This article is provided by the Dunhuang Academy. All text and images published are authorized by the Dunhuang Academy.
The Western Wei Dynasty is usually defined by historians as the period from 535 A.D., when Gao Huan and Yuwen Tai divided the Northern Wei into the Eastern and Western Wei, to 557 A.D., wen Yuwen Tai eradicated Western Wei and established the Northern Wei. Dunhuang, however, has its unique local history. The Western Wei Dynasty referred to in Dunhuang was not defined strictly according to the regime changes in the Central Plains, but spanned from the late Northern Wei period to the Western Wei period. During this period, Wang Yuanrong of Dongyang served as the governor of Guazhou from the first year of Xiaochang (525 A.D.) or slightly earlier till the reign of Datong of the Western Wei Dynasty. Expert argued that the the new styles that emerged in the Mogao Grottoes was closely related to the appointment of the governor. There are nine existing caves built in the Western Wei Dynasty, among which Mogao Cave 249 and 285 are the most characteristic.
Built in the Western Wei Dynasty, Mogao Cave 249 is a palace hall with an inverted-funnel-shaped ceiling and an open niche on the west wall. The east wall was ruined. The south and north walls were covered with the Thousand Buddhas, leaving only the middle for the scene of a Dharma preaching. The ceiling of the cave is unique with paintings of elements from traditional Chinese culture and Buddhist themes.
In the middle of the ceiling’s west slope, a giant was painted standing in the sea. The giant is generally considered to be Asura. It is recorded in the Apadana Sutra that Asura “was so tall that all deep waters were below his knees, including the four seas. When standing in the ocean, his body was higher than the Sumeru Mountain. Looking down at the Trayastrimsa Palace, his hands were against the Sumeru Mountain.” Therefore, the academic community widely recognized this standing gaint to be Asura. This painting matches with the description that “the four seas were all below his knees”, while the mountain behind him is the Sumeria Mountain, of which he was taller than. There is a towering palace on the Sumeria Mountain, which is the residence of the Sakro devanam indrah in Buddhism. This painting is thus a painting of complete Buddhist themes.
The ceiling’s south slope was painted with an immortal riding in a phoenix chariot, and the north slope an immortal in a dragon carriage. These are generally believed to be a pair of powerful deities from traditional Chinese mythologies: the Eastern Lord and the Western Queen. Some scholars think the pair could be the Sakro devanam indrah and his queen. Others think they could also be the Sakro devanam indrah and Brahma.
In addition to the two main Taoist deities mentioned above, Mogao Cave 249 was also painted with a large number of characters from traditional Chinese mythologies and Taoist themes. For example, there are paintings of deities with a man’s head and a tiger’s body on the south, north and west slopes of the ceiling. Scholars think that these characters could be the Three Emperors. It was recorded in Shi Yi Ji, a historic supernatural novel written by Wang Jia of the Jin Dynasty, “On the land of Pinsi State, there was a big maple tree…there was a big stone chamber to the east of the tree, which could accommodate thousands of people. The walls were carved with the images of the Three Emperors. The Heavenly Emperor has 13 heads, the Earth Emperor 11, and the Human Emperor 9. All of them have the body of a dragon”. Consistent with this legend, the character on the north slope is 13-headed Heavenly Emperor, on the south the 11-headed Earth Emperor, and on the east the 9-headed Human Emperor.
In addition, the ceiling’s west slope was also painted with the four gods of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning. These four deities are natural gods, the products of the worship of nature in primitive societies. The Thunder God on the west slope is quite like the record in the book Lun Heng by Wang Chong of the Eastern Han Dynasty. “The form of thunder is like a row of drums connected together.” The figure in the painting seems to be a warrior of great strength. The figure holding an electric drill hitting the stones for sparks may be the Lightning God.
There are also four traditional Chinese direction gods on four ceiling slopes. Namely, Blue Dragon of the East, White Tiger of the West, Phoenix of the South, and Black Tortoise of the North. According to the Book of Rites, “The Phoenix is in the front and the Black Tortoise is at the back, the Blue Dragon is on the left and the White Tiger is on the right.” Therefore, as Kong Ying said, “The Phoenix, Black Tortoise, Blue Dragon and White Tiger are the names of the constellations in the four directions”. They were originally the totem images of different clans in ancient times, but became the guardians of Taoism later on. They gallop in Dunhuang caves and guard the four cardinal directions.
