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Mogao Cave 323 was built in the early Tang Dynasty, and was divided into two chambers of the front and rear. The front chamber has a flat ceiling. A cave with truncated pyramid ceiling were dug on each of the northern and southern walls respectively, of which the southern was numbered Mogao Cave 324 and the northern Mogao Cave 325. The mural paintings in the front chamber and the corridor were redone in the Western Xia Dynasty. The rear chamber (the main chamber) features a square floorplan and has an inverted-funnel-shaped roof and a niche on the west (main) wall. The caisson ceiling was painted with round flowers at the center, and the four ceiling slopes were painted with 22 rows of the Thousand Buddha. There are five bodies of statues in the flat-roofed square niche on the west wall, all renovated in the Qing Dynasty. The statue in the middle is a seated Buddha, a statue of his disciple and a statue of the Bodhisattva sitting on the Lotus thrones are on each side. Most of the murals inside the cave are original works from the early Tang Dynasty. Paintings of Buddhist historic sites and holy events are on the north and south walls, and precepts are on the north and south side of the entry on the east wall.
Nobody knows the exact time of which the cave was built. Scholars think it was built in the early Tang Dynasty, based on the inscription “the Buddha was welcomed to the Tongxuan Temple where they were enshrined up to now” next to the painting of the story “Stone Buddha Emerging from the River in the Western Jin Dynasty” on the south wall. In 689 A.D., Empror Wu Zetian dispatched an envoy to send a coral mirror and a bowl to the temple and renamed it to Chongyun Temple. In 744 A.D., the temple was once again renamed to Kaiyuan Temple. It was thus speculated that Mogao Cave 323 should have been built before the temple was renamed in 689 A.D.
Latest research further shows that the cave was related to the “Vinaya School” established by Daoxuan (596 A.D. – 667 A.D.). Daoxuan was an influential monk in the early Tang Dynasty. A big part of his works was about Vinaya disciplines, such as The Revision and Improvement of Dharmagupta Vinaya, and another big part of his works was about the history of Buddhism and the various stories of response from the Buddha in history. The “Vinaya School” he founded explained the Dharmagupta Vinaya with Mahayana and made various provisions on the teaching and learning of precepts. Later Buddhists who studied the Vinaya Pitaka were based on his explanations and requirements. There are also a variety of Vinaya documents among the Dunhuang Manuscripts, indicating that there must be his followers in the Hexi area at the time. With these historical conditions in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that his followers in Hexi would apply and promote the school’s doctrines in the Dunhuang Caves accordingly. Therefore, some scholars speculate that the cave should have been designed and built by the “Vinaya” monks of the Daoxuan School. The contents of the mural paintings not only show Daoxuan’s emphasis on chief monks, response from the Buddha and images of the Buddha (on the north and south walls), but also his emphasis on the precepts (on the eastern wall).
Zhangqian’s Diplomatic Mission: The painting of Zhang Qian’s diplomatic mission to the Western Regions is located on the west side of the north wall. It is composed of four scenes arranged in a “concave” style, showing the scenes of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty acquiring a golden figurine of Buddha used by the Huns in heaven worshiping and Zhang Qian’s diplomatic mission to the Western Regions. 1. The upper right hand corner is a palace, in which there are two standing Buddha statues. The plaque hung in front of the palace reads “Ganquan Palace”, below which was painted with the scene of the emperor and ministers paying respect while holding an incense burner or Hu tablet. The emperor is riding on a horse, accompanied by eight ministers on both sides, with one of them holding a canopy. Zhang Qian kneels down and bids farewell to the emperor, holding a Hu tablet, behind whom an attendant is holding a tally and leading the horse. 3. Zhang Qian is traveling on the way. 4. There is a city in the distance, two monks are standing outside the gate, and there is a pagoda in the city.
