Dunhuang was and continues to be an important city in the western part of the Hexi Corridor.
It connects with the Qilian Mountains to the south, the Taklamakan Desert to the west, Mount Beisai to the north, and Mount Sanwei to the east.
The Dang River flows through Dunhuang, creating an oasis in the desert.
It was established as a military outpost when Huo Qubing attacked the Xiongnu troops during the Han Dynasty.
A Buddhist monk named Yuezun was travelling through Dunhuang when he saw the images of a thousand Buddhas appear in the mountains. He stayed and started digging grottoes.
This led to the first grotto in Dunhuang.
The work started by Yuezun would continue for hundreds of years, and eventually turn Dunhuang into a world-renowned treasure trove of artwork.
Dunhuang was also the starting point of all three ancient Silk Road routes. After leaving Dunhuang, travellers would be venturing into the Taklamakan Desert and an uncertain fate.
To give themselves peace of mind and to seek divine blessings, travellers would donate money for the construction of a grotto at the Mogao Caves.
Travellers who’d braved the desert and managed to arrive at Dunhuang safely would also donate money for a grotto, as a thank-you for the protection they’d received.
At the same time, civilians who wished for clement weathers and the end of wars would donate money for grottoes as well.
On top of that, officials, men from eminent families, and monks built their own grottoes.
More grottoes were excavated.
The appearances of the Buddha statues changed with time.
They used be strong and well-built.
Then they became slenderer.
And then they were softer and plumper.
Colours became more vibrant and varied.
Depictions of mountains, rivers, pavilions, pagodas, flowers, and other patterns were introduced.
If the murals were connected from end to end, they would stretch to over 20 km.
Staff of the Research Institute of Dunhuang Art, discovered that the mural on the north wall of Grotto 220 was slowing peeling off, revealing older murals behind it.
They carefully stripped off the outer layer of the murals on the four walls in Grotto 220, and saw the early-Tang murals underneath.
While most of the figures depicted in the murals in other grottoes had turned dark due to oxidation, the early-Tang murals were colourful.
The mural on the south wall of Grotto 220 depicts the Western Paradise. Images of the Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy were dignified and majestic. Dancers and singers moved gracefully.
The mural on the north wall of Grotto 220 depicts seven Buddhas of medicine standing on lotus platforms, wearing elaborate decorations.
The mural on the east wall depicts the story of Vimalakirti, with vivid figures.
Though the central figures of the murals are Buddhist deities, the scenes they reflect are worldly.
Dancers worshipping the Buddha were easily distinguishable
from emperor and his subjects in front of the Buddha.
All the researchers who’ve visited Grotto 220 are amazed by the murals.
They share the common feeling that the murals in Grotto 220 must not have come from just an ordinary artisan. They were the works of a master.
Unfortunately, no historical documents show records of a master visiting Dunhuang during that period.
The mural on the east wall is often considered the epitome of Dunhuang murals.
Vimalakirti leans slightly forward, as if engaged in an intense debate with Manjushri.
while Manjushri, surrounded by other bodhisattvas and disciples, answers Vimalakirti calmly.
The way the emperor is depicted in the mural is highly similar to the style of Yan Liben, a Tang painter who creator the Thirteen Emperors Scroll.
But Yan Liben lived in Chang’an, about 2,000 km away from Dunhuang.
We have no idea who the real creator of the Grotto 220 murals was.
For the sake of his story, let’s call him Li Gong. (“Gong” meant work).
Li Gong was painting Vimalakirti in a temple in Chang’an.
Emperor Li Shimin had been emperor for ten years. It was the Reign of Zhenguan, a golden age of Chinese history.
All kinds of buildings were constructed. People in the Tang Dynasty liked to use colours to decorate the walls, whether they were the walls of temples, government offices, private residences, or imperial palaces.
Yan Liben was already a famous painter at the time, while Li Gong remained obscure.
Li Gong worked hard on emulating the court paintings, hoping that one day he would be able to work at the Hanlin Academy.
