Notebook, 1993-

International Dunhuang Project --- Dunhuang Academy in China --- Central Eurasian Studies World Wide --- Celebrate the Silk Road [Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, DC] --- Dunhuang - Caves of the Singing Sands --- Silk Road to China

[From: De Silva, Anil and photographs by Dominque Darbois. The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting in the Caves of Tun-Huang. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1964.}

Foreword --- Inroduction --- 1. Pre Han Art --- 2. The Han Dynasty [206 B.C. - A.D. 220] --- 3. The Three Kingdoms and the Six Dynasties [A.D. 220-589] --- 4. The Sui Dynasty [A.D. 589-618]

The Art of Chinese Landscape
Painting in the Caves
of Tunhuang - Chapter Two

NOTE: There are numerous plates and illustrations in the original text which are occasionally described here but which are not all included here.

The Han Dynasty [206 B.C. - A.D. 220]
The realism and vigour of Han art is the expression of one of the most dynamic periods in China's long history. The dynasty was founded in 206 B.C. by a peasant, Liu Pang, and succeeding emperors attracted to their court many very able men, including writers and poets. Through the system of imperial examinations a competent civil service, recruited regardless of birth, was set up; and thus an official class endowed with leisure - the scholar gentry - was created. It was this class of people, with enough leisure to feel a need for art and who also had the time to create, which was the mainspring of Han vigour in this field.

But it was not only in art that the Han period was remarkable. Imperial universities and provincial schools were set up in 124 B.C.; the first assembly of scholars gathered in A.D. 4, and other assemblies were called from time to time to discuss such matters as constitutional law and the nationalization of the salt and iron industries. There was a renaissance of Confucianism, and at the same time Taoist thought developed to a considerable extent. The growth of skeptical and rational ideas liberated the minds of men from many past superstitions. Astronomers perfected their instruments and invented new ones. The waterclock now measured time for an entire day [Maspero]. And in 52 B.C. the emperor was presented by Shên Hsiu-ch'ang with an instrument which 'permitted him to measure the movement of the sun and moon and to verify the form and movement of the sky' [Needham]. Ink had been in use before Han times, but now took on added importance with the invention of paper and improvements made in the manufacture of the brush; and this led in turn to the development of painting on silk and paper.

It was a time of tremendous intellectual questioning: books were written on the classics, on medicine, agriculture, military science, [p. 53] history, linguistics, folk literature, philosophy, divination, astronomy, alchemy, botany and zoology. They were, however, still written on bamboo or other wooden strips and on silk, for paper was considered an inferior material.

With these developments in knowledge came economic expansion. Mercantile initiative opened up the Silk Road across the Central Asian desert, linking China with India, Iran and Syria; it was by this route that Buddhism reached China in A.D. 65, as did Roman and Syrian embassies from the West. The first Han envoy Chang Ch'ien left in the middle of the second century B.C. New plants and natural products, alfalfa, grapes, oranges, lemons and jade from Khotan were brought back by these diplomatic missions. The simultaneous developments in ceramics [proto-porcelain] and glazes on decorated tiles and bricks, together with the creation of an advanced textile industry, give a picture of a strong expanding economy [Needham].

The empire gradually spread to Central Asia and Korea. Trade flourished and the superior techniques of the imperial armies were disseminated among the more backward neighbours of the Middle Kingdom.

Han poetry reflects this expansion. It is filled with the sorrow of separation, the agonized cry of the soldier long exiled from his home and of the lover pining for his beloved.

On the field of battle
There is no date for our reunion,
Deep sighs, hands press hands,
Heavy tears of farewell.
Keep your youth,
Do not forget the time of our joy.
Living I shall see you again,
Dead I shall think of you eternally . . .

