Buddhist Images Across Borders: the Transmission of Dunhuang Mural Imagery in the 6th-13th Century

Title: 1284 | Buddhist Images Across Borders: the Transmission of Dunhuang Mural Imagery in the 6th-13th Century
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Art/Art History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Duo Xu, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, University of Hamburg, Germany (organizer, presenter)
Wei-Cheng Lin, University of Chicago, United States (chair, discussant)
Chun-I Lin, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom (presenter)
Zhenru Zhou, University of Chicago, United States (presenter)
Kexin Wang, Nanjing University, China (presenter)
Nikita Kuzmin, University of Pennsylvania, United States (presenter)


The spread of Buddhism and Buddhist art facilitated constant cultural exchanges among the Silk Routes. Dunhuang, situated at the conjunction in the Hexi corridor, is well-known for the enormous amount of image-caves and murals. Also, Dunhuang murals provide evidence of its artistic inspirations and adaptations from regions other than itself. Dunhuang, in turn, played a key role in transmitting Buddhist images in the broader cultural territory of medieval China.

By comparing and analyzing Buddhist images produced in Dunhuang and elsewhere, this panel seeks to demonstrate that images of Buddhist murals in Dunhuang are necessarily border-crossing in terms of geographical region, time period, religion and media. This panel aims to discuss the variegation of the Buddhist images created through the cross-fertilization of different sources and transmissions. LIN Chun-I analyzes the donor images in Mogao Cave 285, arguing their many characteristics shared by the contemporaneous funerary figures; ZHOU Zhenru investigates how the Pure Land image on the cliff surface at Mogao cave site was conveyed across painting and architecture during the Tang-Song transition. XU Duo compares the musician Kalavinka image of the Pure Land in Dunhuang murals with those from Central Asian and medieval Japan, suggesting a close relationship between the spread of Buddhism and the adaptation of the image. WANG Kexin traces the Water-Moon Guanyin image in Dunhuang and other regions in China, and Nikita KUZMIN explains the pictorial tradition of Water-Moon Guanyin in Tangut Kingdom of Western Xia and its connection in Dunhuang murals.

Panel Abstracts:
Those Bird Musicians – The Transmission of Kalavinka Image in Medieval Dunhuang Mural Paintings From the 6th to the 11th Centuries
The Kalavinka, has been cited in Buddhist sutras and translated as 妙音鳥 miaoyin niao, literally “the exquisite sound bird”, as the fine voice of this creature represents the holy Bodhisattvas. In the murals from the Mogao and Yulin sites near Dunhuang, the Kalavinka had portrayed as a human-headed creature with a bird body from the 6th to the 11th centuries. Previous studies have mainly focused on aligning Kalavinka’s image with textual descriptions from sutras; however, they have largely overlooked the examples of Kalavinka’s image widely seen in Buddhist art in India and Central Asia, medieval China and Japan, especially those Kalavinka performing musical instruments, thus missing some critical aspects of the motif. This paper is aiming to trace the transmission of the musician Kalavinka image, to provide an overview of the general usage of this image in relation to the “Pure Land” in Buddhism. To this end, I will first analyze Kalavinka images in Dunhuang murals. Second, the Dunhuang Kalavinka images will be compared with those from India and Central Asia. Moreover, this paper will draw attention to a Kalavinka image decorated on a Tang dynasty five-stringed-lute, preserved in Nara Shōsōin in Japan, and a gilded silver object from the Tibetan Tubo period. By analyzing and comparing the image in different periods, locations, forms, this paper attempts to explain how Buddhist images flourished in a relation to the spread of Buddhism and how the images were transported, adapted across borders in medieval times.

Cross-media Interaction Between the Buddhist and Funerary Context: The Transmission of the Donor Images in the Dunhuang Cave 285 as a Case Study
This paper investigates the origins and transmission of the donor images in Dunhuang Cave 285 in order to reconsider the current boundaries between the subfields of art history. This cave has dated inscriptions in 538 and 539 CE. Dated cave in the 6th century is rare, making Cave 285 an important benchmark. Previous studies have analyzed its artistic style, iconography, construction procedures, patrons, and functions. These studies offer great insights, but the information the cave provides is more than that. As this paper will illustrate, the shared stylistic characteristics between the donor images in mural painting from Cave 285 and the designs of ceramic tomb figurines fashioned between the 540s and the 570s in the present-day Shaanxi Province and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. It will investigate how and why the images transmitted among different media across these areas. Ultimately, this paper will reconstruct the artisans’ activity in Medieval China with textual and visual materials and begins a discussion about a new way to approach image transmission. In modern research, Buddhist mural paintings were studied as painting and in the religious context as different from, for instance, tomb figurines as sculpture and in the secular context. The images in Cave 285, however, show critical connections between two-dimensional and three-dimensional media as well as between Buddhist and funerary contexts in the 6th century. The cross-media and cross-contextual interactions can only be revealed with interdisciplinary methodologies.