Li Gong used a type of publication called fenben (“pink book”), which was a collection of popular masterpieces or paintings from the imperial palace. Painters who were recruited to paint murals often copied from fenben to meet customers’ requests.
Being able to copy from fenben was a fundamental skill the painters had to master before they were allowed to work independently.
Thus, for a while, the average painter’s work, in terms of style and standard, was not that much inferior compared to a master’s.
The dissemination of fenben also led to widespread popularity of Chang’an paintings.
Chang’an paintings could be seen in countries in the Western Regions, as well as in faraway Fusang (modern-day Japan).
Becoming a court painter was next to impossible.
In order to outdo each other, temples, rich families, and powerful families would only invite famous masters to paint their murals, not someone obscure like Li Gong.
Dunhuang became something of an ancient metropolis, with both Tang and foreign merchants gathered at the same place.
Meanwhile, the country of Gaochang, in modern-day Turpan, Xinjiang, was undergoing a political upheaval.
Most of the Western Regions were under the reign of the Western Turkic Khaganate, a Mongolian nomadic tribe who was gaining enough power to stand against the Tang Empire.
To appease the Western Turkic Khaganate, the king of Gaochang detained the envoys from Tang, who were trying to establish diplomatic relations with countries in the Western Regions.
The Silk Road was thus blocked.
Emperor Li Shimin recruited soldiers for a military expedition to the west. He also recruited scholars and craftsmen.
Li Gong decided to enlist.
Li Gong joined the army.
Dunhuang, being the nearest town to Gaochang, became an important military supply base.
Li Gong and other craftsmen assembled weapons.
Gaochang was soon captured.
When the army returned to Chang’an, some of the craftsmen, including Li Gong, decided to stay in Dunhuang.
He saw an opportunity in the many grottoes and murals here, already numbering in the hundreds.
Li Gong brought the colourful styles of Chang’an paintings to the Dunhuang murals.
He soon made a name for himself, and received many invitations.
An important project came his way, sponsored by the wealthy Zhai family.
Zhai Tong, a government official, sponsored the excavation of Grotto 220, dedicated to his family.
Li Gong was put in charge of the murals.
He had to work with stonemasons, plasterers, sculptors, and carpenters.
The first step in making a grotto was to dig a cave in the cliff, done by the “grotto-makers”.
The second step was to lay down wood or clay structures inside the grotto, such as halls and pavilions, done by the carpenters and plasterers.
The third step was to make a base coat for the murals, done by the plasterers.
The base coat was made with a mixture of clay, cotton, and hemp. It would make the surface of the wall smooth as paper.
The fourth step was to apply a layer of lime over the base coat.
Then the sculptors would get to work on the statues.
They usually used timber or stone as the skeleton, and used clay as mould.
Once the statue was finished, it would be handed over to the painters to apply colour painting.
Painters would prepare pigments from minerals by grinding the minerals, adding water, and then mixing them with plant gelatins.
The colour red came from cinnabar, yellow from orpiment, blue from lazurite, and white from mica.
Murals in Grotto 220 look like they were copied from the same fenben, but colour-painted by different artists.
It was likely that Li Gong suggested using Chang’an fenben to paint the murals of Grotto 220.
The branch of Pure Land Buddhism was popular in the Tang Dynasty, becoming the subjects of many Buddhist murals at the time.
The An Lushan Rebellion devastated the Tang Empire.
Dunhuang was not spared.
The Tibetan Empire attacked and took control of the Hexi Corridor, beginning a seven-decade rule.
Residents of Dunhuang rose up and took back the Hexi Corridor.
Zhai Fengda decided to renovate Grotto 220 and record the 300 years of history in managing the grotto.
About half of all the grottoes at Mogao Caves were completed in the Tang Dynasty.
812 of Dunhuang grottoes are preserved today, 735 of which are in Mogao Caves.
A total of 45,000 square metres of murals and 3,390 statues are preserved.
Today, the murals of Grotto 220 are still used by art students as templates.
Panoramic view of some of the grottoes in Dunhuang.