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

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

I understand painting by my natural disposition as well as the crying crane knows his way through the night . . . my love of landscapes has led me on.

If I presume to begin with the words of Wang Wei, it is because 'the love of landscapes has led me on' to undertake this study; this may in some fashion excuse the shortcomings of this book. To me as a Buddhist there is more in the study of landscape painting than the wish to share my enthusiasm; there is the desire to search for the meaning behind the pictures; as Dr Sirén says, 'the search is the gist of the matter; it increases the experience, warms the heart, opens the eyes . . .' -this then is my justification.

I went to Tun-huang with Dominique Darbois, the photographer, and Romila Thapar of London University after we had completed a photographic documentation of the Western Caves of Mai-chi Shan in Kansu Province. We had worked there fore several weeks and taken over seven hundred photographs, several hundred of them in colour. But the experience gained in this work did not really help me in the choice of the photographs to be taken in Tun-huang. When we arrived, we were confronted with four hundred and sixty-nine caves to be inspected before I could actually decide which scenes we could photograph. The time and the number of photographs we could take were limited, and the task of choosing seventy landscapes from the incredible wealth that lay before us was extremely difficult; even though I was in some measure prepared, the richness of colour and line was intoxicating. It took nearly a week to go through the caves, stopping only long enough to examine each one briefly. In the meantime the work of photography had to begin, for the complicated task of taking pictures both in black and white and in colour can be understood only by someone who has attempted it. Decisions had to be taken quickly, and indeed if [p. 9] I had the opportunity again my choice might be slightly different. I would like to draw attention to two points. The first is the matter of dating and numbering the caves. In both cases I have followed the dates and numbers as given by the Tun-huang Institute.

The second is the question of the identification of the plates themselves. Chinese Buddhist iconography is often a complex and baffling subject; Dr. Waley has drawn attention to the fact that at Tun-huang some of the pictures may illustrate popular p'ien-wén or 'wonder writings' whereas others are probably based on uncanonical folklore. He also emphasizes the fact that paintings were sometimes based on dreams or visions and not on a text. This of course makes a difficult subject even more difficult.

Since this volume was completed in 1959 other contributions to the subject have appeared which have analyzed in detail a wealth of material, including some of the early Tun-huang landscape paintings that are treated here. Frequently there is misunderstanding about the total effect of these frescoes.

Only those who have actually seen the caves can really visualize the general impression evoked by these pictures. Yet this general impression is the most important achievement of the Tun-huang artists. In some of the caves they showed genius in the way in which they divide and arranged the wall surfaces; there is an almost perfect rhythm in the juxtaposition of the various elements. Undoubtedly there are occasional instances of 'archaism', but does this diminish the artistic value of a painting? An artist loses none of his greatness if his work is more primitive than those produced by others; just as little does a developed technique - for example, in rendering space in depth or perspective - imply greater aesthetic value. It is always dangerous, one might say, to take the achievements of a particular period of artistic development as the yardstick in evaluating works produced earlier. Do we appreciate Romanesque art less than that of the Renaissance or of later periods simply because it has some archaic features.

Two early caves - 257 and 285 - which are dealt with in this book contain some of the finest frescoes known to me. In Cave 285 the use of delicate lines produces a total effect of abundant vitality [p. 10] and enchanting beauty. In Cave 257 the strong colours convey an intensity of feeling and a serene dignity that are reminiscent of Piero della Francesca.

To evaluate properly the treatment of line and the brushwork the prime necessity is to have good photographs, such as have been used to illustrate this volume. Unfortunately some of our colour plates have had to be greatly reduced in size, and this naturally makes it more difficult to appreciate them.

In many caves, such as 296, 299, 249 and 302, the artists made no attempt to solve the problem of representing space in depth. These paintings are distinguished by serene and flowing lines, so that the general effect is one of unforgettable charm. It is the quality of the draughtsmanship that is of importance: it shows such spontaneity and dedication that one experiences complete satisfaction.

We certainly do not seek to belittle the studies that have been made hitherto when we state that a reproduction on a reduced scale is no substitute for the experience derived from looking at the original. But the present volume is based upon such an experience. The author has had the good fortune to be able to compare the colours and aesthetic effect of reproductions with those of the actual wall-paintings of Tun-huang. This, in our estimation, gives the work such value and significance as it possesses. It is written in the hope that it may contribute in some measure towards a better understanding of these masterpieces.

Most of these plates are published in colour for the first time in Europe; a few of them appeared in the Christmas 1958 issue of Plaisirs de France.

There are two categories of people to whom I am deeply indebted; those who were responsible for making this trip possible and who helped us while we were there, and those who have aided me while actually writing the book itself.

Among the former I am indebted to His Excellency the late Sardar K. Panikkar and Her Excellency Madame Rajan Nehru, Indian Ambassadress in Peking; the first for helping this project through, [p. 11] and the second for her sympathy and assistance while we were in China at all moments of stress and strain; to Dr. Hsia Nai, Director of the Department of Archaeology, Academia Sinica, Peking, who gave me all possible co-operation, even after my return; to Dr. Chang Shu-hung, Director of the Tun-huang Research Institute, for his hospitality, kindness and invariable helpfulness in all our daily work, and for showing us an example of devotion to Chi'ien-fo Tung [i.e., Caves of a Thousand Buddhas] that is a source of inspiration to all who were fortunate enough to visit the Institute; to my interpreter Myngoo Wong, who helped me to translate Chinese texts in addition to her daily work as interpreter. Dominique Darbois worked unsparingly and I would like to thank her here for her total disregard of fatigue and in some instances, as in Mai-chi Shan, even of danger.

This study does not claim to be completely new or entirely without error. It is of necessity based on the work of others, particularly the two sinologists of very great stature, Dr Osvald Sirén and Dr Arthur Waley, to whose writings and translations every non-Chinese owes a great deal. I must thank Dr Waley for sparing me the time to go over the plates and for making valuable suggestions about them. I would also like to remember my former professor, the late Jean Buhot, who was always generous and understanding. If he were alive, I am sure his help and guidance would have added infinitely to this study, and I have felt his loss continually.

But there are so many persons who have been helpful and kind that I can only think of an old saying, 'when the heart is deeply grateful, there are no words to express it.' This is particularly true of Dr Chê ng Tê -k'un, Lecturer in Chinese Archaeology at Cambridge University, and Dr Joseph Needham, author of Chinese Art. Dr. Chê ng Tê -k'un not only read through my whole manuscript, but continually supplied me with valuable indications and translated some of the inscriptions on the tablets in the plates. Dr. Needham let me read certain extracts from his then still unpublished fourth volume of Science and Civilization in China, and gave me other pertinent material. All three have aided me most generously. John Lust, assistant librarian of the School of Oriental and African [p. 12] Studies, was invariably helpful in getting me the necessary books. Paul Braisted, President of the Hazen Foundation, sent me the photographs from the American museums used in the illustrations. In concluding I should like to say how deeply thankful I am for the opportunity given me to visit Tun-huang. Ever since my earliest years, when I read the memoirs of Hsüan Tsang and adopted him as a sort of patron saint, his extraordinary journey through the Gobi to India in search of truth stimulate and inspired me.

Anil de Silva
[p. 13]

[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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