But mingled inextricably with the more material aspects of Han times were other less factual concepts: yin and yang, which from earliest times epitomized the male and female principles, and were [p. 54] equated with light and dark, heaven and earth, hardness and softness; and wu-hsing, the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These ancient ideas and the theories connected with them permeated the art as well as the thought of the Han people. The artist considered that correct representation of the Two Forces and Five Elements brought happiness and prosperity 'and one might be allowed to visit the land of the immortals and to enter heaven riding a flying dragon or a floating cloud.'

In Han art, as in reality, everyday life proceeded without constraint in this realm of pure fantasy, and each was of equal importance to the creative artist. In his mind the myths and the creatures that figured in them were still very real, and the intermingling of the real and the mythical evidently had a special attraction for him. [p. 55]

It was perhaps a new problem and prompted the scholar poet and painter Chang Hêng [A.D. 78-139] to comment on the general preference of artists for demons and monsters as their subjects. 'Real objects are difficult to represent, but the realm of the unreal lis infinite.' 2 Another author asks: 'Why do artists take delight in painting demons and spiritual beings and dislike painting dogs and horses? Is it because the former never appear in reality and the latter are objects of our daily experience?' 3 But even at this stage the tendency was not towards mere imitation of reality for the same author goes on to say: 'When form is laboured the spirit is dissipated, and an artist with too much regard for detail spoils his work.'

Han painting appears to have been mainly mural, although hempen cloth and silk were also thought suitable as surfaces. But until a few years ago historians of Chinese art had very little evidence of pre-Han and Han painting, and they quite correctly assumed that there was a close stylistic resemblance between the painting of the period and the stamped bricks and low reliefs found on the walls of Han tombs. This inference was borne out by ancient texts containing descriptions of frescoes in palaces and temples. No other country in the world has such a vast literature by painters and critics, some of them from very early periods. Now, thanks to the work being done by Chinese archaeologists and historians [especially on Han and pre-Han excavations], knowledge of these times is being deepened, modified and perfected. The tomb paintings found in Manchuria and Liao-yang and hundreds of newly discovered stamped bricks, many of them with landscape elements, constitute a whole fresh field of material for study.

In Figures 14-16 representative examples of Han landscapes are [p. 56] given which form a further development of the earlier ones with the cloud-scrolls.

Landscape elements are seen in a variety of forms. The stamped bricks are generally of two different types [Medley]. The first are the pure hunting scenes, with hardly any landscape elements; these no doubt are influenced by Syrian and Iranian hunting themes. Others are well-developed landscape scenes. Three of them are shown here: Fig. 14 represents the salt wells at Tsê-liu ching; Figure 15 represents duck-hunting and harvesting; Fig. 16 a lake covered with lotus buds and leaves on which a boat is sailing, while the projecting range of hills with trees behind them completes the scene. Both these landscapes are extraordinary manifestations of popular feeling for nature, for the stamped bricks are genuine expressions of popular art. Here, as it were, is the root of the matter; the feeling for nature comes, not only from intellectuals writing poetry and consciously striving to identify themselves with their surroundings; not only from Taoist philosophy, where man's unity with nature leads him to self-knowledge; but from the people, the craftsmen in the small towns and villages. Only a craftsman who possessed a deep love of nature could do these landscape scenes. In the scene of the Salt Wells the build-up of the Mountains is in the same spirit as that which conceived the landscape of the plates on pages 152 and 149 from the T'ang period at Tun-huang. Below on the left is the shaft of the Salt Well with four figures working in it; a bridge leads up from the mouth of the well over the intervening space to the place where the salt is poured into pans over a furnace, tended by a figure sitting beside it. Two men with [p. 61] baskets on their backs move across the hills beyond the bridge. The rest of the composition is taken up by wooded hills with animals and birds bounding over them, within the spatial units created by the surface of each mountain. The perspective is no different from that which we will encounter in nearly all our landscapes, but is only in an earlier phase; ti, earth, is all important, and t'ien, heaven, is not correlated to the earth - in other words, the horizon line is not present.

