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Mogao Cave 61 was constructed during the Five Dynasties period, and was renovated during the Yuan Dynasty. The style is of a palace hall cave, with an inverted-funnel-shaped ceiling.
There is a line of inscription next to the the third donor portrait on the south wall, which reads “Donor Madame of Xunyang Prefecture offering with wholeheart”. Referring to other relative historical documents, scholars inferred that Cave 61 was likely built with the support from Cao Yuanzhong, the commander of Hexi’s Guiyi Army, and his wife during the late Five Dynasties period to record their merits and virtues.
According to traditional customs, the portraits of donors should have been arranged according to the family hierarchy. However, the birth mother of the cave owner Cao Yuanzhong was placed in the fourth place among the donor portraits, while the Empress of Khotan, who had a lower position in the family hierarchy, was placed ahead of her. The arrangement of these four donors reflected the consistent policy of seeking and maintaining harmony with neighboring states that was observed by the Cao family’s regime throughout. If there was no concern for politics, the Guangping Lady Song would rationally be placed in the leading position. Lady Song was the first wife of Cao Yijin, and the birth mother of Cao Yuanzhong. To the “Ganzhou Khan’s Heavenly Princess” and the Queen of Khotan, Lady Song was still an elderly of the ranking of their mothers. She being placed after the younger generation indicated Cao Family’s political alliances with the Uighurs in Ganzhou and Khotan through marriage and respect made no exception during the cave constructions.
The seventh female donor on the north side of the east wall has the highest noble status. She wears a tall phoenix coronet that is decorated with dangling ornaments. Her face is painted with flowers on the forehead and her luxurious dresses highlights her status. The portrait was painted in the Northern Song Dynasty, and came with an inscription, “The emperor of the state of Khotan/the third daughter Heavenly Princess, of the new surname Li/conferred to Cao Yanlu as his wife”. This inscription could mean to celebrate Cao Yanlu’s marriage with Princess Li of Khotan; or the Li princess of Khotan commemorating the new position of her husband Cao Yanlu granted by the ruler of the Northern Song Dynasty. This is reflective of the friendly relations between the Cao family and the Khotan state.
Donor portraits in Dunhuang were relatively small from the Sixteen Kingdoms Period to the Sui Dynasty. Those dating from the Five Dynasties and the early Song Dynasty were more prominent in status, and abundant in numbers. Among Cave 16 portraits, all of the in-laws and relatives were painted in life-size with the main figures even taller than in real life. In this sense, building the caves was not only to show their devotion to Buddhism, but also a means to record their family’s merits and virtues.
The female donors’ cheeks were all decorated with a floral pattern called the Plum Blossom Makeup from the Tang Dyansty, a fashion among aristocratic women of the time. According to historical records, Princess Shouyang, the daughter of the Song Emperor Wu of the Southern Dynasty was lying in the Hanzhang Palace on the seventh day of the first lunar month, plum blossoms fell onto her forehead and couldn’t be wiped off. The queen kept the princess and the plum blossoms were not washed off until after three days. People in the imperial palace were amazed, and followed suit by applying the plum blossom patterns on themselves.
Mogao Cave 61 is also known as the “Manjusri Hall” because it was primarily dedicated to the Manjusri Bodhisattva. Manjusri Bodhisattva has infinite wisdom in the Buddhist world. It was said that his ashram was in “Mount Wutai” of the Shanxi Province. Mount Wutai had been deeply enshrined and worshiped by Buddhists since the Northern Wei Dynasty. As Manjusri Bodhisattva became more prominent, his ashram also became a Buddhist holy land. Manjusri is a representative of Buddhist intellectuals. The Tang Dynasty was an age when culture was flourished and upheld. The belief in Manjusri therefore reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty. Mount Wutai became the largest ashram of Manjusri in China, attracting monks from India, the Western Regions, Southeast Asia, Japan, and North Korea to worship. According to historical records, in the fourth year of Changqing (824 A.D.), an envoy sent by the Btsan Po of Tibet requested the Tang Dynasty for an illustration of Mount Wutai. In the fifth year of Kaicheng (840 A.D.), the Japanese monk Ennin visited Mount Wutai. At the time, Yiyuan, a monk from Fenzhou, finished his pilgrimage and invited a painter to create a painting of the deities manifesting at Mount Wutai. He gave the painting to Monk Ennin as a gift. Ennin took the painting to Japan and enshrined it. These two instances showed how paintings of Mount Wutai were spread eastward to Japan and westward to Tibet. In fact, it was spread further westward to the regions in Central Asia. Mount Wutai became an important theme in Buddhist painting. As the Mogao Grottoes were a Buddhist holy land on the Silk Road, monks traveling along it would stay and leave behind paintings of Mount Wutai too. The devout Buddhists in Dunhuang, longing for the holy Buddhist land in the Central Plains, also began to create paintings of Mount Wutai. Existing Dunhuang manuscripts also contain many scrolls of paintings relating to Mount Wutai. Most of them were created during the reign of the Cao family in the Five Dynasties.
