The Mogao Caves, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Photo by Neville Agnew. Image courtesy of UNESCO World Heritage
Over the course of several days in 2009, I had the great fortune to visit the Buddhist cave temples surrounding the oasis town of Dunhuang in northwest China with Robert Y. C. Ho and a small group of conservators. Dunhuang was a caravansary along the ancient Silk Roads, via which Buddhism was disseminated, and the 492 painted and sculpted Buddhist caves of Mogao are masterpieces of their own variously and highly stylized painting traditions.
Although Buddhism does not enjoy a reputation for being a dancing religion, it does in fact boast many dance forms, and Buddhism’s relationship with dance is ebullient in the murals of the Mogao Caves. These dance depictions were created from the 4th until the 14th century, a process outlasting a thousand years of political upheavals in both China and Central Asia.
Map of the Silk Roads meeting at Dunhuang. By Xuan Jiao. Creative commons license
Before our trip to Dunhuang, Wang Xudong, the associate director of the Dunhuang Academy, asked each of us in the small party which of the 492 caves we wished to see. I immediately contacted Mme Wang Kefen, the foremost authority on the dance imagery in the Dunhuang caves, where she had conducted research for many years, and she gave me a list of relevant caves. As nobody else submitted a list, in addition to seeing many important caves that are significant in their own right, we received a comprehensive review of the dance imagery at Dunhuang. No Western dance scholar has studied the dance imagery of the Mogao Caves in as much depth as I was allowed to do, for which I am grateful to Robert Ho, Wang Xudong, and Wang Kefen.
Chinese dance historian Wang Kefen with Joseph Houseal. Photo by Wang Yuxing, 2010. From Core of Culture
Now aged 90, Wang Kefen is the author of four books on dance at Dunhuang and a fellow of the Dunhuang Academy. She is also the author of respected and much-translated histories of Chinese dance. She began studying art history in 1956, and through that study and her own determination, established the field of dance history in modern China. The year after the study trip, I had the good fortune to be able to meet with her in person, in Beijing.
Communication with Mme Wang was in part intuitive, as it is with dancers, based on gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and visual aids. Not only is Mme Wang an encyclopedia in herself, a “library on fire” as the Indonesians say, but she had an actual library of dance imagery in Chinese fine art laid out for me. Both of us being dancers, neither hesitated to demonstrate an arm or body movement. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Wang Kefen: Dance is an art of morphology—it defies the written word—hence artistic depictions become valuable. Dance activities have been present in every aspect of existence since primitive times, but it is only in China that the history of dance has been continuously recorded, both in words and in images. One of the challenges of translating my books is that they are full of ancient quotations, difficult even for Chinese to understand. The dance paintings at Dunhuang reveal a fixed pattern in terms of aesthetics, although they differ in costume, style, and gesture. There is inevitably at least one [painted] Buddha image in every cave, usually placed in [the midst of] a scene with adoring crowds, and a stage that is based on an emperor’s stage. I have seen this type of stage in Japan—it might have been used for Bugaku dance.*
Court scene (detail of dancing musician and stage), Mogao Cave 112, Dunhuang. Tang dynasty (618–907). Image courtesy of Wang Kefen. From Core of Culture
Bugaku stage at Istukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Japan. Copyright Hatsukaichi City Department of Environment and Industries. From Core of Culture
Joseph Houseal: I have seen inside the Forbidden City, the World Monument Fund’s restoration of the Qianlong emperor’s [r. 1735–96] private stage for an audience of One. That two-part stage was nearly identical to the depictions in the caves, and indeed to any number of Japanese Buddhist temple stages, which designs are Chinese in origin. In fact, the same Japanese ruler, Shotoku Taishi, in the 7th century was responsible for importing Buddhism, Bugaku, and architectural styles into Japan from China.
The Qianlong emperor’s private stage, Forbidden City, Beijing. 1771–77. Image courtesy of World Monuments Fund and Palace Museum. 2008. From Core of Culture
WK: There is a recurring image of the Western Paradise at Dunhuang in which an elevated Buddha is attended by holy courtiers, entertainers, musicians, and dancers, painted lower down. Right at the top, “sky spirits” called feitian fly, doubtless in imitation of old dance forms. These dancing images are found not only at Dunhuang, they are all over China in many cave sites. I have traveled and studied the Indian Buddhist cave sites at Ellora and Ajanta—no flying feitian! The movement of these airborne devas and their invention originate in Central China.