There is also a “Feather Man” with “ears growing on the top of his head”, naked and draped in a shawl, feathers growing on his arms, who could fly through the sky. This is likely the immortal from Wang Chong’s Lun Heng that “ascended to heaven, became an immortal after a thousand years of life.” The fiture usually appeared in tombs of the Han and Jin dynasties as a god who guides the souls of the deceased to heaven. There are also images of the Chinese warrior “Wu-huo” and the Wind God “Fei Lian” with a “head like that of a deer and wings on the back”. In the middle of the ceiling’s west slope, there is a very interesting figure with a human’s head and a bird’s body. Some people think this might be the Qian-qiu Bird (also called Yu-qiang). According to the book Jing Lv Yi Xiang, “Qian-qiu has a bird’s body and a human’s face. When a Qian-qiu bird was born, it would harm its own mother before attaining the spiritual state of an Arhat through cultivation.” Some people think that could also be “Zhuo mu”, a subordinate of the Thunder God from “Ancient Tales” in the book “Ancient Novels”, “Zhuo-mu was originally an herb-gathering subordinate of the Thunder God, who transformed into a bird”.
There is a not too big picture on the middle lower part of the ceiling. On each side of the picture is a hip-roofed building. There is one person sitting in each. The picture is simple. The two persons are not holding the horsetail whisks. The person on the left has a halo, while the one on the right doesn’t. And since they are sitting facing each other, some scholars think they might be the Manjusri and Vimalakirti, respectively. This picture could be interpreted according to the the chapter “Moving the Miaoxi Land with a Hand” in the Vimalakirti Sutra. The text goes that when Sariputra asked Buddha where the eloquent lay Buddhist Vimalakirti came from, the Buddha answered, “There is a land called Miaoxi. The Buddha is known as Wu-dong. Vimalakirti vanished from that land and came here.” Later, at the request of the audience, the Buddha invited Vimalakirti to show the Wu-dong Buddha and the Bodhisattvas of the Miaoxi Land. So he said a spell quietly, “I will not stand up to summon the Miaoxi Land here… All mountains of Sumeru, the sun, the moon and stars, all palaces occupied by dragons, the ghosts, the deities and the Brahma…Now using magic power, I will move the Miaoxi Land and place it here with my right hand.” In the picture, Asura is standing in the sea, with his head underneath the Sumeru Mountain. The castle at the mountain top appears lofty and majestic among the images of various gods of Wind, Rain, Thunder, and Lightning. This picture is an embodiment of the textual description.
Images of mountain forest animals were painted below those of the deities and supernatural, which may represent the “earth” and “mortal world” in contrast to the “heavenly” and “immortal land”. The canopy of the ceiling creates the separate spaces of the heaven and earth. The mountainous sceneries in early Mogao caves are mostly painted as background for stories or to separate individual plots, which appear immature in technique as character figures are bigger than mountains and trees are like stretched arms and fingers. The mountainous scenes in this cave have not yet deviate from this style, but the animal figures had changed dramatically. The earliest known animal figures in the Mogao Grottoes were the images of the eagle and the pigeon painted in the story of Buddha’s previous incarnation as King Shibi in Cave 275, but the two animals were considered as main protagonists. It was not until the Western Wei Dynasty that various animal figures began to appear in large numbers, showing an unprecedented abundance in representation. Real animals started to appear in almost all caves of this period. Cave 249 and Cave 285 are two most typical caves containing those animal images. In the mountain forests below the cave’s ceiling, there are tigers, sheep, deer, wild boar, wild ox, macaques, and so on, which included almost all birds and animals that is visible. Some of these images were sketched directly with a red paintbrush against a white background. Some were polished with water colors. And some used flat coloring directly on the painting. These images are realistic and vivid. The animals either appear in harmony, or are chasing each other as preys, forming a sharp contrast to the various mysterious supernatural creatures in the celestial world above. These animal figures can be considered as the best of early Chinese animal paintings. One animal could be depicted in different actions under different scenes. For instance, a sketched wild ox in the lower part Cave 249’s south ceiling slope is standing quietly. Its body is relaxed, tail wagging leisurely. On the north slope, however, is the painting of a frightened wild ox. The wild ox is running while looking nervously to its back. These two sketches have accurately and vividly depicted the different stataes of the two wild oxen, making them masterpieces of early Chinese animal sketches.
The artists not only showed their close observation in individual images, but also keen interests in the affection and harmony among animals. For example, in a sketch of a group of wild boars on the north slope of Cave 249 ceiling, a stout and strong wild sow is leading six piglets to forage in the mountain grass, with a quiet and peaceful surrounding. The sow is the focus of the scene, while the six little pigs are relatively simple and clear. The piglets follow the sow closely, and the affection between mother and children is highlighted. However, in nature, not everything is about peace and affection, there is also the law of the jungle and ruthless killing. There is also the picture of a hunter shooting a tiger. The tiger is chasing a hunter on horse back dressed in the Hu style. At the moment when the tiger is ready to jump on the hunter, the hunter suddenly turns around and stretches the bow to its full extent, aiming at the tiger. The painter has vividly depicted this intense and wonderful moment.
