang Yichao to the royal court and granted him land and residence in the capital. His nephew Zhang Huaishen continued to govern Hexi after him. In Xiantong 13th year (872 A.D.), Zhang Yichao died in Chang’an at the age of 74. Mogao Cave 156 was Zhang’s cave of merit, which should have been carved around Xiantong 5th year (864 A.D.).
Cave 156 has an antechamber, a hallway, and a main chamber. The antechamber is rectangular. The front part has unfortunately collapsed. On the upper left hand corner of the north wall of the antechamber, there is an inscription stating the date of “the fifteenth day of the first lunar month in the sixth year of Xiantong”, which is valuable piece of data for the study of the building time of the Mogao Grottoes. The main chamber is square, and has an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling with four slopes. Each side of the main chamber is about 6.20 meters in length. A niche with a square opening and a truncated pyramid top was carved on the west wall. On the concave meditation platfomr sits a headless main statue. There are no niches on the south and north walls. Both walls are covered with murals. The medium-sized cave has an orderly layout. The whole cave was used to enshrine and worship the Buddha and Bodhisattvas and pray for good karma in the afterlife. Naturally, the illustration paintings of Buddhist sutras are the main subject in the cave. There are 14 sutra transformations in the main chamber and two in the antechamber, forming 16 total. On the south and north walls of the hallway are tall portraits of male and female donors. A mandala was painted on the top also. The characteristics of Cave 156 are rich in contents, dense and diverse in elements, and diverse in styles and exquisite painting skills.
The first mural on the north wall from the west is an illustration of the Requiting Kindness Sutra, based on the Ulambana Sutra of Mahavaipulya Buddha. The composition is basically the same to that of an illustration of the Pure Land. In the painting, you can see the Shakyamuni Buddha sitting in the middle, two attendant Bodhisattvas standing on his left and right sides, and the assembly of Bodhisattvas, sravakas, supernatural beings of eight categories and their dependents surrounding listening to the Dharma preaching. The white hair between the two eyebrows on the forehead of the Buddha emits a colorful clouds, inside which three Buddhas emerge standing. The upper right hand corner was painted with the story of one of Buddha’s past life as Sujati and the lower corner another of Buddha’s past life as Prince Good Brother. The Pair of Good and Evil brothers is a story mostly depicted in among Gratitude Sutra transformations in the Mogao Grottoes. The Gratitude Sutra promotes loyalty to the country and filial piety to parents, which were advocated by imperial rulers and accepted by the Chinese people. Illustrated texts and mural of the Requiting Kindness Sutra were quite popular in the Mogao Grottoes from the Tang Dynasty. The Gratitude Sutra upholds the Buddhist doctrine that those who are kind and filial will get a good karma, which reflects the confluence of Confucianism and Buddhism in China.
The Pair of Good and Evil Brothers story goes like this: The Prince Good Brother of the Varanasi Kingdom in ancient India went out of the town for an excursion. Upon seeing the sufferings of ordinary folks along the way, he felt sympathetic and decided to open the treasury to the people, which was opposed by the ministers. Hearing that there were countless treasures at the bottom of the sea, and a wish-fulfilling pearl that could offer whatever is requested, the Good Brother decided to go seek them. He invited a blind man Hai-shi as his guide, and his younger brother the Evil Brother as his companion. The Good Brother set off for the sea and arrived at a Silver Mountain, a Gold Mountain, an an Earth Treasure City. The blind guide passed away along the arduous journey. The Evil Brother’s ship sank under the weight of too much gold and silver. The Good Brother thus ventured to the Dragon Palace alone, where he managed to get the pearl. When he returned to the land, he met his brother who had survived the shipwreck. The Evil Brother, however, was jealous. He stabbed his elder brother’s eyes with bamboo and went away with the pearl. The Good Brother fell with unbearable pain, but encountered five hundred bulls passing him by. The Bull King protected him with its body, licked his eyes, and pulled out the bamboo. The prince was eventually rescued by the herd and later worked as a guardian for the Kingdom of Rishbarda. One day, while the Good Brother was playing the zither in the garden, the princess of the kingdom came to him. They fell in love and got married. After learning about the identity of the Good Brother, the King of Rishbarda dispatched officials to send the couple back to Varanasi. Officials of Varanasi went out of the town to welcome their prince. After returning to the home country, the prince released the Evil Brother who had been imprisoned by his father king. The prince erected a high pole outside the town, with the wish-fulfilling pearl placed on the top. Countless clothes began to fall like a rain. The ordinary folks picked whatever they needed and were very delighted.