According to historical records, Zhang Qian made a diplomatic mission to the Western Regions (now Xinjiang and Central Asia) under the order of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty in 138 BC (the second year of Jianyuan during the Western Han Dynasty), with the purpose to contact the Central Asian country of Darouzhi (now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan) to jointly deal with the Huns that threatened the Han Dynasty. Zhang Qian bid farewell to the Emperor Wu in Chang’an, headed west, crossed the Pamirs, passed Dayuan and Kangju in the south of today’s Kazakhstan of the Central Asia, and finally came to the Darouzhi and Daxia Kingdom (today’s Tajikistan) in the upper reaches of the Amu Darya in western Kazakhstan. His diplomatic mission lasted for 13 years, during which he was detained by the Huns for 11 . Seven years after returning to China, in 119 BC, he was sent by Emperor Wu again to the Wusun State (today’s southeastern Kazakhstan and northern Xinjiang of China) with the deputy envoy. Later, they visited states such as Dayuan, Kangju, Tokhara and Parthia (today’s Iran).
This painting should be about the second diplomatic mission made by Zhang Qian to the Western Regions. Although Zhang’s two diplomatic missions had not achieved his original goal, he had travelled to the Western Regions and learned about the local customs and geographical conditions, brought local goods and products back to his homeland, and introduced the advanced culture and silk to the Western Regions, thus opening up the famous “Silk Road”. Dunhuang is not only the throat on the route of the Silk Road, but also serves as a trade distribution center along it.
Zhang Qian’s diplomatic missions to the Western Regions made great contributions to the opening up of the Silk Road, but it had nothing to do with the golden figurine of Buddha, not to mention their discrepancy in time. In fact, it involves the time dispute of when Buddhism was introduced. Obviously it was fabricated by Buddhist believers using some historical events. It may be of direct relationship to the status of Buddhists in the early Tang Dynasty. In the early Tang Dynasty, when Taoism was prevailing over Buddhism, the conflict between the two religions would not stop. Buddhists tried to convince people that Buddhism was introduced into China at an earlier time in an attempt to vie with the belief that Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism, arrived in the Western Regions and incarnated into Sakyamuni to enlighten the people there. This mural of Zhang Qian asking about the name and title of the golden figurine of Buddha is a reflection of this struggle.
Buddha’s Laundry Pool and Drying Stone: There is a painting of Buddha’s holy relics of the laundry pool and cassock-drying stone, which is another story introduced from India into China in the early times. The records about the Buddha drying his cassock in the sun can be found in The Pilgrimage of Fa-hsien to India, Buddhist Temples in Luoyang and The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions. The story goes like this: The Dragon King disliked the Buddha who was preaching Buddhism far and wide and thus created a storm to make the Buddha’s cassock wet through. The Buddha stopped the rain with his magic power and cleaned and dried his cassock on a stone, leaving the texture of the cassock on the stone. Despite the passage of time, the trace of the texture has remained new. Later generations erected a pagoda in the place where the Buddha was sitting to dry his cassock.
In this picture, there are 6 scenes: 1. Sakyamuni holds his cassock in his right hand while standing by the water. 2. One fairy is descending from the sky, ready to wash the cassock for the Buddha. 3. Beside the square stone, there is a non-Buddhist Brahmin, shirtless and barefoot, jumping on and polluting the square stone. 4. There are dark clouds on the stone, and the God of Thunder is thundering in the clouds. 5. In the lower right corner of the square stone, the Brahmin is killed by lightning. 6. On the other side of the square stone, two fairies are washing the stone.
Monk Fo Tucheng: Monk Fo Tucheng was a famous monk during the Jin Dynasty and the Sixteen Kingdoms period. His contribution to the development of Buddhism is reflected in four aspects: first, he studied and proofread Buddhist disciplines and precepts. Second, he influenced a large number of disciples, some became Bhandantas (eminent monks), which formed a great influence on the spread of Buddhism. Third, he supported the building of temples and monasteries widely to promote Buddhism in all parts of China and got the support from rulers, so that the development of Chinese Buddhism entered a new stage. Fourth, his courteous reception by the rulers helped firmed and secured the status of Buddhism.
