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Murals and Clay Sculptures in Grotto Temples

Murals and Clay Sculptures in Grotto Temples

The Chinese began digging caves for worshipping of Buddhism in the third century AD. Such activities became popular from the fifth century to the eighth, and ceased to exist after the 16th century. The so-called grotto art, which came into being along with digging of caves for Buddha worshipping, combines traditional Chinese architectural and sculptural arts and the art of mural painting. Grottoes that have survived to our time are found in Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, Shandong, Sichuan and Yunnan. They differ from one another in style as natural conditions differ from place to place and also because they were dug at different times.The Korzer Grottoes in Baicheng, Xinjiang, and the Mogao Grottoes in Gansu are the oldest and largest in northwestern China, and also the most outstanding representatives of ancient China’s grotto art. Both are in Gobi deserts, where stone good enough for carving are hardly available. For this reason, murals and pained clay sculptures are the main art works in grottoes there.

The site of the Korzer Grottoes was a part of Guizi, one of the numerous ancient kingdoms in Central Asia, and artworks there are unique in both content and artistic style due to a strong influence of the Indian Buddhist art. The main structures include spacious cave halls where Buddhist sculptures are displayed for worshipping, as well as cave dwellings for resident Buddhists. Cave halls for worshipping are square or rectangular in shape with arched ceilings, and gates and windows are on the front walls. Buddhist sculptures for worshipping stand or sit in front of the back wall. There are grottoes with tunnels leading to the rear chambers where sculptures of the sleeping Buddha – Buddha after freedom from worldly existence – are placed on earthen platforms. Murals are found everywhere – on walls and ceilings of the halls, chambers and tunnels, and also on most parts of the walls of the rear chambers, telling stories about the life of Buddha and other Buddhist stories. White, light blue and light green are the dominating colors, with brighter colors such as brown and brownish red serving as contrast.

Half or completely naked men and women, mostly entertainers, account for a significant proportion of the human figures painted on the murals. More often than not, they are in pairs, hugging and embracing each other as if head over heels in love. Nudism of this kind is closely associated with the sculptural art characteristic of Indian Buddhism. Indian Buddhist sculptures often feature naked men and women together, women exhibiting their breasts and hips in ways that cannot be more striking. Sculptures at Korzer have whatever is typical of Indian Buddhist sculptures.

Here is another salient feature of Korzer artworks: pictures on the arched ceilings are in blocks in the shape of diamonds. Borders of the blocks are not slant lines, but lines rolling like mountains to symbolize the sacred mountain Sumeru, the center of the universe where Sakyamuni, founder of Buddhism, eternally stays. Buddhist stories are told in segments as the diamond-shaped blocks spread in all directions from the center of a ceiling in order of the colors, light blue, white, light green and black.

Buddhism kept spreading eastward, across Taklamakan Desert, the largest in China and the second largest in the world, in area next only to Sahara in Africa, and reached Dunhuang, a hub of communications on the ancient Silk Road and home to the world famous Mogao Grottoes. Also known as “Caves of a Thousand Buddha Sculptures”, the Mogao Grottoes is the largest treasure house of clay sculptures and murals on Buddhist themes. Altogether, 493 caves are counted at Dunhuang, where murals that have survived to our time have a combined area of 45,000 square meters and painted clay sculptures exceed 2,400 in number. Back in 1900, a cave, nay, a treasure house with more than 40,000 cultural relics in it, was found by chance, and these include hand-written Buddhist scripts, documents and Buddhist paintings of around the eighth century. The discovery stunned the world and, since then, scholars across the world have developed an independent academic discipline called the “Dunhuang studies”.

The oldest grottoes at Dunhuang were dug in the mid-fourth century. Building of grottoes peaked from the fifth century to the eighth, and began to decline after the 12th century. Only a few earliest murals are similar to those of Korzer in artistic style, while the rest, though on Buddhist themes, are purely artworks done with traditional Chinese painting techniques. As Buddhism spread in the country, it became increasingly assimilated with the Chinese culture. Some Northern Wei murals picture purely Chinese legends. To name a few: male and female immortals traveling in the universe on chariots drawn by dragons, Fu Xi, the creator of the universe, and Nu Wa, the goddess who used melted stone to fill in cracks of the Heaven with. Moreover, many murals are in fact serial pictures, something like traditional Chinese paintings on long scrolls, unlike those done earlier that are independent of one another and each tells a complete story. One mural in cave No. 428 consists of eleven pictures that tell the story of a Buddhist sage feeding himself to a hungry tiger. Serial pictures on a single mural are often arranged in two or three vertical blocks, the same way as stone carving pictures of the Han Dynasty. There is abundant evidence to development of the ink splashing and line drawing techniques characteristic of murals in what is now China’s far west – murals at Korzer, for example. Such techniques were used to do murals at Dunhuang, but the artistic effects thus produced are much greater.

Though less colorful than murals, painted clay sculptures in Mogao are no less important artistically. The earliest sculptures are often seen in groups of three, with Buddha in the company of two Bodhisattvas or Buddhist goddesses. Those left over from the Sui-Tang period, however, are mostly in groups of seven or nine, consisting of Buddhist gods, goddesses and guardians. Those life-like Buddhist goddesses and guardians are Chinese in everything – their physiques, clothes and facial looks, suggesting that Buddhism, an alien religion, had become an indispensable part of the Chinese culture.

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