According to textual research by archaeologist Su Bai and other experts, this painting of Mount Wutai on Mogao Cave 61’s west wall was created based on Mount Wutai’s actual geographical surroundings during the Tang Dynasty. It is 13.4 meters long and 3.4 meters high. The panorama’s grandeur and magnificence mark it as the largest historic painting in the Mogao Grottoes. The entire painting depicts in detail the geographical conditions, landscapes and local customs of the region, spanning 250 km from Taiyuan, Shanxi, passing through Mount Wutai, and going all the way to Zhenzhou of Hebei (today’s Zhengding County). In the painting, there are more than 100 city walls of different sizes, as well as temples, pagodas, thatched huts, and buildings, in addition to 195 inscriptions. You can also see various other scenes, such as monks explaining the doctrine of Buddhism, Buddhists worshiping, famous historic sites, and scenic views. Some temples in the map, like Foguang Temple and Fahua Temple, have been found in historic books, and some temples are preserved to this day.
The panorama is divided into three sections. The top part is various Bodhisattvas appearing in the air gathering above Mount Wutai; the middle section depicts the five main peaks and monasteries of Mount Wutai, with supernatural scenes hovering on the five peaks; and the lower part shows the roads leading to Mount Wutai and daily life scenes from the time.
The panorama adopts a bird’s eyes perspective to depict the five towering peaks, the thousand-mile winding roads, and the hundreds of miles of landscapes around Mount Wutai. Along the two pilgrim paths toward the Manjusri Hall on the central peak, undulating mountains and twisted roads surrounds them. On the roads, monks are preaching, believings are traveling, messengers are delivering offerings, pilgrims are worshiping; and common folks are cutting grasses, watering their livestock, grinding at the mills, pounding rice, hosting inns and stores. Human activities are depicted using realistic techniques by grouping people into threes and fives, who passed mountainous towns to pay respects at monasteries and pagodas. The painting combined artistic imagination and real life depiction, religious deities and secular characters. When viewed from afar, it is sacred and solemn. When viewed from a closer distance, the life scenes are vivid and detailed. Therefore, this painting is not only a map of Buddhist historic sites, it is also a magnificent art piece of landscapes and figures. It is also a diagram of diverse ancient buildings and all kinds of social customs. It provides an extremely rich and precious material for the study of histories on Tang Danasty Buddhism, societies, transporation, geography, and ancient architecture.
The Grand Foguang Temple painted in the panorama was built during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty, but it was destroyed during the Persecution of Buddhism during the period of Huichang under the reign of Emperor Wuzong in the Tang Dynasty. The temple was rebuilt in the tenth year of Dazhong in the Tang Dynasty (857 A.D.). Today’s Foguang Temple has preserved a Pagoda of the Founder from the Northern Wei Dynasty, as well as a main hall from the Tang Dynasty. In 1937, architect Liang Sicheng and others went to Mount Wutai for a field investigation, and found inscriptions recording the rebuilding of the temple in the 11th year of Dazhong in a hall of the Foguang Temple, as well as reconstructed murals and statues. The painting thus proves all kinds of architectural images from more than a thousand years ago, including city walls, temples, thatched huts, pagodas, and bridges. Since there are extremely few buildings still standing today from the Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties, these images are very rare and precious.
Different from other sutra transformation paintings, The Mount Wutai Panorama depicts the scenes of social life around Mount Wutai at that time, which is of certain historical authenticity. It also allows us to see aspects of real life during ancient times, such as grinding at a mill, rice pounding, worshiping the Buddha, messengers sending offerings, merchants leading camels, etc., making it a rare and precious material for the study of ancient social life and folk customs. The painting depicts 100 secular characters of different identities, including monks, high officials, noble lords, civilians, businessmen, woodcutters, prisoners, and government officials. These characters are wear different clothes, and are an important material in the study of Chinese fashion evolution.
The hallway leading to Mogao Cave 61 was reconstructed in the Western Xia (Tangut) Period, and was painted with the Tejaprabha Buddha on both walls. The contents and painting techniques used on both of the two walls are roughly the same. In the pictures, the Tejaprabha Buddha is sitting in a carriage with dragon flags erected at the back, surrounded by Nine Star Gods. Images of the 28 lunar mansions are painted in the colored clouds at the upper part of the painting, along with the 12 zodiac signs. This content is unique among the paintings from the Mogao Grottoes. The layout is perfect and the workmanship is fine. According to Buddhist scripture, eliminating and avoiding disasters is the main purpose of enshrining and worshiping the Tejaprabha Buddha. In addition, the Tejaprabha Buddha and the stars are extremely closely related to the Manjusri Bodhisattva. It is stated in Buddhist scripture that the sutra is explained and preached by the Buddha to Manjusri Bodhisattva and an audience of holy beings. Manjusri Bodhisattva has the role of leading the 9 stars, the 12 zodiac signs, and the 28 lunar mansions. Since the cave is an ashram of Manjusri Bodhisattva, the paintings of the Tejaprabha Buddha has a certain internal relationship with the cave’s main theme.