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 Four

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

The Sui Dynasty [A.D. 589-618]

I shall play on my ch'in the air of the restless pine
Raising my cup I shall ask the Moon to join me.
The Moon and the Wind will always be my friends.
My fellow creatures here below are but transitory

Li Po
[A.D. 701-752]

After two hundred and seventy-one years China was again united under the Sui dynasty. Their empire extended from the southern-most point of Fukien province and Annam to the Great Wall in the north-west.

The Sui emperor Yang-ti was brilliant, temperamental and unstable. He was a most ardent patron of art and literature, and advocated 'that those who have gained renown for themselves by their war-like energy return to a study of the Classics.'

He planned and constructed part of the canal which united north and south China up to modern times. This enterprise is reputed to have been inspired by a landscape painting hanging in his palace. For this 'roads were constructed along both banks and planted with elms and willows. For over two thousand li from Lo-yang to Hang-chow shadows of trees overlapped each other.' Three million six hundred thousand labourers worked on the canal and with those who helped to supply them the number was brought to 5,430,000. The canal system assured communication and the transport of food from China's greatest source, the lower reaches of the Yangtze. Other immense construction schemes were undertaken without regard to cost in money or lives. Yang-ti was extravagant, and not being content with one capital at Ch'ang-an [Sian], he built a [p. 105] second at Lo-yang and a third at Hang-chow on the lower Yangtze. There are endless descriptions of Yang-ti's love of festivals and fêtes on the lake at Lo-yang, and of the opening of the great waterway when 'hundreds of many-tiered barges took the entire court down the canal.' Pomp and luxury were Yang'ti-s downfall and it is said of him that 'he shortened the life of his dynasty by a number of years but benefited posterity into ten thousand generations.

With the short-lived Sui dynasty a transitional period began, during which the arts, in the stability engendered by the newly-found unity, burst into flower.

The elements which form the character of this transition are, like those of all periods of development, full of fascination. Old motifs are transformed and new ones appear. It is this continual combination of the old and the new which makes the Sui frescoes at Tun-huang among the most entrancing and the most difficult to understand. They are finer and more elegant than those of the Wei; personages become more realistic and their movement clearer. There is a search for improved organization; the use of architecture predominates, and the roofs and walls take on the same importance as did the old saw-toothed hills under the Wei in delineating space and giving movement and depth. Light wooden structures with doors, curtains and windows separate one scene from another, while half-oepn windows and doors, diagonally placed roofs, walls, balustrades and stairs are used with great effect to give the illusion of depth.

These light pavilions with people inside and outside them, sitting and standing, are another constant feature in Chinese art. We saw this used in the bronze basin of the Warring States period [Fig. 13] and Figure 30 is taken from a painting on lacquer ware of the same era.

In the Sui frescoes at Tun-huang the hills are still present, but [p. 106] unlike the previous period it is as if the artist does not know where to put them now that his world has been invaded by architectcure and trees. He has lost interest in those old saw-toothed hills and uses them merely as dark accents in his composition of lines and feathery brush-strokes.

If animals were popular at the court with such painters as Yen Li-pên and others, they were no less so at Tun-huang. Horses are superbly conceived; we see them in procession, galloping in the hunt, and drinking calmly from a trough; they have the same long narrow heads and slender legs as in the Wei stone reliefs.

Some of the animals are executed in the po-hua, or plain drawing technique; Dr. Waley in his Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting says that red and black lines formed the outlines, which were filled in with light washes of colour to indicate volume and emphasize contours. He says that in the fourth century this techncique was used in the painting of a hunting scene in the Upper Park at Ch'ang-an, and that later Wu Tao-tzu excelled in po-hua. The other technique used for animals bears witness to the early use of mo-ku or 'boneless painting' - that is, only washes of colour without any outlines at all. Line here was all the excitement of a living, vital element, and is the main factor here, as it always is in Chinese art. This is a calligraphic quality, and is even extended to the architecture, which is meant to be seen as a fa´┐Żade [J. Buhot]; in Indian art, for example, it is the sculptural quality that dominates, even in architecture which is conceived in the round.

In these frescoes the drawing is often done in red chalk and then gone over with a very fine black or red brush stroke. If we compare the lines in the Han mural from Hopei, we see that a broad line is used to emphasize the upper part of the bodies of animals; but in the stone reliefs this line is used for the neck and chest, which is the technique used here in the rendering of horses. There are many indications that the artists were both sculptors and painters and that they often transferred the technique of the brush to work in stone or from stone or metal to the brush. This is also true of the treatment of the trees and stratified mountains.

In Sui art it appears as if one of the rules laid down for landscapes [p. 107] seems to have been taken literally: 'the important tree or trees are the first thing to be sketched; then the landscape or the terrain is built around them' [Chieh Tzü Yüan Hua Chuan]. For in many of these plates the trees are a background screen for the action taking place in the foreground. The treatment of trees is sheer enchantment for the eye. Never have they been so tenderly observed or rendered with such delicate verve. We find trees of every conceivable variety painted in as many different ways. In the plate on page 118-9 the willow is handled in an impressionistic manner with [p. 109] sweeping washes of colour, at the extreme right-hand corner in quite another manner, delicately and minutely, and at the top left in a third style.


1. R. Grousset, The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire, tr. A. Watson-Gandy and T. Gordon, London, 1952, p. 153.

[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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