Constructing a Pure Land in-situ: Exterior Mural Painting of the Mogao Caves (Dunhuang, China) in the 10th-11th centuries CE
This paper examines the interplay between the mural paintings and the architectural components on the cliff surface at the Mogao Caves. It inquires how those exterior murals helped evoke the vision of Pure Land as part of the comprehensive built environment. The paintings of the Western Pure Land inside the Dunhuang cave-temples are known to exemplify a visual paradigm in contemplating the Buddhist sacred realms during the Tang dynasty (618-907). However, the exterior murals with similar paradisiacal elements—such as ornate timber halls, various offerings, heavenly musicians, and fantastic creatures—are understudied. This paper proposes to investigate the configuration of the exterior murals and the timber facades as an important means to convey the Pure Land imagery on the cliff surface in the guiyijun period (848-1036). In two case studies, I will demonstrate how the exterior murals realized an atmospheric extension of the physical structure, gave rise to an interwoven architectural imagination of the Buddhist sacred realms with the actual cliff landscape. In the cliff section between Mogao Caves 444 and 431, the exterior mural horizontally connects the multiple timber facades, visualizing a symmetrically designed palatial complex on the cliff. In the vicinity of Cave 94, the exterior mural depicts a Buddhist gathering in a hall vertically aligned with the ground-level ante-hall, creating a visual echo between the virtual and the actual places. By exploring the transmedia practice of constructing a Pure Land at Mogao, this paper aspires to shed lights on the Tang-Song Transition in Chinese Buddhist visual culture.

Two Types of the Water-Moon Guanyin (Shuiyue Guanyin) From the 10th to the 13th century in Buddhist Caves
During the 10th to the 13th century, worship of the Water-Moon Guanyin (水月觀音,Shuiyue Guanyin) was widely spread in current-day Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces in China. Previous studies have mainly focused on the similarities of Shuiyue Guanyin images across these different regions. However, they have overlooked the formal differences in the ways these depictions were visually represented. Using a close examination of the different Shuiyue Guanyin images, this paper argues that there are two types of Shuiyue Guanyin: the narrative one and non-narrative one. The Shuiyue Guanyin images in Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces are presented in the form of a narrative, chiefly related to the stories of Buddhist pilgrimage. The non-narrative images, mostly in the Sichuan region, served to manifest a spiritual function and power of these statues. In particular, this paper will highlight the occurrence of an increase in non-narrative Shuiyue Guanyin images and a decrease in narrative examples seen in the Song Dynasty, thereby reflecting the secularization of Guanyin worship and the changing function of the grottos that contain Shuiyue Guanyin images. We will see that lay believers were increasingly motivated by the efficacy of the Guanyin image that could help to ward off calamity and create good fortune. Thus, by analyzing and comparing the Shuiyue Guanyin images in different locations, this paper aims to elucidate the ways in which the visual form of one Buddhist image could be altered, and its significance changed, in accordance with different regional cultures.

The Many Faces of Avalokiteśvara: Comparative Analysis of the Tangut Depictions of Water-moon Guanyin
In 1959 Chinese archaeologists discovered Tangut textual deposit in a stupa near Mogao grottoes in Dunhuang, which contained a woodblock version of the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra – “Guanshiyin pumen pin”. One distinguishing feature of this edition is its frontispiece, which depicts Water-Moon Guanyin accompanied by a donator and a gandharva. Moreover, the sutra’s narrative is supplemented by a string of images running across the top of each folio. Water-Moon Guanyin was one of the most popular motives in the Tangut Buddhist art. Although the image on the the sutra frontispiece is comparable with similar depictions of the bodhisattva, it reveals apparent Tibetan artistic influence. Guanyin is loosely sitting on the ground, peacefully gazing at the viewers and holding a string of beads. The composition and his posture differ from the Guanyin mural in Yulin Cave 2. The vignettes with Guanyin’s manifestations above the text correlate but does not copy comparable depictions from Mogao Cave 217. In my paper I am focusing on the development of the pictorial tradition of Water-Moon Guanyin in Western Xia. Taking the Tangut sutra frontispiece as a departing point, I argue that although his iconography belongs to a wide pictorial tradition of Guanyin depictions, it reveals nonstationary pictorial development. On the examples of distinct Tangut and Sinitic versions of Water-Moon Guanyin from the murals in Yulin and Mogao grottoes, silk paintings excavated from Khara-khoto, and sutra woodblock imprints, I will present a comprehensive dynamic evolution of this image in Tangut Buddhist art

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