In the scene of the lake with the boat, the lotus, the ducks, the hills and the trees make a landscape that is the forerunner of all those innumerable nostalgic paintings of later periods where a solitary figure in a boat drifts down the water. Can we not hear the Sung [p. 62] poets a thousand years later singing 'the mist rising from the water hides the mountains' or 'there is no human sound in any direction, there is noise among the trees. It is the sound of autumn.'

The trees used in the Salt Wells of Tsê-liu ching are the cold forest, or han-lin, variety, trees without leaves, used first in the bronze basin in Figure 13 and in our T'ang landscape in the plate on page 171. It is not a matter of their being ignorant how to draw trees with leaves; in the same bronze basin we get a willow-tree. But the two main types of tree were the han-lin type without leaves and the type with them. We get both of them from the Warring States period throughout Chinese painting, the Han period being no exception. Incidentally these bricks are polychrome, a [p. 63] fact which brings them nearer the category of painting and drawing than that of relief.

In these stamped bricks the perspective varies; sometimes animal and human figures are larger than the mountains, while at other times, as in the Salt Wells and the Boat on the Lake, and in the line drawing in Figure 19 there is a distinct capacity to apprehend man and the universe around him. The setting of the hills with diagonal lines in the Salt Wells does give the effect of depth, while foreshortening of the figure is seen in many of these stamped bricks. It seems to be quite a familiar device, for it is also used in the stone engraving in Figure 19, where the seated figures are treated admirably, while in the boat scene in Figure 16 it is handled with some degree of assurance. In this exquisite scene of the Boat on the Lake the feeling for space is remarkable. The solitary figure of the boatman is in the act of rowing, and the sense of distance between him in his boat and the distant mountains is cleverly conveyed. The two trees placed between the folds of the peaks and the birds flying in the sky accentuate the sense of distance. The duck-hunting scene, [p. 64] which has often been reproduced, is one of the most beautiful early examples of landscape anywhere in the world.

Stone reliefs are another important source material for the study of Han art. Scenes from mythology, court ceremonies, processions and hunting scenes are usually linear in design, with the figures in profile as in early Egyptian engravings. Figure 19 originates from newly excavated tombs.

Architectonic elements are used in nearly all Han stone reliefs. In the Wu family tomb, a great concourse of figures are arranged behind each other in recessive planes within an architectural frame. This early representation seems to forecast the grandiose development of the T'ang paradise scenes at Tun-huang with tier upon tier of Buddhist personages or, as Arthur Waley puts it, 'the backbenchers of the Buddhist pantheon'. The line drawings in Figures 17, 18 and 20 are from the Wu family tomb; the other, Figure 21, is a stamped brick from Szechwan and shows a dwelling surrounded by a wall and divided into two courts, both of which are flanked by wooden verandahs. There is a single-storey structure with three bays and a patched roof with gable ends. The right-hand area has [p. 65] a well, wooden racks for drying clothes and a kitchen. The high tower with a roof supported on brackets may be a watch-tower. It is probably the dwelling of a rich merchant. The perspective used here is basically the same as that in the T'ang dynasty, as for example in Cave 217.

These details from a fresco in a tomb in Hopei province show an important style in Han painting, a style similar to that of the famous Han painted bricks in the Boston Museum. The figures carry offerings for the dead and are arranged according to rank. The frieze below contains a partridge, a rabbit and a pheasant. [p. 66] The uniting factor in the composition, that which holds the figures together, is the element of space. It is not a mere emptiness but a positive agent. The feeling for space as a positive rather than a negative element is one of the continuing characteristics of Chinese painting. The poet Su Tung-p'o in the eleventh century remarks on this when talking of a painting by Wu Tao-tzú: 'There was life even in the places where the brush had not reached.'