Feitian, flying spirits of the air, Mogao Cave 286, Dunhuang. Western Wei dynasty (534–57). Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Foundation. From Core of Culture
JH: Could the feitian in general possibly be related to archaic Daoism and the traditions of the Daoyin tu** energetic gymnastics? Those exercises were certainly practiced in court by the time of the Northern Wei dynasty [386–535], when there were already feitian at Dunhuang. There were Chinese Buddhist aristocrats in the 3rd century who were well versed in the Daoist physical arts, and Daoist visualization methods attained a refined articulation with the Shangqing school of Daoism in the 4th century, emphasizing a visualized microcosm and an inhabited mystical heaven with visualized characters moving about within it. Some of the feitian movements are strikingly similar to Daoyin tu gymnastics.
Daoyin tu diagram of energetic exercises. Excavated in 1972 from Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province. Western Han dynasty, c. 168 BCE. Creative commons license
WK: Interesting idea. No one really knows the precise origin of the feitian movements. For many decades now, the idea in China has been that “folk dances” represent the ordinary people, and so they should be done “only by the best” and have been adapted into a professionally trained culture of “folk dances” for the stage, with dancers trained at dance academies. This is what the Chinese people know as folk dance. But attitudes toward the minority nationalities in China are really changing, and nowadays the emphasis is on giving the dance back to the people and bringing forward real village level transmission of old dances.
JH: Do you think there is a connection between China’s minority nationalities and the dances depicted at Dunhuang?
WK: Everything you see in the Dunhuang caves has been shown to be based on real life examples. All the instruments have been carefully reconstructed and shown to be real. I believe the dances are real, too.
JH: There seems to be at least two, maybe three, basic categories of dance depictions: the early Wei dynasty depictions, the Tang dynasty [618–907] heavenly court scenes, and scenes that look like village people dancing. Was there some kind of actual aristocratic dance assimilated from folk dance and other practices? That, after all, is how classical ballet came about in the West.
Court scene (detail of Central Asian dancer), Cave 25, Yulin, showing standardized style of painting dance. Tang dynasty, 781–847. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy. From Core of Culture
WK: It’s complicated. The Chinese have been performing collections of dances since the ancient Shao dance written about by Confucius, so assimilation of different dances generally is an issue and one that is based, primarily, on people’s taste and desire to see new dances. The celestial dances at Dunhuang are both Buddhist and aristocratic assimilations. Did you see one scene where a nomadic dancer spins on a small circular carpet off to the side and below the Buddha? And another, “the brown family,” where a family is dancing? There is no audience, so that is a real life dance. Folk dance doesn’t have an audience, it just has “folk.” The audience is key. From ancient times, the emperor had his own dancers—lots of them. Aristocrats had their own dancers—lots of them. Even well-off poets and gentlemen had their own dancers. The dancers were mostly, but rarely entirely, of the same ethnicity as their owner.
“The Brown Family,” dancers and musicians, Mogao Cave 297, Dunhuang. Northern Zhou dynasty (557–80). Image courtesy of Wang Kefen. After The Complete Collection of Dunhuang Grottoes, Vol. 17, Paintings of Dance, The Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2001, p. 59
Line drawing of “The Brown Family,” Mogao Cave 297, Dunhuang. Northern Zhou dynasty (557–80). Image courtesy of Wang Kefen. From Core of Culture
WK: The Wei and Tang were slave societies, and the dancers were slaves. They did the dances their owners wanted, whatever their origin. In some of the Tang paintings you will see an audience, a courtly one and a celestial one. The courtly audience looks down, just as in a court. Each patron likely used their own dancers as models, part of the overall flavor of an individual cave. It was not until the 9th century that the stage was elevated and the courtly audience looked up.
Mural, Cave 25, Yulin, showing standardized placement of Buddha, courts, stages, and artists. Tang dynasty, 781–847. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy. From Core of Culture
JH: So why do the Tang celestial court dancers look so much more standardized than the Wei dynasty images, which also coincides with slave society?