The mural in Cave 156 focused on depicting several scenes, such as the prince going out of the city, seeking treasure in the sea, the Evil Brother stabbing his brother’s eyes, the cattle licking and pulling out the bamboo, the prince playing zither under a tree, the reunion between mother and son, and clothes falling from the pearl. The figures were painted against the background of city walls, mountains, the coast, trees and animals, revealing the specific plot and making the scenes vivid and clear to the viewers.
On the top north side of Cave 156’s antechamber is an illustration of the Sutra on the Profound Kindness of Parents. The sutra was authored by a Chinese monk to uphold filial piety from Confucianism. Other than Dunhuang, such works can also been found in the stone carvings in other places in China. There is an illustration in the stone carving in the Buddha Bay of Baoding Mountain, Dazhu, Sichuan dating back to the Southern Song dynasty, measuring 7 meters high and 14 meters long. It vividly reproduced the scenarios of which parents endure all kinds of hard works to raise their children. These illustrations indicate that in the dissemination process of Buddhism in China, it have been constantly integrated with local Confucianism and traditional ideas.
In the hallway of Cave 156, there are also 37 donor portraits of different sizes. The paintings of Zhang Yichao and Madame Song of the Henei Prefecture at the lower parts of the south and north walls feature grand scenes, novel compositions, and vivid character modelings. Their content and artistic expression techniques are of certain historical significance and aesthetic values. The two paintings are both in horizontal roll styles, each with a length of 8.2 meters and a width of 1.05 meters. They face each other across the hallway. The size and scattering of the characters are of harmony and unity with the background fields, grasslands and roads.
The procession of the military governor Zhang Yichao is led by eight riders on a horse advancing in two lines. They wear brocade embroidered with rounded flowers, felt caps, felt boots. They raise their arms to beat the drum and play the trumpet. What follow are the guards of honor composed of ten warriors riding on five pairs of horse. They are also advancing in two rows, holding flags and spears. The flags fluttering in the wind. All warriors are dressed in armor and martial attire, carrying arrows at their waists, riding on horses. The warriors are followed by two riders on a horse carrying guide pipes, which are further followed by eight musicians and dancers in pairs, a band of 12 drummers. On each side, a person is carrying a big drum, while another beating the drum with two sticks. The band carries a variety of musical instruments, such as clappers, horizontal flutes, vertical flutes, pipas, konghous, sheng reed pipes, cymbals, and waist drums. The members of the band are also moving in two rows, playing the musical instruments as the dancers are dancing. On both sides of the road are 16 guard leaders wearing headscarfs and red gowns, moving slowly to lead the way. Three pairs of six army flags and a pair of door-like flags ornamented with a yak’s tail and long narrow flag each side. Three riders on a horse at the middle of the road follow. The first two holding an umbrella like object, a tally ornamented with a yak’s tail covered with a pocket pouch outside. There are a total of 63 characters in the front of the procession. Except for the dancers who are walking, all the other 43 characters are riding on horses, advancing in good order. The procession moves on along the road, which appears solemn. The image is full of symmetrical and orderly aesthetic elements. After the riders carrying the tally are another three riders, who are military official generals and commanding officers. What comes next is eight officials, who are wearing felt caps, single-color side-split shirts, pairs of white felt boots, leather belts at their waists, and holding a silver sword in each. Then there is a bridge. On both sides at one end of the bridge are standing leaders of guards, followed by Zhang Yichao, the military envoy and minister of the Guiyijun Regime in Hexi, also the owner of the Cave 156.