The Tao abides in emptiness, it is said - and in the Chuang-tzú [300 B.C.] importance is given to non-being or emptiness: 'One should not listen with one's ears but with the mind, and not with the mind but with the spirit. The Spirit is an emptiness ready to receive all things' [Waley]. The great painter is able to occupy his mind not only with the part of the surface that is filled with the brush and ink, but also with that part from which brush and ink are absent; whoever can understand how this absence is realized can attain a divine quality in his painting. Thus space is like a musical pause, filled with mystery before the next phrase begins, giving it meaning and uniting it with what went before.

For these frescoes a fluid brush-line defines the upper part of the bodies of animals and birds, while a fine incised line is used for human figures. Both the broad fluid stroke and the fine incised line stem from Neolithic times: the first was used in the decoration of prehistoric painted pottery, while the second is reminiscent of early calligraphy incised on bones with a stylus of some kind.

In the excellent museum at Sian in Shensi province there is an outstanding example of a lacquered bronze mirror. It is about twenty-five centimeters in diameter and painted with a landscape. A group of nobles are conversing under the trees while their horses and grooms stand by. The colours are green, scarlet and yellow on a black ground. The composition is circular, following the shape of the mirror itself. It is one of the earliest examples of Han painted landscape, though with the amount of research now in progress more may come to light. Unfortunately we are unable to reproduce this object and therefore refer to a shell bearing painted hunting scenes. Somewhat earlier in date, it consists of two such scenes each of which contains identical elements such as birds in flight. [p. 67]

In Han times, however, the artist's feeling for nature often far outstripped his capacity to express it in visual media. Even in the fourth century the artist Tsung Ping, obsessed as he was with painting mountains, was at the same time struggling with primary problems of technique. But the essence of the feeling that permeated the Han artist in general is evident in the period's main characteristics - line and movement as vigorous and bold as the era itself. The love of natural beauty in men's minds was still like a lotus bud arising out of deep waters and waiting for the time when it could open out in all its glory. The great poets who could sing their hymns to nature were still to come.

The chain of mountain extends a hundred li,
Their peaks pierce the clouds;
Below the sinuous river winds its way,
The trees bend their tortuous branches,
The rain obscures the sky.
In search of lonely paths I walk along a river
Whose source I cannot reach,
The return path is lost in the distance . . .

Ssú T'ao
[6th century A.D.]

Such a sentiment was unfamiliar to the Han spirit. The group of nobles conversing under the tree in the lacquer landscape were quite possibly enjoying the beauties of nature, but only, one feels, during a pause on their journey somewhere, when they have taken a moment's respite from activity. They do not identify themselves with the landscape; at any moment one of them will leap on to his horse and join the eternal procession of galloping Han cavaliers. The time when man desired to escape to a 'crystal stream that flows around a headland as green as jade severed from the dusty world,' where he could 'brush the dust of the town from his clothes and choose a place surrounded by tumbling hills' - that moment was still far away. Yet it was again Tsung Ping who in the fourth century lamented, 'now I am old and infirm I fear I shall no more be able to roam among the beautiful mountains . . . I meditate on the mountain trails and wander only in dreams. As I pluck my lute, multitudinous mountains shall stir the air and echo my songs . . . As to landscapes, they have a material aspect but also a spiritual influence . . . I can only do my pictures and spread my colours over the cloud-covered mountain to transmit for future ages the hidden meaning which lies beyond all description in words.' 5

Though the Egyptians and Greeks did have landscapes in their art, in the West the profound appreciation of landscape as such arose very much later than it did in China, and it was only in the fourteenth century that Petrarch, writing to a friend, could say, 'Would that you know with what joy I wander free and alone among mountains and forest.' [p. 71]

1. Based upon a traslation by E. Chavannes.

2. The Spirit of the Brush, tr. Shio Sakanishi, London, 1939, p. 21.

3. Ibid., pp. 19-20.

4. Based upon a traslation by E. Chavannes.

5. Based upon a traslation by E. Chavannes.

[De Silva, Anil and photographs by Dominque Darbois. The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting in the Caves of Tun-Huang. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1964.]



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