WK: The Wei dynasty images are not slaves; they are real Silk Road dancers. The Wei painters introduced the architectural placement of dancers with flying feitian at the top, in heaven; praising, deified dancers in the middle, on earth; and people at the bottom, in “low-earth.” I say “deified” in the sense that the entire scene is deified [by the presence of the Buddha]; gestures themselves become deified. These early paintings reveal a mutual influence. Central Asian depictions of Chinese feitianappear, and newly refined Chinese-inspired depictions of nomadic dancers. These express the first shock meeting of Chinese and Silk Road dance influences. The nomads, including the Mongolians, did not have a stable court life or culture. It is fair to say that a new Buddhist style was created when the nomadic dancers gave inner expression and a kind of realism, while the Chinese dancers gave refinement.
Silk Road dancer, Mogao Cave 435, Dunhuang. Northern Wei dynasty, 485–534. Freedom of movement is matched by freedom of expression in one of many choreographically intriguing dance images from the Wei dynasties. Image courtesy of Wang Kefen. After The Complete Collection of Dunhuang Grottoes, Vol. 17, Paintings of Dance, The Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2001, p. 27
*Repertoire of dances of the Japanese imperial court, derived from traditional dance forms imported from China
** Daoyin tu literally means “Diagram of Guiding and Pulling”; daoyin is a traditional type of Chinese breathing and energetic exercises, with the earliest forms being codified during the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE). The Daoyin tu was discovered among the burial objects at Mawangdui, near Changsha in Hunan Province, and dates to around 168 BCE.
Dance at Dunhuang: Part Two – The Case for the Feitian
Feitian (“sky spirits”) on a ceiling wall along with mythological creatures and archaic deities, Mogao Cave 285, Dunhuang. Western Wei dynasty (535–57), mural painting. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy. From Core of Culture
More dance styles are depicted in the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes than at any other archaeological site on earth. Dance imagery animates nearly every cave. The wall paintings—a veritable encyclopedia of movement traditions spanning eight centuries—convey a native Chinese genius for dance that absorbed influences and choreography from bordering Central Asian cultures as well as from cultures far away. The Great Wall of China kept people out; Dunhuang let people in. This stream of growing cosmopolitanism matched the spread of Buddhism.
Siddhartha crossing over the palace wall at night, with feitian, mythological creatures, and archaic deities, Mogao Cave 329, Dunhuang. Early Tang dynasty (618–704), mural painting. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy. From Core of Culture
Dance has its own history and evolution within the growth of Buddhism, and the cave paintings at the Mogao Grottoes provide more details to complement what any official dance history could provide. Like martial arts and meditation, dance is a transmitted art, person to person, and has its own way of remembering. Music, dance, meditation, martial arts, and ritual etiquette are all intended in the classical Chinese sense of a movement tradition. The great records of ancient Chinese dance are called “Books of Music.” Many depicted dancers in caves surrounding Dunhuang are playing instruments.
Feitian playing a flute, Mogao Cave 249, Dunhuang. Western Wei dynasty (535–57), mural painting. Image courtesy of Wang Kefen. After The Complete Collection of Dunhuang Grottoes, Vol. 17, Paintings of Dance, The Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2001, p. 15
It helps to forgo some of our habitual understandings of what dance is, and does, in order to see how it functions in Buddhism, for that itself absorbed and involved a range of very different ideas. The Dunhuang grottoes are a Rosetta Stone of ancient dances, dance being the oldest language, the pre-language. Since most Central Asian cultures had no written language until the 7th century, Dunhuang’s depictions of performing arts from distant areas are invaluable for cultural understanding. The painted murals portray real clothes, weapons, and instruments, and the dances, too, are taken from life. It has been suggested that the dancer paintings were modeled on the patrons’ own dancers. Many actual historical incidents are recorded in the murals and also many religious stories such as the Jataka Tales, the Life of the Buddha, and those told in the Buddhist sutras.
Story of the 500 bandits who converted to Buddhism, Mogao Cave 285, Dunhuang, with large feitian and archaic deities at the top, monks meditating in caves in the mountains, smaller feitian flying above the spiritual event, and the story itself at the bottom. Western Wei dynasty (535–57), mural painting. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy. From Core of Culture
The spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road into China, from the days Dunhuang became a Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) garrison town after Emperor Wu’s (r. 141–87 BCE) expedition to the western regions in 118 BCE, to its flowering as a center of the refined, exotic culture of the Tang dynasty (618–907) centuries later, has left the world a touchstone of one of the most diverse cultural exchanges in world history; a period when Buddhism and cosmopolitanism grew together. Depictions of dance in the caves around Dunhuang are an unbroken, if overlooked, chronicle of this.
