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 Three

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

The Three Kingdoms and the Six Dynasties [A.D. 220-589]
They [the ancient pictures] had their origin in forms, [the forms] were made to blend with the spirit and to excite the heart-mind. If the spirit has no perception of them, they exercise no influence; the eyes can see only the limits, but not the whole thing . . . To work at autumn clouds makes the soul soar as a bird, to feel the wind of spring makes the thoughts go far and wide . . . to exert oneself with strange mountains and seas, with green forests and the soaring wind, with the foaming waters and the rushing cascades - how wonderful! 1
Wang Wei [A.D. 699-759]

The period immediately following the disintegration of the powerful Han Empire takes its name from the Three Kingdoms into which the country was divided [A.D. 220-265]. These years of internal chaos, peasant revolts and civil wars generally reduced and impoverished the population.

The partition of China continued during the three-hundred-year rule of the Six Dynasties until the end of the sixth century, when the country was again united under the Sui rulers.

During the third and fourth centuries China suffered repeatedly from the attacks of Tibetans, Turco-Mongols, Huns and proto-Mongols. The lawful dynasty took refuge in the south, and Nanking became until late in the sixth century the capital of the ruling dynasties. The isolation of the southern dynasties, cut off from the rest of the country, created the need for and developed the importance of such maritime cities as Canton and Chiaco-chih.

A great number of Buddhist missionaries from India frequented [p. 75] this maritime route to [continued below]

Cave 257 [c. A.D. 500] pps 77, 79, 81. This cave has many elements from the tradition of the Han stone reliefs. A third wall which we are not able to reproduce here has exactly the same architectural structure as reliefs from the tomb of the Han general Ho Ch'ü-ping in the Wei river valley in Shensi. The illustrations show parts of the Rur Játaka, the story of the golden deer king, who while crossing a river one day saved the life of a drowning man by helping him ashore. The man knelt down and thanked the beautiful deer. The queen of Benares dreamed of a deer with nine colours and implored the king to get her his skin for a dress and his horns for drinking-cups. The king gave the command, and the man whom the deer had saved came and told the king where he could be found. The deer was asleep but a swallow who was his friend came and awoke him to the danger. The deer met the king and told him the story of his betrayal.

The Ruru Játaka is rarely represented in art and this is perhaps the only time it was shown in the Wei period. It has been suggested that the red ground and the plants scattered over the surface are due to the influence of fourth-century Sassanian art. But we saw this tendency in the Han funerary slab [Plate p. 52]. As the red ground, which enriches and enhances the surface quality of the painting, it is an exact description from the J�taka itself. When the king asks the treacherous man 'Where is the golden deer?', he replies, 'Within yonder clump of flowering sal and mango, where the ground is all as red as cochineal, this deer is to be found.' It is also interesting to note that the earth of northern India around Benares and Delhi is deep red ochre, in fact an astonishing colour. The painter was obviously following the description in the Játaka.

The line here expresses strength rather than movement. The saw-toothed hills leading down from left to right bring us into the heart of the forest clearing. We can somehow sense the spiritual quality of the future Buddha in the guise of the animal: he stands unafraid, above the meanness of man, detached, in supreme awareness, entirely sure of his destiny. The man is shown dark-skinned and wearing a dhoti [Indian male dress] - obviously an Indian, as the story takes place in India. [Cf. pp. 79, 81] [p. 76]

China. In A.D. 520, during the reign of Liang Wu-ti, the legendary Bodhidharma, founder of the Ch'an [Zen] Buddhist sect [which later greatly influenced landscape painting], arrived at Canton and was personally welcomed by the emperor Wu, himself a devout Buddhist.

In the north the military conflicts with various tribes continued to sow chaos and misery until the arrival on the scene of the victorious Turco-Mongol T'o-pa, who not only conquered but stabilized the northern territories. These invaders, soon to be known as the Northern Wei, were themselves quickly assimilated and became completely 'sinicized'.

The Buddhist missionaries and monks of Tun-huang played an important role during these troubled times, and under their civilizing influence the Northern Wei became the first great imperial patrons of Buddhist art in China. For over two centuries they encouraged and took an active part in the building of thousands of temples and in the hewing of caves.

Their first capital was at P'ing-Ch'êng not far from Peking, but by the middle of the fifth century they had gained control of north China, and in A.D. 494 established their capital at Lo-yang in the Yellow River basin.