Here, the legendary story of Fo Tucheng is told in three groups of pictures from top to bottom. In the top, Fo Tucheng is standing in front of the seven-story pagoda, putting his palms together while telling people that something went wrong with the sound of the wind chimes on the eaves of the pagoda. He pointed out that this was an ominous sign and predicted that Shi Hu and Shi Tao would have a fight. In the middle, an emperor, under a canopy, is sitting on a hu-styled bed watching the monk casting a spell. The scene shows, while Fo Tucheng is explaining the Dharma for Shi Hu, a fire breaks out at the four gates of Youzhou. Fo Tucheng applies his magic power to put out the fire with liquor. The lower left of the painting is painted with a scene showing a monk, shirtless, sitting by the pool and washing his intestines. According to the “Biography of Fo Tucheng” in Volume Nine of the “Biographies of Eminent Monks”, there was a hole next to the monk’s left breast. Sometimes he took his intestines out of the hole, and then blocked it with cotton. When he was about to read a book at night, he would pull the cotton, then his chamber would be lit up and bright. On fast days, he would go to the waterside and took out his intestines to wash before putting them back into his body.
King Ashoka: The northern wall was painted with a scene of King Ashoka worshiping the non-Buddhist Nigrantha pagoda. King Ashoka, also known as Worry-free King, was king of the kingdom of Magadha in central India in the third century A.D. King Ashoka killed his brothers and usurped the throne, killed his courtiers, had lots of prisons built and killed numerous innocent people. Later, he converted to the Dharma and realized what he had done was completely wrong. He thus overhauled the pagodas, erected pillars, and carved the Buddha Dharma admonitions on pillars. He held the third Buddhist scriptures assembly in the capital city of Pataliputra, and edited the Buddha’s classics. Moreover, with the honor as the king, he personally worshiped the Buddha’s holy relics and the pagodas and temples, and sent monks everywhere to spread Buddhism, which was originally limited to only parts of India, but was spread by all over India and beyond by him. According to Chinese Buddhist literature, Ashoka sent 18 people to China to promote Buddhism. Ashoka’s role in the history of Buddhism is unprecedented, especially as he had a great number of stupas and pagodas built (84,000). Although this may be a bit exaggerated, it is true that he had lots of stupas and pagodas built. In the picture, an emperor is leading his subjects and ministers to worship the six pagodas. The person kneeling is King Ashoka. Since the pagoda is a non-Buddhist one, it doesn’t deserve the kneeling and kowtowing from King Ashoka who believes in Buddhism.
Story of monk Kang Senghui: The northern wall was also painted with the story of monk Kang Senghui, a senior monk during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265 A.D.). He was promoting Buddhism mainly in the Jiangnan (region south of the Yangtze River) and was of great significance in the history of Buddhism being spread to China’s south. During the Three Kingdoms Period, Buddhism was not yet popular in the Jiangnan region. In 241 A.D. (the fourth year of Chiwu of the Wu State), he traveled from Luoyang to Jianye (today’s Nanjing), the capital of Wu at the time. Due to his strange appearance and clothes, he was received by Sun Quan, the Emperor of Wu. Kang told Sun Quan that the magic power of Buddhism was boundless, and he offered to present the emperor with a Buddhist relic within 21 days. When the Buddhist relic was presented, it emitted a light of five colors. Watched by an audience of subjects and ministers, some even hammered the Buddhist relic that caused no damage at all, Sun Quan admired it so much that he had the Jianchu Temple built for the monk, the first Buddhist temple in Jiangnan, which laid the foundation for the spread of Buddhism in the region.
In 264 AD (the first year of Yuanxing of the Wu State), Sun Hao came to power. He intended to overturn Buddhism and have the Jianchu Temple demolished. But Sun Hao fell ill and was not cured after receiving different treatments, so he invited the monk Kang Senghui into the imperial palace, and he was cured soon after receiving treatment from the monk. Later, the monk explained the theory of causation to Sun Hao, and held a ceremony to guide him to adhere to the five precepts, namely no killing, no theft, sexual abstinence, liquor abstinence and no telling lies. As such, Sun Hao no longer rejected Buddhism and thenceforth Buddhism was spread more widely and secured its status in the Jiangnan.