The Tang capital, Chang’an, was the largest, most cosmopolitan city in the world at the time. It was peopled by traders, entertainers, and religious practitioners, both lay and ordained, from places as far-flung as Syria, Oman, Iran, Japan, Korea, Sogdiana, Khotan, Tibet, Turkestan, Champa, India, and yet more. Religions coexisted and inspired one another. There were Muslims, Jews, Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorian Christians. Daoism, the indigenous religion of China, was always practiced and respected.
Ceiling showing the archaic deity servant of the King of the East, Mogao Cave 249, Dunhuang. Western Wei dynasty (535–57), mural painting. Image courtesy of Wang Kefen. After The Complete Collection of Dunhuang Grottoes, Vol. 17, Paintings of Dance, The Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2001, p. 16
There were as well many Buddhist monasteries of all schools, some of which were great centers of scholarship; some were Theravada Buddhist, whose puritanical practices rejected dance as suitable activity for monks, while in others the monks themselves danced with perfect canonical propriety. Because Theravada Buddhist monks did not dance, it was left to lay people and developed as an offering akin to incense and flowers, and so the sky was the limit as to how exotic these dances could be. To this day, Buddhist Kandyan dancers from Sri Lanka do back flips in the air as part of their rhythmic approach to the altar. The dances depicted in the Dunhuang caves reflect the various forms of Buddhism.
Pyramidal ceiling, Mogao Cave 329, Dunhuang. From the outside edges of “thousand buddhas” pattern moving inward and upward: feitian flying, holding offerings, and playing instruments; Central Asian motif pattern; feitianenciricling a mandala of highest heaven. Early Tang dynasty (618–704), mural painting. After Fan Jinshi and Zhao Shenglian, The Art of the Mogao Grottoes, Homa and Sekey Books, Princeton, NJ, 2004, p. 157
The making of the caves and the styles of the early art depicted in them came from the Silk Road, originating in the Kushan Empire wherein Greco-Roman influence met Persian, Afghan, and Central Asian motifs. This included oasis kingdoms like Khotan, Turfan, and other cities where Buddhist monuments and painted caves existed. This was a meeting of styles and customs, where the Silk Road and Chinese cultures came together to produce the syncretic style unique to the caves around Dunhuang.
Lintel of a sculptural niche on the south face of square central pillar, Mogao Cave 7, Dunhuang, showing Buddha flanked by two kings, with feitian flying, holding offerings, and playing music. Tang dynasty, 628, mural painting. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Research Academy. From Core of Culture
One compelling, and often seemingly otherworldly, being that is depicted in the Buddhist murals throughout the 800 years is the feitian (in Chinese), or “sky spirit.” The feitian does not seem to come from the western regions, but makes its appearance at Dunhuang early on. The world expert in Dunhuang dance depictions, Mme Wang Kefen, has determined that feitian are Chinese in origin and are not apsara (Sanskrit), as feitian is usually translated into English. In fact, the Dunhuang Academy has adopted the use of apsara, and so here I humbly make a case for the feitian being its own being and representative of a spiritual dimension between levels of existence. The feitian may in fact be a symbol of Buddhism’s ability to absorb the ancient religions it encountered rather than annihilating them. I agree with Mme Wang and add my thoughts here. Apsara is in general use as a catch-all term.
Apsara taking flight, Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia. 9th century, stone. Creative commons license
It may be the case that the feitian slowly evolved into more apsara-like beings by the time of the Tang dynasty. Apsara are beautiful flying women, known to seduce; they are associated with watery things: ocean, rain, clouds. Apsara derive from Hinduism and Theravada Buddhist cultures. These were cultures, such as in Cambodia, Burma, Ceylon, and Siam, where kings kept large groups of dancing girls—one king was reputed to have had 30,000. As Buddhism came to be the adopted religion of these places, it was easy enough for the court dancing girls to wear small wings and instantly become heavenly maidens, retaining all their sex appeal and coy ways. This could not be farther from the expression of dance performed by ordained monk-dancers. Apsara are derived from these dancing girls.