In the fourth century Tun-huang, which until then had been spared from external disturbances, fell under Northern Wei control. The emperor moved thirty-nine thousand of its inhabitants to P'ing-Ch'eng. This was a major importance to the arts, for these people comprised craftsmen and sculptors, and it was with their help that the Yün-kang caves were begun. The cave temples of Yün-kang were started in A.D. 414 and those of Lung-mên at the end of the same century. These caves contain examples of some of the greatest religious sculpture ever produced anywhere in the world.

In the enthusiasm evoked by their recent conversion, the Wei rulers spent enormous sums of money on their temples; the height of their fervour as builders was reached under Hsien-w�n Ti [466-471], [p. 78] his son and the dowager Empress Wu [515-528]. This empress engaged thousands of men to work on the Lung-mên caves, and cut down the salaries of officials in order to maintain the temples. She built the Monastery of Eternal Peace at Lo-yang and a pagoda said to have been a thousand feet high. The heavy expenditures and taxation necessary for the realization of these grandiose projects soon rendered the empress Wu highly unpopular. This general discontent became so great that, even after she had retired into a nunnery in 528, she was taken out and assassinated by rebels.

During the Six Dynasties Confucianism, neo-Taoism and Buddhism flourished side by side and the resultant compound of these three modes of thought was of particular intellectual interest. This fusion is clearly illustrated in the poetic works of T'ao Yüan-ming [A.D. 365-427]. A Confucian by upbringing, Taoism inspired him and Buddhism deeply penetrated his spirit as he sang of nature, of abandoned fields, of the escape to be found in wine, and distant hamlets faintly seen in the mist.

While the poetry of the Six Dynasties reflects all three tendencies, it is especially the neo-Taoist spirit that dominates the attitude towards nature. Yüan Chi in the third century was perhaps the first poet to develop the theme of man lost in the immensity of nature which later inspired T'ang and Sung poets and painters. Most popular were such themes as distant vistas of landscape lost in the mist, the cries of birds announcing dawn, the first rays of the sun piercing the clouds, the rose light of morning over flowers, and Taoist immortals dwelling on mountain heights.

Love poems became increasingly frequent, and such images as sweet-scented women with vermilion lips and long hands as smooth as jade playing soft music, bathed in a delicate romantic spirit, heralded the T'ang and Sung. At the same time epic poems , in the tradition of heroic literature, tell us of heroines such as Mu-lan donning man's attire and fighting the northern invaders.

The art of the Six Dynasties is both a continuation of the Han and a transition to the T'ang. From this period poetry and painting came closer and closer in spirit until the tenth and eleventh centuries, during the Sung, each was indeed a reflection of the other. [p. 80] [continued below]

Cave 428 [c. 520-530. Late Wei]. Pgs 85, 93 above. The Mahásattva Játaka. Three brothers bid farewell to their father and engage in some target practice before going out hunting. At the sight of a starving tigress and her cubs Mahásattva invents some pretext to be alone, and when the others ride away lies down in front of the tigress so that she may have food. But the pitiful animal has no strength to eat him. He goes to the top of the hill and, using a sharp bamboo stick, pierces his throat and falls down in front of her. The brothers return to find Mahásattva dead, they build a st�pa for him and return to tell their father. The last scene is Mahásattva reborn as the Buddha

The narrative composition in horizontal registers follows the tradition of the 'hunting bronzes'. The same characters are repeated as the story unfolds and the action takes place within the clearly divided 'space cells' defined by the 'saw-toothed' hills and trees. Depth is here suggested by the overlapping of elements: by horsemen and figures appearing from behind a hill; by foreshortening, as when a horse and rider are seen from the front; and by oblique lines, to suggest recession. The stylized trees of the Han period begin to change and take on the aspect of identifiable species. The general organization has now surpassed that of the simplified Han reliefs. The scenes where Mahásattva throws himself over the cliff and where the brothers return show a distinctly new sense of perspective and depth. The same cave has the Suddhanta J�taka and the Temptation of the Buddha by the Demon Mára. [p. 82]

In this period the evolution of criticism and aesthetic theory developed. The Six Principles formulated by Hsieh Ho, painter and theoretician, were intended as standards for the evaluation of painting. 'Which are these Six Principles? The first is spirit resonance [or vibration of vitality] and life movement. The second is bone-manner [i.e., structural] use of the brush. The third is, to conform with the objects to give likeness. The fourth is, to apply the colours according to the characteristics. The fifth is plan and design, place and position [i.e., composition]. The sixth is, to transmit models by drawing.' 2

The subject-matter of Chinese painting was divided into ten groups. A twelfth-century catalogue of the Sung emperor Hui-tsung's collection classifies subjects as follows:

1. Tao-shih: religious subject
2. Jên-wu: human affairs
3. Kung-shih: palaces and other buildings
4. Fan-tsu: foreign tribes
5. Lung-yu: dragons and fishes
6. Shan-shui: landscapes or mountains and streams
7. Ch'in-shou: animals
8. Hua-niao: flowers and birds
9. Mo-chu: bamboos in ink
10. Su-kuo: vegetables and fruit.