There are four groups of pictures depicting the story of monk Kang Senghui. 1. Kang is sitting in a sail boat, which takes him going with the wind to sail down to Jiangnan for the Kingdom of Wu. 2. At the bottom of the painting, an emperor kneeling to the monk, with both palms put together, indicating that Sun Hao is kneeling to welcome the monk Kang who is dressed in a cassock. 3. In the middle of the painting is a big tent. Within the tent, a Buddhist relic is emitting a light on a lotus throne, while outside the tent, the emperor is talking with monks. It indicates the people of Wu did not believe in Buddhism at first. King Sun Quan of the Wu State called in the monk and asked how efficacious the Buddha was. The monk Kang then applied his magic power to get a Buddhist relic, which was shining brilliantly. As a result, the King of Wu State was convinced, so he had Jianchu Temple built. 4. In the picture, a temple was painted. Outside it, monks are standing while people are carrying timber to the site. It should be the scene showing the construction of the Jianchu Temple.
Stone Buddha Emerging from the River: The western side of the southern wall was painted with the story of the stone Buddha emerging from a river during the Western Jin Dynasty. The story is recorded in the Biographies of Eminent Monks, which goes like this: In 313 AD (the first year of Jianxing in the Western Jin Dynasty), at the Hudu Estuary of Wusong River, a fisherman saw two stone statues of Buddha floating on the water, and thought that they must be the gods of the sea, and invited a wizard to welcome the gods. However, the waves ran high suddenly and the fisherman was frightened and went home. Local Taoists thought that they were the image of Taoist Priest Zhang, so they then set up an altar to welcome the stone statues, yet the wind and waves were not weakened. Afterwards, Zhu Ying, a Buddhist from the Wu County, after fasting and bathing, went to the Hudu Eastuary with several monks and Buddhists of the Donglin Temple. The kowtowed and sang a hymn to the stone statues of Buddha, and the wind and waves were calmed. The two statues of Buddha arrived floating on the river, with an inscription at the back of both, one called “Vipasyin” and the other “Kasyapa”. Zhu Ying and others immediately welcomed the two stone statues of Buddha with a boat into the Tongxuan Temple.
Starting from the west side of the south wall: 1. Two statues of Buddha are standing in the water, and some monks and civilians are worshiping the Buddha on the bank. 2. Taoist priests set up an altar to welcome the Buddha. 3. Zhu Ying, a native of the Wu County and some monks from Donglin Temple hire a boat to carry the stone statues of Buddha to the Tongxuan Temple. On the bank of the river, monks and villagers are kneeling and worshiping to welcome the Buddha. It also depicts a scene in which three generations of a family are watching the event, full of the flavor of folk life.
Golden Buddha Found in Yangdu: The south wall was also painted with the story of a golden Buddha found in Yangdu during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. During the reign of Xianhe in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, the local official Gao Li in Danyang got a golden statue under the Zhanghou Bridge. According to the Sanskrit inscription on it, the statue was created for the fourth daughter of King Ashoka (or by King Ashoka for his fourth daughter). The statue was carried by Gao Li to the entrance of Changgan Lane, when the ox that was pulling the cart stopped and refused to move forward, so the Changgan Temple was built in the local area. A year later, a fisherman found a golden lotus throne, and later a pearl fisher found the backlight of the golden statue in the seabed. Both of them were consistent with the golden statue enshrined in the Changgan Temple.
These plots are all shown in great details in the murals. In the upper part, the left, middle and right are respectively painted with the radiant Buddha statue, lotus throne and backlight. Under the scene of acquiring the lotus throne is a small boat sailing at sea, with several monks and boat men in the boat, who come from nearby to welcome the Buddha statue. The landscape painting is excellent in the picture, with several boats on the river. Those near appear lager thanthose in the distance. The sea and distant mountains are rich in a sense of space, which appear very vast. The focus perspective technique is used to achieve good effects, indicating that early Tang Dynasty landscape painting had reached a very high level. The picture of the big boat used to welcome and carry the Buddha statue has been taken away by Landon Warner from America, and now there are only the two boat trackers and the monks and laymen who came to welcome the Buddha. Although it is incomplete, it is still a very interesting picture filled by delight of life, as the figures and animals look lifelike, reproducing a religious life scene of ancient people.