Feitian, by contrast, are of both sexes, and are not as interested in this world as being a bridge to another one. Their aesthetic evolution over many centuries is a study in freedom, beauty, and power. This topic allows me to share a number of amazing images of feitian from the Mogao Caves. Their origin is murky Chinese ancient belief, and their movements are related to ancient forms of mythology, dance, exercise, and breath control. We can see, in a Han dynasty casket of a nobleman unearthed at Mawangdui in 1972, swirling patterns and gravity-defying deities cavorting within them, dancing, fighting, running. These Han figures are strikingly similar to feitian. Feitian come from archaic Chinese movement traditions.
Nobleman’s casket, showing archaic Daoist deities cavorting in a primordial swirling pattern. Excavated in 1972 from Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province. Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). After Fu Juyou, Cheng Songchang (Zhou Shiyi, Chen Kefeng, trans.), The Cultural Relics Unearthed from the Han Tombs at Mawangdui, Hunan Publishing House, Changsha, Hunan Province, 1980, p. 6
Detail of casket from Mawangdui showing archaic Daoist deities and mythological creatures dancing, playing music, fighting, and frolicing. After Fu Juyou, Cheng Songchang (Zhou Shiyi, Chen Kefeng, trans.), The Cultural Relics Unearthed from the Han Tombs at Mawangdui, Hunan Publishing House, Changsha, Hunan Province, 1980, p. 10
Feitian serve many functions, for all their mystery. They are the nameless “Greek chorus” to nearly every event. Their ability to move their bodies in acrobatic ways allows them to be ideal for design development: they can be made to fit in any space. Being always seen with billowing silk, Chinese dance historians look to feitian for evidence of the development of their ancient silk scarf dance. The Chinese invented the production of silk.
In Dunhuang art, feitian inhabit their own level of reality, making a distinct division between other areas of the mural: they are at the top, in the air, in images where hierarchies of divine beings are presented surrounding a central Buddha. They are not the bodhisattvas attending the Buddha, nor are they the humans often seen at the bottom, on the earth. Feitian symbolize the most rarefied level of being. They are often seen painted among archaic Daoist deities, such as the similar-looking gods of thunder and lightning. They come in different sizes even in the same mural. Some feitian appear as archaic deities themselves.
Pyramidal ceiling wall showing archaic god of thunder and mythological beast, Mogao Cave 249, Dunhuang. Western Wei dynasty (535–57), mural painting. Image courtesy of Wang Kefen. From Core of Culture
Nothing dances or moves like a feitian. They can do anything. At times their aerial behavior is reminiscent of Giotto’s expressive angels. At other times they seem indifferent, symbols of a level of being untouched by human emotions and worldly powers like gravity, silent reminders that there is a larger reality at play.
The Mourning of Christ, detail from Scenes from the Life of Christ by Giotto (1266/7–1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy, showing angels lamenting in the sky. 1304–6, fresco painting. From www.wga.hu
Most significant, though, is where the feitian are placed architecturally. They serve as quantum dividers: a border between historical events and sublime higher realities. Or again, they appear as the personification of the highest reality, swirling above the central Buddha in an ascending pyramidal ceiling, distinct from the behavior and understanding of the humans below.
Buddha and bodhisattvas in front of a “thousand Buddhas” patterned mural, above which is a pyramidal ceiling with flying feitian and patterned design, inside which are more feitian dancing around a central mandala, Mogao Cave 305, Dunhuang. Sui dynasty (581–618). Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Research Academy. From Core of Culture
The cave murals depict activities occurring within them, such as monks meditating in hewn-out cubicles. The first small caves at Mogao were for monks in meditation. Later, assembly caves were made, enabling rituals and teaching and circumambulation to take place. Walls covered with the “thousand buddhas” design are thought by some to be visual representations of the repeated chanting of sutras and mantras.
A teacher could tell a story by referring to a mural. A monk could lead a sutra recitation by following the patterns on the wall. In Buddhist caves, among historical stories, religious stories, human devotional practices, and abodes of the Buddha, this is where the divine acrobats, the sky dancing warriors, the heavenly musicians, the feitian, are found, where they soar in their own distinct dimension.
Buddha and bodhisattvas, with feitian flying in the sky above, set within “thousand Buddhas” design, Mogao Cave 249, Dunhuang. Western Wei dynasty (535–57), mural painting. Photo by Clarkson Lee. Used with permission