The importance of each group was based on ancient tradition whereby painting 'served as a moral guide'. It was natural that the first category, Tao-shih, should be devoted to religious subjects, mainly Taoist and Buddhist.

Incidentally it is interesting to note the remarks of Chang Yen-yüan, the T'ang dynasty critic, 'There are still some famous pictures handed down from the Wei and the Chin dynasties and I have had occasion to see them. The landscapes are filled with crowded peaks; their effect is like that of filigree ornaments or horn combs. The views are generally enclosed by trees and rocks which stand in a circle on the ground; they look like rows of lifted arms with outspread fingers.' Cf. pp. 85, 93. [p. 83]

Religious themes fall into three main divisions:

1. Purely religious figures of Buddha and all the numerous lesser personages, and paradise scenes.

2. The Játaka tales [stories of the Buddha's former lives] and scenes depicting the life of the Buddha.

3. Scenes from the lives of saints, famous monks and teachers, and portraits of donors.

The two last mentioned groups gave scope for secular scenes as well as landscape painting, which gradually invaded the temporal scenes of Buddhist painting until during the Late T'ang it dominated all other subjects. It is curious to note, however, that even as late as the twelfth century it was thought morally correct to give landscape only sixth place.

Perhaps the greatest artist of the Nanking court in the fourth and beginning of the fifth century was Ku-K'ai-chih, one of the earliest painters of Buddhist themes. He is recorded as having painted some three hundred frescoes on the walls of temples and palaces in Ch'angan and Lo-yang, but few examples of his work have come down to us. It is said that when he painted human figures he let several years pass before painting the eyes, for, he explained, 'The features can be beautiful or ugly. They are not very important beside the mysterious parts by which the soul is expressed in a portrait.' He painted a famous contemporary musician among rocks, for 'he is a man who must be seen in a landscape of mountains.' 3

He is best known to us by virtue of a scroll attributed to him which is now in the British Museum. One of the panels in this scroll has a landscape scene with a kneeling archer shooting at animals, with a mountain in the middle of the composition. A detail from Cave 285 done in A.D. 538 shows an almost identical scene. [p. 84]

The Han world of yin and yang is still able to inspire the artist. Whirling, dissolving arabesques contain celestial beings mounted on many-headed dragons and mythical figures, half bird and half man, spreading their strong wings and soaring into the clouds, while below the earth is represented by strange mountains. Into this imaginary and fabulous world are suddenly introduced realistic and vividly rendered drawings - an ox, a sow and her litter - seemingly odd intruders; but for the Chinese this combination of real and unreal is identical with heaven and hearth, dark and light - the male and female yin-yang concept of the universe. It has the spirit of Han art, one of whose essential qualities is that the realm of pure fantasy continues to ignore all boundaries between the imaginary and the real. This spirit figure riding on the clouds and the phoenix [Fig. 24] from a Han lacquer painting in Changsha belong to the same dual world as the frescoes in Cave 249; the bird-man figure [Plate p. 87 above] has its counterpart in a Han stone relief [Fig. 18], as does the many-headed dragon [Plate p. 88, below, Fig. 25].

The detail from Cave 285 is still very close in spirit to the earlier Han style, while in the Ku-K'ai-chih scroll spatial treatment is further developed. In both works we find the same Han 'cone-shaped' mountains and the relative proportion and disposition of elements is almost identical in the two paintings. In our details we find the eagle on top of the cone-shaped mountain as we find one sitting on the summit of the cloud-mountain in the encrusted metal box in the Warring States period [Fig. 5]. On the Ku K'ai-chih scroll the following maxim accompanies the landscape:

In the eternal movement of the world there is nothing which is exalted that is not afterwards brought low; among living things there is none which having attained its apogee, does not thenceforth decline. When the sun has reached the middle of its course, it begins to sink: when the moon is full, it is on the way to wane. We are raised up as on a crumbling heap of dust; we fall with shock as sudden as the rebound of a tense spring.' 4

Sir Kenneth Clark mentions a similar theme in the Canterbury Psalter [Usquequo Domine] and the Utrecht Psalter.