Zhang Yichao is in the center of the picture, who appears tall and eye-catching. There is a title inscription that reads, “The painting of marching of Zhang Yichao, the military governor of Hexi and the imperial censor, led an army to eliminate and drive away the Tibetans and reclaim the territory of Hexi”. Zhang Yichao is wearing a gauze headscarf and a red robe, riding on a white horse. His one hand is holding a horsewhip and the other the rein. He was accompanied by two soldiers holding to the horse’s bridle, escorting on both sides. The horse is followed closely by another two riders. The clothes they wear are the same as those worn by the guard leaders in the front. They should be Yuhou officers. Next are riders in three rows, with five members in each. Everyone holds an object respectively, including bow pocket, quiver, sword, shield, spare, circular fan and flag with a character “Honesty” on it. They are all dressed in colorful clothes, leather belts, headscarves, and pairs of white boots. The title inscription reads “close guides”, indicating that they are the close guards of Zhang Yichao, with the Yuhou officer is the leader of the close guards in the commanding camp. The scene of hunting wild boars and carrying luggage at the end of the procession is painted on the north side of the east wall. These images show that Zhang Yichao trained the soldiers well and emphasized armaments and military provisions after reclaiming the territory of Hexi and stationing at Dunhuang.
The painting of the Procession of Madame of the State of Song begins with a pole-lifting performance and a dancing band, capturing the audience with a thrilling eye-catching scene. A strong man lift a pole, wearing a red jacket with broad sleeves and an open front, a green short skirt and a belt at the waist. He is balancing the pole on his head. At the top of the pole are two cross bars, on which three kids are performing acrobats in the air. One kid opens his arms, both feet cling tightly to the pole, as if climbing upward. Nearby, there is another strong man raising his hands high ready to catch the kid. A group of dancers is next to them. Four of them are wearing shirts with cross collars and long sleeves, breast-high full-length dresses with scarves at the chest and long ribbons flying on the shoulders. They lift their chest, bend their waist, twist their wrists and cross their feet, dancing while swinging their sleeves. A musician next to them holds a pair of clappers to give the rythm. Another musician plays the vertical flute while walking on slowly. He was followed by a person carrying a big drum on the back, and another beating it. Behind the dancers are eleven musicians standing in two lines, playing musical instruments like sheng reed pipes, cymbals, pipas, konghous, clappers, tambourines and waist drums. There are also three pairs of silver sword holders, who are following the musicians and dancers as security guards. After the band, there is a luggage cart, pulled by a white horse. Two drivers stand on both sides of the horse are holding the shafts of the cart. The title inscription reads “the luggage cart of the Minister’s Madame”. There are eight maids behind the carriage, who are either holding a circular fan or a parcel. What follows are two sedans. Both with pointed tops, six corners, and a pot-shaped door below. The sedan carriers are wearing red side-split trousers and long gowns, felt caps and pairs of felt boots. They are moving and gasping from time to time under the heavy burden. After the sedans are six servants, with male servants on the right and female on the left. A female official wearing a flower crown follows the four luggage carts closely, holding the bridle and a whip and riding on a red horse. After the horse is four female musicians, of whom the two on the left are wearing nun suits, with their hair cut. The musical instruments include pipas, konghous and sheng reed pipes. There are eight silver sword holders on the left and right.
Next comes the protagonist, Madame Song, with the title inscription “The painting of Madame Song of Henei Prefecture in the State of Song’s Procession”. Madame Song appears tall, wearing a flower crown, with a hairpin inserted at the back of her head. She is wearing a green cross-collar dress with broad sleeves, a corset at the chest, riding on a strong white horse with long mane. The pleats and headwear of the protagonist, and the mane have clear lines, which were obviously re-painted in later dynasties. The horse boy on the right and the maid on the left are following the Madame submissively. After the horse are nine female officials riding on horses. Some of them dressed like men. They are either holding a parcel, or a circular fan, following closely in two rows, with four in the front and five at the back. The last part of the mural is painted on the north side of the east wall. Six aides on horses follow as part of the luggage carrying team. The painting ends with a training scene of riding and shooting.