Dharma Master Tanyan: The southern wall is painted with the story of Dharma Master Tanyan. In 586 A.D., the country was hit by a severe drought, so Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty ordered Su Wei, the governor of Jingbei to ask Tanyan (516-588 A.D.) about the cause of the drought. Master Tanyan replied, “Emperor, you are the Lord of all the people and the head of the ministers, but you have not personally prayed for the rain for the people. It depends on you whether it can rains or not.” Upon hearing this, Emperor Wen decided to pray for rain himself, so he sent someone to invite Master Tanyan to the imperial court and asked him to take the throne in the Daxing Hall and sit facing the south and preach the doctrine of Buddhism. Emperor Wen and the ministers above Rank five all sat on the ground facing the north, while listening to the teaching of the eight commandments. After the teaching, it was high noon. Later, the sky was covered by clouds, and it began to rain.
This story consists of four pictures, which are arranged in a “concave” style. Each plot can be painted alone, which is concise and clear in content. 1. A monk is sitting in the sedan, as six sedan bearers are carrying the sedan with their body bent. The title inscription reads, “The emperor welcomes the master into the imperial court”. 2. An emperor is greeting a monk, with four courtiers standing behind the emperor, one of whom is holding a canopy with a bent handle. 3. A monk is sitting on the throne in the palace. Under the steps in front of the palace, the emperor is leading five subjects and ministers. They are kneeling to pay respect. Suddenly, the sky is overcast and a heavy rain is coming. 4. In the big tent in the city, a monk is sitting on the throne and explaining the Dharma. In front of him, the emperor is sitting on hu-styled bed while listening respectfully to the master, accompanied by five servants standing around him. A stupa is shining in the picture, accompanied by a title inscription, “Master Tanyan explains the Nirvana Sutra for the Emperor Wen before the stupa, which is shining for three days”. Master Tanyan puts his works Annotations to Nirvana Sutra before the stupa. When the stupa emits a light, it indicates that his annotations are correct and can be passed down to later generations.
Master Tanyan was a famous scholar of the Nirvana Sutra in the Northern Zhou Dynasty. At the age of sixteen, he traveled about to different Buddhist temples, listened to Master Miao’s explanation of the Nirvana Sutra. He deeply understood the meaning of the sutra, and so he became a monk resolutely. At the beginning, he studied and practiced Buddhism in Baiiti Temple in the Taihang Mountains and wrote Annotations to Nirvana Shu. After he finished the writing, he was not sure whether the annotations were correct, so he put his annotations and the scriptures in front of the stupa of Renshou Temple. Later, he burned incense and prayed, “As an ordinary man, I have made a bold attempt to interpret your holy mind by completing a volume of Annotations to Nirvana Sutra. If my interpretation is subtle and profound, would you make your presence felt? Otherwise, it will prove that my annotations are wrong, which will never be spread.” With these words, the sutra and annotations shined at once all night long, as monks and laymen celebrated it together. Meanwhile, a holy light emitted from the stupa and stayed brilliant for three days and nights. The light lit up the sky, mountains and rivers. Thenceforth, Master Tanyan tried his best to promote and spread his Annotations to Nirvana Sutra.
There are precepts paintings on the east wall of Cave 323. Each picture comes with a title. Although most of the title inscriptions have become vague, the remaining part can basically explain the content of the pictures. In the entire world of Dunhuang art, they are the only murals to depict the “precepts” in such details.
There are five precepts and eight precepts. The number of specific articles varies among men and women, with 250 ones for men and 384 ones for women. The precepts include: 1. No killing; 2. No theft; 3. Liquor abstinence; 4. No telling ties; 5. Sexual abstinence; 6. Eating no food after noon; 7. Not sleeping on a gorgeous big bead; 8. No make-up or dress-up.
The first painting on the south of the gate on the east wall shows three persons holding clothes, ready to offer them to a monk. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather hoop his body with hot iron than break the precepts to accept the offer of gorgeous clothing from others.
Two persons serving food to the monk. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk refuse the food offered by others.
