Justifiably described as a "golden age" in the history of China, the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) saw the transition of the Middle Kingdom from its archaeological past into the beginnings of "modern" China. The Tang dynasty was an era of cultural and artistic glory, wealth and confidence; later dynasties drew their inspiration, their standards and their aspirations from those three centuries of defining achievement.
At the heart of the empire was the capital Changan, the modern city of Xian in Shaanxi province, perhaps now more renowned as the home of the First Emperor Qin Shihuang's terracotta army, but indelibly inscribed into the history of China as the great imperial capital.
We may think of multi-culturalism as a recent phenomenon but Xian, in the Tang dynasty, was host to literally tens of thousands of travellers, merchants, traders, emissaries, monks and adventurers from across Asia, India and the Middle East.
Visitors experiencing Pure Land: Augmented Reality Edition, a digital representation of Cave 220, one of the 492 World Heritage- listed, mural-covered caves at Dunhuang. Photo: Jenni Carter
In the colourful markets of Changan were throngs of Persians, Arabs, Indians, Sogdians, Tibetans, Turks, Mongols and others; they carried with them their varied habits, costumes, customs and faiths which included Buddhism, Islam, Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Judaism. The ancient Tang capital was the most cosmopolitan city of its time.
Xian, on the occasion of my first visit in 1972, was a very different place to the Xian of the 21st century, then not a car to be seen; today there are showrooms for Bentley, Rolls Royce and Lamborghini cars.
It was the eastern terminal of the famed Silk Roads that wound their various ways across the deserts and mountain ranges of central and western Asia to connect imperial China with the West and the Indian sub-continent. A critical site on those roads was the oasis town of Dunhuang, in Gansu province, where the two main routes that flanked the daunting Taklamakan desert met on its eastern edge.
Edmond Capon, former director of the NSW Art Gallery.
A visit to Dunhuang was for me a long held dream that was finally fulfilled in October 1983; the reason for that obsessive quest was the Buddhist cave temples known as the Mogao caves, 25 kilometres from the town of Dunhuang.
Carved into a sandstone cliff overlooking endless desert are 500 decorated Buddhist cave temples dating from the 4th to the 14th century. Filled with exquisite wall paintings and sculptures, the caves bear witness to the intense religious, artistic, and cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, the trade routes linking East and West.
Illustrating the themes and stories of Buddhist texts these spectacular paintings and sculptures reflect their heritage in Indian and central Asian traditions but remain firmly recognisable as Chinese.
During the Tang dynasty activity at the Mogao temples reached its zenith, with more than 200 caves created including the largest and most impressive, which includes the mammoth 35-metre-high sculpture of Maitreya as the Future Buddha. Patronage too reached new levels as the Buddhist faith attracted imperial and community support.
Inscriptions and dedications reveal the involvement, for example, of prominent local families in the commissioning of caves of spectacular devotion; for example, cave 220, which was commissioned by the Zhai family in 642 and which continued to be patronised and supported by the family for nearly three centuries.
The inscription "cave dedicated by the Zhai family" is still clearly visible on the plinth of the main tableaux of figures, a seated Buddha, two Bodhisattvas and two monks, in a niche in the west wall.
The combination of Buddhist cave temple and family shrine also demonstrates both the secularisation of Buddhism in Tang China and how it was adapted to suit established Chinese cultural values and traditions.
The NSW ART Gallery will install a room in the Tang: Treasures from the Silk Road Capital exhibition space to give audience an experience of visiting one of the Mogao caves at Dunhuang. Using the latest digital technology, visitors will be able to retrace the steps of an archaeologist exploring Cave 220 at Dunhuang as if they were there, through the immersive installation Pure Land: Augmented Reality Edition.
The virtual representation is life-sized and uses ultra high-resolution digital photographs and laser scans, produced by the Dunhuang Academy, to reconstruct Cave 220, which, due to the importance of its Tang-era paintings, is permanently closed to public visitors to the Mogoa Caves in China.
The four walls of Cave 220 are intricately detailed with murals and sculptures, each depicting a different Buddhist sutra, or scripture, from the Pure Land Buddhist tradition. The north wall portrays the Eastern Paradise Sutra, the east the Vimalakirti Sutra, and the south wall the Western Pure Land Sutra. The western wall features a niche containing four sculptures.
This and other caves at Dunhuang offer a tantalising glimpse into the art and imagination of China in the Tang dynasty.
Tang: treasures from the Silk Road Capital opens at the NSW Art Gallery on April 9.
An expert in the field of Chinese Art & Archaeology, Edmund Capon was the director of the NSW Art Gallery for more than 30 years. In September 2016, Edmund Capon will lead an 18-day journey with World Expeditions, tracing the Chinese Buddhist Trails (and including a visit to the Mogoa Caves in Dunhuang). www.worldexpeditions.com