Animal images from this period are really rich. The large number of images of forest animals and hunting scenes are portrayals of the people’s enjoyment in landscapes and hunting at the time. While serving the religious purpose, the pictures are also a warm eulogy of nature and secular life. During the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties, the ethnic minorities in the north, the Han people in the Central Plains, and renowned scholars of the Southern Dynasty all seemed to be fond of the nature. They indulged in the landscapes and forests, came to contact, and observed the various animals in the wild. Although the mountain forest paintings in this period were still very primitive and unsophisticated, they reflected people’s aesthetic taste of “being alone in the green mountains, enjoying the quietness with the flying birds”. Taoist hermits and Buddhist monks practicing meditation were especially sentimental toward the quiet landscapes. They abandoned city life to the nature and cultivated their minds there. As a result, they were interested in everything nature, and observed the birds and animals in addition to plants and streams. This is probably why mountain forest animal paintings were so popular and vivid in this period!
The four slopes of Cave 249’s ceiling were filled with paintings of gods from Buddhism and traditional Chinese mythology. Each also has a focus. The paintings on the east and west slopes are centered on the Buddhist Asura and Cintamani, respectively. On the south and north slopes, the main deities are the Eastern Lord and Western Queen from traditional Chinese mythology. These characters form a mighty procession touring the heaven. The lower parts of the ceiling slopes were painted with beasts and hunting sceneries, forming an overall sense of space. Wang Yanshou said in the Ode to Lingguang Palace of Lu, “The entire painting depicts heaven and earth, all kinds of plants and living creatures, immortals in the mountains and deities in the oceans. All of them are vividly depicted in the painting.”
These mural themes, inspired by traditional Chinese mythologies and Taoist beliefs in immortals, were first painted in the ceremonial halls and palaces in ancient China. Since the Qin and Han dynasties, they were introduced into ancestral temples and tombs in large numbers. These gods and auspicious signs, painted on patios or coffins in tombs, had since lost their original meaning, but becoming protectors of the tranquility of the dead or guiders leading the way to heaven. For example, images of the Eastern Lord, Western Queen, Phoenixes, and immortals have been discovered in the Han tombs found at Horinger of Inner Mongolia, as well as in paintings from tombs dating to the Wei-Jin and Sixteen States Period found in Jiuquan and Dunhuang, particularly the Wei and Jin tombs at Dingjiazha of Jiuquan. The ceiling of the tomb at Dingjiazha is very similar to the that in Cave 249 in terms of content, structure, and condition. The difference is that the content of the said tomb revolves around the Taoist themes. Here then is the question. Why did these deities, usually painted in tombs, break into Buddhist grottoes? Perhaps the answer lies in the perspective of combining the Chinese concept of heaven and immortals and the Buddhist concept of the pure land.
The blending of Buddhism and Taoism likely began as early as when Buddhism was first introduced into China. Buddhism is a foreign religion to China, which was probably introduced during the early Eastern Han Dynasty. Believers of the time mentioned it with the “Huang-Lao Thought”. For example, Liu Ying, the king of Chu at that time, said, “Recite the sublime words of Huang and Lao, worship the temple of Buddhism.” Even some Buddhists brought together Buddhism and Taoism teachings. For example, Mou Rong, a monk at that time, said in Master Mou’s Treatise Dispelling Doubts that Buddhism “leads people to inaction” and “inaction and indifference is advocated in Buddhism”. This explains Buddhism was using the Taoist thought of quiet and inaction. By the Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties, many eminent monks and scholars were influenced by the syncretism of Buddhism and Taoism. Some monks even put it into practice. Hui Si, an eminent monk during the Liang and Chen Period, said, “I entered the mountains today to cultivate myself to protect the Dharma and seek longevity. I hope that all saints can assist me in collecting good herbs and elixirs of life, so that I can refine my internal elixir with the aid of an external elixir.” The prevailing syncretism of Buddhism and Taoism would inevitably be reflected in Buddhist art. For example, in a tomb with stone reliefs in Yinan, Shandong, there are the images of the Eastern Lord and Western Queen, as well as an image of Buddha with Ushnisha on the head and applying abhaya mudra. There are many more such examples. These indicated that the syncretism of Buddhism and Taoism have a long history, and the artistic blending of Buddhism and Taoism images is not unique to Dunhuang arts. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why Taoist themes were represented in Cave 249.
In short, the combination of Taoist and Buddhist themes in Cave 249 is not an accident. In order take root and blossom on the Chinese soil, Buddhism, a foreign religion, was bound to be influenced by traditional Chinese thoughts, and to be adapted and transformed constantly. Therefore, the murals on the ceiling of Cave 249 are evident reflections of the sinicization of early Buddhist art.