Composition, or chang-fa, was the suitable filling-in of space. Kuo Hsi says that whenever one is going to use the brush one must correlate sky and earth . . . between them one may develop the ideas of scenery. 'In placing objects in relation to one another the first step was t'ien-ti, heaven and earth, that is the placing of the horizon line.' 5

Some artists have both t'ien and ti; others one and not the other, so that the relative importance of the blank spaces at the top and bottom of a picture was a primary consideration. The balance between solid forms and empty spaces, hsiu shih, the balance between large and small forms, the pi chi or 'guest and host' principle, and ch'iu ho or spaciousness were perhaps the most [p. 89] important elements, for 'a painting has or lacks ch'iu ho just as the artist has it or lacks it in his heart, and a single man may fill a picture with three strokes and good composition. Another with poor composition will never attain success, no matter how many strokes he uses.' 6

The space relation was never solved harshly; one element blended into the other, and the differentiation between the groups in a composition are only those of life itself. Never an arbitrary line or rigid square, never the rectangle of a dividing frame: a group of trees, some rocks, the walls of a pavilion, a range of mountains, a river or lake - these are the only divisions which, while defining the composition, may all be integrated into a complete landscape. Action takes place within natural boundaries and remains 'faithful to its own structure'.

The viewpoint from which a landscape was painted was not a fixed one as in scientific perspective; as already mentioned in the second [p. 90] chapter, it was in the form of what we may call multiple perspective - that is to say, each element in the landscape was seen from a different perspective, so that when, as was generally the case, a landscape was seen from an elevated point of view [bird's-eye view], it still allowed a frontal view of objects.

As the viewpoint is mobile, and parallel lines do not converge towards a vanishing-point but remain parallel [architectural details], the result is a feeling of panoramic immensity, a sense of movement and participation. One is looking at the scene as from a slight eminence, in detachment, and yet simultaneously wandering through it.

The following poem, 'Mount Lu', is a good description of the state of mind in which a Chinese landscape should be appreciated. Here Mount Lu represents 'the World of Happening and Being'.

From that side it seems a peak
From this side a range,
View it from on high, view it from below
It is never twice the same -
How comes it that we cannot know
This mountain's real form?
It is, oh friend, it is that we
Are dwellers on the Mount of Lu.

Su Tung-p'o
[p. 91]

The action is not limited to the fixed viewpoint of a single individual; it goes beyond the individual and becomes a kind of universal conception. The illusion of space is created without harshness. To those familiar with modern art this discretion and lack of emphasis on depth by the Chinese artist will be understandable, for many contemporary European artists are aware that they are unable to solve all their problems through scientific perspective.

'Art which decorates surfaces observes, more or less at all stages of development, a discrete reserve as regards the phenomenon of [p. 103] perspective . . . depth of space conquered and secured no longer calls forth enthusiasm as a newly discovered land of wonders.�8

The wall space in a Chinese fresco is divided into three planes: foreground, middle distance, and background; this is known as san-tieh-fa, 'the law of three sections'.9 The horizon is not decisive, and the idea is to convey the impression of infinite space, the eye wandering from one plane to an other.

We may classify the four types of perspective as follows:

üan-chin: the far and the near, has three divisions and is applied particularly to landscapes;

shen-yüan: deep distance as seen from below;

ao-yüan: high distance as seen from a height [Fig. 26]; and

p'ing-yüan: level distance looking from an object near the foreground into space.

In the distance men have no eyes,
Tree have no branches, mountains
No stones and water no waves.'

Wang Wei
[8th century]
[p. 104]


1. O. Sirén, The Chinese on the Art of Painting, Peking, 1936, p. 17.

2. Ibid., pp. 30-1.

3. Ibid., p. 12.

4. L. Binyon, Admonitions of the Instructress in the Palace, London, 1912, p. 17.

5. B. March, Some Technical Terms of Chinese Painting, Baltimore, 1935, paras. 155-8.

6. Ibid., paras. 155, 160.

7. A. Waley, A n Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting, London, 1923, p. 177.

8. M. J. Friedl�nder, On Art and Connoisseurship, London, 1942, pp. 66, 68.

9. B. March, op. cit. paras. 151-4.

[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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