The pole lifting performance depicted in this mural should have been based on the “acrobatic show” recorded by Zhang Heng in his Prose of Western Capital. In the picture, a strong man is lifting a pole. He plants his left foot on the floor, lifts his right foot and stretches both hands to a flat level, bending his waist and twisting his hip to maintain the balance. If a vertical line were drawn from the top of the pole to the floor, you will be able to see that the center of gravity shifts towards the right, which cannot support and keep the balance. The right foot is lifted and ready to step forward before it returns to the right. The stretched right arm indicates that the man has exerted all his strength. His left elbow lifts to keep his arms level with his shoulders, while his forearms and wrists slide subconsciously, indicating that he is in a state of high concentration. Such a movement in a still picture allows us to see three continuous actions from his left foot planting on the floor to secure stability to the center of gravity shifting forward to his right leg. The previous action forebodes the next one, intensifying movement effect of the character. If the image is of both feet planted steadily on the floor, it will surely greatly pale the modelling of the pole-lifting performer.
There are 114 characters in the Processions of Zhang Yichao, including 80 riding on horses, two mules, two camels, one hound and two gazelles. In the one for Madame Song, there are 124 characters, 36 horses, five luggage carts, two sedans, two camels and one hound. Other than characters, the horses occupy a considerable proportion of space in the pictures. In ancient times, war horses were not only a tool for pulling carts and carrying people, but also played a very important role in military operations, which became a subject of praise and expression for painters, sculptors, and poets. These paintings are works of modelling with lines, whose painting techniques have obviously inherited the forms and expressive techniques of traditional paintings. The characters and horses are arranged and overlaid, echoing each other. The depictions are accurate and definite. The painting techniques are casual and smooth, powerful and vigorous, skillful and inclusive. The hair style and costume of the maids in the painting of Madame Song and the scenes of shooting and hunting at the end of the two paintings carry elements associated with the Painting of Hunting and Painting of Horse Shuttlecock in the tombs of Li Xianhui, the Yongtai Princess and Li Xian, the Zhanghuai Prince. The characters all feature full images and peaceful facial expressions, with the lines of their costumes flowing smoothly, fully manifesting the texture of silk.
The two paintings are masterpieces among similar categories of arts from previous dynasties. Including near 240 characters and more than 110 horses, the two paintings have shown grand scenes of historical significance with a long scroll of 8.2 meters each, which created precedents for long scroll painting of historical figures and was later imitated by other works, such as the Painting of Traveling of Zhang Huaishen (in Mogao Cave 94), the Painting of Traveling of Cao Yijin and the Painting of Traveling of the Uighur Princess (in Mogao Cave 100). The figures in the pictures are well-arranged among a solemn and orderly procession, alternated with changes. Despite the large number of figures, appropriate space is preserved to make the picture appear open and clear, highlighting a pattern of “sparse enough for horses and airtight enough to keep the wind out”. The green bars of the countryside and grasslands and the grey-white ones of the field ridges and road run through as a unified background, representing the vast and boundless geographic environment of the desert oasis in Dunhuang. The large number of red clothes and red horses have created a warm tone and atmosphere for the picture. The two paintings of Processions can be both considered as works of cavalier perspective. Everything changes with the landscape. Each part of the whole picture is clear and distinct, without any perspective distortion that “things nearby appear big and things in the distance appear small”, which makes the viewers feel comfortable and harmonious. The paintings of the Zhang Yichao Procession has proven that they were all devout believers in Buddhism. They built the grottoes to pray for liberation and happiness in their afterlives. On the other hand, at that time, Buddhism had become the national religion and the Buddhism belief was prevailing. It was natural for them to follow the trend and pursue the fashion, while showing the great achievement of Zhang Yichao in reclaiming the territory of Hexi.