Before the fire stands a monk, while two women dressed in splendid attire and a servant are standing next to the monk, with another woman kneeling. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather throw himself into the fire pit than have relationship with the women.
A monk is lying prostate on the bed. In front of the bed, two persons are holding the beddings in one hand and cupping the other to greet the monk, with a bed behind a third person. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather lie on a large piece of hot iron than sleep on a gorgeous big bed.
A monk holding a cassock at his back and raising his hand ready to beat. Two persons are standing before the monk, who respectively makes a bow and holds a bowl. Another person is holding a short stick, kneeling before the object. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk has refused the medical supplies from others.
Two persons are facing the monk, with one putting his palms together to greet the monk, and the other pointing to the upper right house. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather stay in a hot-iron pot than live in a “comfortable luxury mansion” offered by others.
Two persons greet the monk, with one kneeling, and the other standing. The one on the left raises his hand ready to beat. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk refuses the respectful greeting from any Brahman layman of Kshatriya.
A monk raises his hand, facing four persons. Among the four, two are playing musical instrument, and the other two are singing and dancing. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather poke his whole body with an iron piercer than pollute his heart by enjoying the melody.
A woman and a servant. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather stab his own eyes with a piece of hot iron than pollute his own heart by looking at women.
A monk raises his right hand, with a person behind him and a square table in front of him. A semicircular object is placed on the table. A man and a woman are standing at the table. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather cut his own throat with a knife than be greedy in delicacies.
A monk points at his own nose, while a person is holding something right before him. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather cut off his nose with a knife than be greedy in the nice smells of incense.
A monk is standing in the middle, and two persons on his both sides trying to stop him. The meaning of the picture is unclear.
A monk is standing, with his palms put together and two persons with their body and legs naked in front of him, who appear to be killing a person with an axe. It indicates that for abstinence, the monk would rather cut his own body with a sharp axe than be greedy in all kinds of touch.
The above picture of observing the precepts is a more comprehensive representation of all the vows made for abstinence in the Mahaparinibbana Sutra.
The murals of Buddha and Buddhist historical sites and events on the north and south walls and the precepts paintings on both sides of the gate on the east wall occupy the most prominent positions of Cave 323. There is no doubt that they represent the main themes of the cave. These paintings of Buddhist historical sites and events and precepts paintings are rare in the carvings and paintings of all grottoes in China, and these murals are extremely rare in Mogao Grottoes. The emergence of such paintings signified the Sinicization of Buddhism, which provides a set of vivid and concrete materials for us to understand and study the evolution and spreading of Buddhism in China.
Most of the figures in such paintings of Buddhist historical sites and events are also real figures recorded in the historical biographies. The eight plot paintings on the the north and south walls form a panorama, which gradually unfolds against a unified landscape background, developing from the west to the east of the north wall, and then from the west to the east of the south wall. The murals can also be seen as a huge painting roll divided into two sections. Painting designers obviously attached great importance to the historical coherence and incorprated nature into the whole set of paintings, so they have chosen specific themes and marked the eras of the depicted events in the titles. Six of the eight paintings are related to China. From the Han Dynasty, Later Zhao, Wu, Western Jin and Eastern Jin to the Sui Dynasty, the figures and events depicted cover the historical period of nearly a thousand years from the introduction of Buddhism into China to the Tang Dynasty. Therefore, although these plot paintings feature different eras and protagonists, and are based on different historical literature, the contents of the eight plot paintings are not limited to China, but also cover the Buddhist lands, such as India and Daxia, and the geographical concepts reflected have thus gone beyond the political boundaries. For mural designers, the universality of religion is more important than national boundaries; therefore, these paintings attach special importance to the spreading of Buddhism across the boundaries.
