Cave 156, Late Tang, completed 865

Detail from the procession of Zhang Yichao, south wall (detail of pl. 137)

Cave 156, dedicated by Zhang Huaishen in 865 in honour of his uncle Zhang Yichao, has the usual image niche in the west wall: the seated Buddha within it has lost its head, but may well have been Bhaisajyaguru, since the painted panels around it represent this Buddha's Twelve Great Vows, together with the Nine Forms of Violent Death, also found next to other representations of his Pure Land. The panels on the west wall on either side of the niche feature representations of Manjusri and Samantabhadra with their respective processions, as already seen in cave 159 of the Middle Tang. The north and south walls are subdivided into three panels, each containing the representation of a Paradise or Pure Land...

...It is on the northern wall of the antechamber of this cave that the document Record of the Mogao Caves was inscribed in 865, giving the details of Monk Yuezun's original cave made in 366. It was copied in a manuscript from Dunhuang in the Pelliot collection, p.3720. Another Dunhuang manuscript in the same collection, p.2762, gives details of the construction of cave 156 itself:

"[Zhang Huaishen] had a strong desire to carve a cave. He looked around the whole area, but there was no place at all, except for a single cliff, where cutting was possible. Undaunted by the enormity of the work to be accomplished, his spirit was concentrated to the point where it could pierce stone, his purpose strong enough to move the mountain. Then he prayed to the heavenly spirits above, gave thanks to the earth spirits below, divined to find an auspicious time, and calculated the day for the work to start. The cutting and chiselling had hardly begun, when the mountain split of its own accord; not many days had elapsed, when the cracks opened to a hole. With further prayers and incense, the sands began to fly, and early in the night, suddenly and furiously, with a fearful rush, there was a sound of thunder, splitting the rock wall, and the cliff was cut away. This was creation by the Ten Powers [of Buddha], with the Eight Classes of Being supporting from below: through their influence it was accomplished, with their help the merit was accumulated. By these means a hollow cave was opened wide, and [Zhang's] vow was accomplished in three years. With generous intent it was made fine, with correct behaviour it was displayed. Within the main niche there was modelled an image of Sakyamuni and a group of his attendants; on the four walls there were depicted sixteen groups of sutra illustrations, which showed every variation, demonstrating the many gates of the Buddha's teaching. The portrayal [of the figures] was wonderful, with no difference from the Threefold Body [of the Buddha]. Inside the 'ten foot' chamber, all the ten directions are transformed; within a single cave, it is just as though the Three Worlds [are revealed]."

...The most interesting features of this cave, however, are the processions of Zhang Yichao and his consort Lady Song, which are arranged like a frieze on the dado, 1.09 metres high, beginning on either side of the entrance and continuing along the south and north walls, in each case moving towards the western wall and thus facing the main Buddha image. These representations of the retinues of Zhang Yichao and his wife are arranged so as to display in correct order the different sections of his military forces, with a great display of military pomp, and corresponding closely to contemporary Tang regulations. A number of the cartouches bear inscriptions that are still legible, identifying the functions of those taking part.

Zhang Yichao's procession starts with two files of cavalry, with a total of twenty mounted men apiece, split into various groups, with dancers and musicians on foot between them (pl. 137, beginning from the far right). The first two riders in each file beat large drums, the next pair blow long trumpets. These men wear jackets which are either plain or decorated with large floral motifs. Five riders follow on each side, clad in striped blue and white (probably representing complete suits of scale armour, with helmets topped by a single feather). The standard-bearer in each file holds up a large battle standard, while the remainder, each with a quiver at his waist, carry long tasseled lances. Their accoutrement is similar to that of the guards depicted in the tombs of members of the Tang imperial family. Pelliot noted their hooked noses and pointed beards, like those of Saracen horsemen. The next two riders face each other across the space between the two files, and are followed by five more on each side, holding horsewhips (see detail above)... Dancers are depicted in between these two rows of horsemen; it is not completely clear whether they are male or female. Behind them in turn is a band of musicians. Their instruments are already familiar from the musician groups in the Paradise paintings: a set of clappers, a konghou harp, pan-pipes, transverse and end-blown flutes, a waisted drum and a pipa; and they are accompanied by two drummers beating drums which are so large that they each have to be carried by a drum-bearer. Behind these again come another six horsemen, all of whom are holding standards, then, after a short gap, two "Gate Banners" held by horsemen, each with a mounted guard at his side holding a lance.

After this, in the centre ride two horsemen holding what are probably honorific parasols wrapped up in blue sheaths. Behind them in diamond formation are four horsemen holding whips, labelled as a "mounted advance guard", and a platoon of eight men on foot called "Officers of the Silver Knife". Two other cavalrymen follow, turning back to watch over their commander, Zhang Yichao, who is impressively depicted in a larger scale. Riding a white horse, whose bridle is held by two men, he is about to ride across a bridge. The large cartouche here announces that this is the "Picture of the procession of the Commissioner for Hexi, Controlling Officer and Imperial Censor, Zhang Yichao, organizing an army to expel the Tibetans and restore [Chinese rule in] the Hexi Road". The two cavalrymen holding whips who ride just behind him are identified in the cartouche above as: "sons and younger brothers in the army". Beyond this point, at the far left of the south wall, the procession continues, but has suffered some damage through blackening by fire. There are further cavalrymen with lances, and two holding a ceremonial fan and a large red standard, similar in design to the standards at the beginning of the procession. The last part of the picture, on the southern part of the east wall, is less formal: hunters at a gallop shooting deer (pls 321, 322) and, bringing up the rear, a camel and mules serving as pack animals. These last scenes once more recall the wall paintings in the Tang imperial tombs, especially those in the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai (dated 706) where camels with saddlebags follow the main body of riders in a hunting scene...

...The depiction of these processions marks a significant change in donor portraiture at Dunhuang. Not content with demonstrating their devotion to Buddha and his teaching, Zhang Yichao and those who came after him also wished to show clearly their social status and the source of their authority. At the same time, the paintings afford an excellent example of a genre of parade or processional painting, of which practically all other examples are lost.

All text and illustrations © Textile & Art Publications 1996:
not to be reproduced without permission.

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