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The Boddhisattva paintings of the Dunhuang Caves
Dong Ni Xue
9/29/2003



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The beautiful frescoes in Gansu Province's Dunhuang caves, like gleaming pearls on the ancient Silk Road, have a history going back to the buiding of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'An. They are also a symbol of ancient Chinese civilization and certainly one of China'a most impressive works.

Many painters copy their own styles from the cave's artwork. One of the foremost Dunhuang painters is Mr. Zhang Daqian, who, at the beginning of the 1940's, pioneered the process of copying the cavesí mural styles.

Mr. Zhang visited the caves twice, once in early 1941 and once in 1942, along with some of his students, such as Xiao Jianchu, Liu Daoshang, and five or so Tibetan monk painters. Zhang paid for the expenses himself and made his own painting paper and colors. He spent almost a year in the Mogao cave, making over one hundred copies, among them silk scrolls, works on paper and paintings on cloth (such as Tibetan works during the Tang Dynasty).

In one section of the caves, elegant ceiling panels stretch for ages, seemingly unaffected by the wear and tear of thousands of years. The portraits of those making offerings to the gods are as tall as five or six feet, and their proportions and the details of the clothes are quite realistic, creating a magnificent sight. The pictures of Buddha's Western Paradise, of hell, and of great religious journies are full of varied personalities and stunning detail.

These cave murals offer some of the style and artworks of people of the Wei Kingdom (one of the Three Kingdoms from 220-265 A.D.) and of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 A.D.), and spans the long history of the rise, flourishing and fall of the Tang Dynasty, as well as the Five Dynasties, Western Xia Dynasty, and the Song Dynasties that followed. Overall, a myriad of painting styles come into view as one enters the caves.

Among the Buddha portraits of the Dunhuang caves, the posture and facial expression of the Boddhisattva is the most striking. Each of these types of paintings have a variety of Boddhisattvas; in some of the caves the walls are filled with small Boddhisattvas, while other caves have large portraits of just one Boddhisattva. There are over a thousand of these paintings based on scriptures or sayings, and on just the scripture paintings alone, there are over ten thousand Boddhisattva images, making it the largest preserved collection of these images in the world.

"Pusa" is the Chinese term translated from the Sanskrit "Boddhisattva". "Boddhi" translates to Chinese as "enlightenment", and "Sattva" as "all sentient beings", so the entire meaning of the name can be translated as "the way of sentient beings" or "the enlightenment of sentient beings". From these terms, among the ancient translations of Buddhist scriptures, they give Boddhisattva such interpretations as "unlocked being", "superior being", "holy being" and "subject of the Law." For example, they call Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, known as "Guanyin" in Chinese, as "Guanyin, the superior being". And Boddhisattva Puxian is called "Puxian, the holy being".

Boddhisattvas and Great Bodhisattvas

Great Boddhisattvas have the highest spiritual realms of Boddhisattvas, and have cultivated and enlightened to a realm slightly lower or equal to Buddhas. They are often by the sides of Buddhas, assisting the Buddha to spread his immense Buddha Law and to save sentient beings. What's often drawn in the Dunhuang scripture paintings are the "Eight Great Boddhisattvas". In the paintings of Buddha Sakyamuni there also Boddhisattvas by his side, such as Wenshu and Puxian. Assisting Buddha Amitabha are Boddhisattvas Guanyin and Dashizhi. Next to the Medicine Buddha are the Sunlight and Moonlight Boddhisattvas, as well as Boddhisattvas Maitreya and Dicang. These are all famous Boddhisattvas in the Buddhist scriptures.

The portraits of Great Boddhisattvas and Buddhas are more or less the same; they have the same principles and hand sign gestures. For example, Boddhisattva Guanyin holds in her hand a vase and a willow branch, to transform one into a Buddha. Boddhisattva Dashizhi holds a lotus flower, the treasure of Heaven. Boddhisattva Wenshu holds a precious sword in her hand and is accompanied by a green lion. In the hands of Boddhisattva Puxian are either Buddhist scrolls or a sceptre, and by her side are six ivory statues. Boddhisattva Dicang holds a cane with a precious pearl, wearing a kasaya and a tiara.