The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang were built as a place of cultivation and worship for Buddhist believers. Therefore, the pictures not only expressed the worship of Buddhist concepts, but also the yearning for a better environment. The landscape paintings in the murals are centered on Buddhist content and appeared as a setting for decoration and activities of characters. In the story painting, the continuous cliffs and winding rivers give people a very profound feeling. The flags of the boat carrying the Buddha to a distant destination are flying in the wind, and the passenger boat nearby is being pulled by boat trackers. The steep peaks form a contrast with calm rivers, creating a spatial change. In the layout, the high mountains play a role of separating the picture. Across the high cliff, you can see the scenery of the rocks, as if you were rowing a boat in a rush to welcome the Buddha statue. The boats near appear large, and the boats in the distance appear small, which form a contrast to evoke a sense of space. The landscape paintings in Cave 323 mark the peak of landscape paintings in the Tang Dynasty in the Mogao Grottoes. The relationship between characters and scenery, close view and distant view, and mountains and rivers, as well as the layout of the whole landscape mural, all reflect the unique ingenuity of the painters. Early landscape paintings were mostly based on characters of the story, while landscapes served as a contrast. Therefore, the perspective effect was often ignored. Viewed from the angle of a landscape painting, it usually lost its integrity. The three story paintings on the south wall can be said to have achieved a good unity in this respect. The painters’ skilled techniques in handling the relationships of all aspects such as characters, plots and landscapes allow the audience to clearly perceive the thread of the story, and appreciate the beauty of nature from the landscapes. Such landscape paintings are indeed a feast for our eyes and heart.
As early as in the Southern and Northern Dynasties, landscape painters had paid attention to the perspective relationship between mountains and rivers. Zong Bing said, “A vertical length of three inches serves as a height of thousands of meters. A horizontal length of inches represents a distance of hundreds of miles” But in the specific painting practice, a reasonable landscape perspective had appeared at a very late time. The landscape paintings of the early Tang Dynasty were still very rigid in terms of perspective relationship. However, in the murals of Cave 323, landscape is no longer something that can be separated from the character story, but closely linked to the characters, which not only serves to set off the characters, but also integrate the characters into the landscape. For example, in the murals on the south wall, the characters in the close view appear tall and clear, and those in the distant view appear increasingly small, in harmony with the distant scenery, which embodies the state of “thousands of miles in a space of inches”. The painters had noted the important role of mountains in separating the story plots, which occupy a large area. As a close view, the mountains are vital to the overall layout of landscapes in the entire mural. The painters divided the mural into three sections with two groups of mountains, the mountains on the left taking a “zigzag” shape, echoed by another group of hills on the lower left; a group of mountains on the right roughly take a “C” shape to surround the story painting, echoing with another group of cliffs on the rightmost of the mural. Between the two groups of mountains, another group of peaks stand high, linking up the two groups of mountains. In this way, the two groups of mountains in the long horizontal mural constitute a stable structure, dominating the entire mural, so that the landscapes are linked as a whole to appear continuous and magnificent. The distant landscape is not directly connected with the close landscape, but connected through the twists and turns of the water flow. When the mountains in the distance are viewed through the peaks, it appears richer in depth of field and magnificent in realm. The painters paid great attention to the expression of the water flow, as predecessors said on the paintings, “Water flow is alive”, “Mountains and rivers are like blood vessels”, and “Thus, mountains will be lively when there is a water flow”. Although the lines and colors have fallen off, you can still see the waves nearby and the river in the distance. Especially, the sailboats in the distant view present a realm of “A single sailboat vanishes in the distant horizon”. The water flow can enliven the mountains, and vice versa. When interrupted and concealed by mountains, the winding river will appear more endless. “A river fully revealed will not reach far. To make it reach far, it should be concealed partially.” In short, the landscape painted in in Cave 323 embodies a comprehensive application of the various techniques of expression in landscape paintings to show the momentum of the mountains, the set-off of water flow, and the vastness of distant view. The painters were also good at the technique of “concealing”. For example, in the mural of the “Buddha statue being carried to the Xiling Temple in Yangdu”, when the boat was carrying back the golden statue of Buddha, the back of the boat was hidden behind the mountains, which not only shows the levels of landscape, but also implies that there are many characters. In the mural of “Zhang Qian’s diplomatic mission to the Western Regions”, the horses they ride were partially hidden behind the mountains, which has similarly showed the effect of a continuous stretch of mountains and rivers, reflecting the hardships they endured and experienced in their arduous journey. The plot and the environment set off each other.