Other Boddhisattvas are often drawn beneath the sitting Buddha or Great Boddhisattva or on the sides of the disciples of Buddha. They do countless different things: some stand, sit, or kneel, while others play music, dance, scatter flowers, burn incense, light lamps, kowtow, hold scriptures, listen to the Law preached by Buddha, contemplate, or meditate. These aren't like the Great Boddhisattvas, who have set principles and hand gestures; painters have given them a rich variety of actions and states of mind, and they always come in larger numbers than the Great Boddhisattvas.

Boddhisattvas of Public Religions and of Tantrism

Boddhisattvas from public religions often wear Chinese garments in their portraits. These kinds of Boddhisattvas are called "righteous" Boddhisattvas; they look the same as human beings, with one head and two arms, and they are very solemn and dignified, with a benevolent countenance and graceful posture. The Eight Great Boddhisattvas are good examples of this.

The Boddhisattvas of Tantrism, a secretive religion, follow its rites and clothes in their images. These kinds of Boddhisattvas look much different from humans, with many heads, arms, and eyes: such as the "leading arm Guanyin", the "eleven-sided Guanyin", the "Thousand-Hand Guanyin", the "Thousand-Hand, Thousand-Bowl Wenshu", the "Guanyin with Silk Rope", the "Turning Boddhisattva", and so on.

The Boddhisattva images in Tantrism are still further divided into Tang Tantric images and Tibetan Tantric images. The Boddhisattva images in Tang Tantrism are similar to the "righteous" Boddhisattvas in displayed religious images, with benevolent expressions and graceful images; it's only that they have multiple heads, arms, and eyes, whereas the differences between the Boddhisattvas that spread Tibetan Tantrism and those in China are quite rent. Not only do the Tibetan Tantric images have multiple arms, heads, and eyes, some of them look quite like the Buddhist male Arhat images.

In the Dunhuang caves, there are many Boddhisattva images of the public religions, yet it has only been since the beginning of the Tang Dynasty that there have been Tantric Boddhisattva images, of which there are very few. There are even fewer of the Tibetan Tantric images, which are portrayed in only one of the paintings of the Dunhuang caves.

The Dunhuang cave murals have been in existence and in use for thousands of years: from the time of the Sixteen Kingdoms down to that of the Mongols' Yuan Dynasty. Their contents and the characteristics of their arts have changed along with the differences in different dynasties' cultures. Each period of time in Chinese history has its own very clear artistic characteristics. This goes for both the Boddhisattvas and the murals in general; each change occurred with a passage of time.

Students of the Dunhuang Painting Technique Dwindle Every Year

Drawing in the styles of the Dunhuang artists is extremely difficult; one must be absolutely precise and meticulous, as an error in one stroke would utterly ruin one's painting. While painting one must be extremely pious towards the Boddhisattva and be fully absorbed in the work. Moreover, in order to ensure the beauty and longevity of oneís painting, one must use mineral pigments, which take a long time to grind and cannot be stored for later use. To achieve the desired effects, while painting one should continue to paint for a few hours on end and with wholehearted devotion to one's work. To take the famous painter Ms. Ping Yuejian as an example, she worked continuously on her "Boddhisattva Image" painting for over half a year before finishing it.

Ms. Ping was a student of one of Zhang Daqian's personal disciples, Ping Bichi. Because she was so devoted in her study and art, she won the affection of her teacher, and her traditional bird and flower paintings and her Dunhuang style Boddhisattva images were not only extraordinary, but also truly inherited the style and tone of Zhang Daqian's paintings, along with her own distinguishing features.

Although in "Boddhisattva Image" Ms. Ping primarily uses green, blue, and white pigments along with cinnabar, the Boddhisattva's body is well-proportioned and colored, and her contours are very expressive. Moreover, her clothes are quite elegant and beautiful, as well as unconventional. The Boddhisattva's demeanor exudes mercy and solemnity, and her persona is woven flawlessly into the rest of the painting.

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